BY SALVATORE J. SCARPA
The traditional “business model” of the fire service has in many cases remained largely unchanged for years despite the dramatic changes to the landscape in which we operate. We continue doing the things we do because, well, that’s the way it has always been done (and, truthfully, we like it that way). The fire service has often operated in a vacuum, content to go about our business oblivious to external forces that impact our mission. We enact change from a very reactive position, often in a very positive manner (i.e., the mission enhancement post-9/11). But, by and large, the fire service operates alone, segregated into individual microcosms generously distributed around the country-autonomous in our own world with little regard for the larger universe.
So what? Why should the fire service step outside of our self-determined boundaries? What is so wrong about this approach to doing business? After all, we’re not in the manufacturing business-buying parts from a variety of suppliers, creating a product, and marketing it to the world. We are largely a responsive service. When someone dials 911, we show up and provide good service to our customers. The community loves us.
The reality is that the changing landscape in which the fire service operates should force us to consider revising the service model we provide. Economic conditions, social shifts, and environmental concerns are just a few of the external changes forcing themselves on our service, thus necessitating an adjustment in our service delivery model. We cannot continue to operate in spheres that limit our contact with other agencies within and outside our disciplines. The world in which we provide our service is changing, and we must be engaged in that dynamic if we are to survive. Yes, for the most part, the community still loves us, but it expects more of us today. The model of old (give us trucks and bodies and let us put out fires) is no longer valid for every aspect of the business. The fire service of the modern age will be at a distinct disadvantage if we continue to operate in a vacuum. We need to look at new ways of doing business so that we can not only survive but also thrive. It’s time to break the mold and consider a change in the way we do business.
Although it sounds good in theory, how can an agency go from operating as a stand-alone entity to getting engaged outside of its paradigm? We can start at the operations level at the lowest level in the response matrix. Begin with common emergencies that involve you and another entity-your structure fires, for example. Chances are good that a police presence will be operating at your next fire, perhaps by blocking traffic or keeping bystanders back. Why not incorporate the police response into your incident management system (IMS) structure? Invite the on-duty sergeant to your command post, and establish a unified command. By co-locating command personnel from both agencies, you can more effectively ensure the appropriate streets are blocked, a space is secured for staging, and the crowd is controlled. There is a chance that in the absence of unified command these things will likely happen anyway (perhaps not as efficiently as you would prefer), but now you are beginning to develop relationships that will pay dividends later. You’re reaching out to another agency just outside your normal sphere.
Another practical idea that many organizations employ involves incorporating other entities from your jurisdiction in your training and planning exercises. In the Kansas City (MO) area, not only do all of the regional heavy rescue and hazmat teams purchase equipment on a cooperative basis, but they also participate in joint exercises with law enforcement, the hospital community, the traffic management teams, and others.
Undoubtedly, your department participates in a mass-casualty or large-scale disaster drill (i.e., tornado response or school bus extrication) on a somewhat regular basis. Are you inviting your public works, police, and health departments to these exercises? Aren’t they going to be part of the response anyway? What about your Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) or industrial hazmat brigades? What role does the local hospital play? These entities will likely play a response role in any significant community event. Consider the advantages of getting to know their capabilities, limitations, and personnel before the event.
In many areas of the country, the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) is actively involved in putting regional resources together to plan and respond to environmental and technological emergencies. Drawing from general industry, public safety, the business community, and others, the LEPC can put the fire service at the same table with many other public and private organizations with whom it might not otherwise interact.
In much the same way, an effective Council of Government (COG) can also bridge many of the gaps that separate the fire service from public and private entities with which it shares similar interests. For example, COGs in Washington state, Kansas City, and the District of Columbia have each built alliances for initiatives surrounding homeland security that have paid huge dividends in terms of bolstering preparedness and response initiatives. Active fire service engagement was a key component in each of these success stories.
Getting yourself on a first-name basis with members of other local entities will begin to break down those barriers that for years have caused your agencies to operate in vacuums. In addition, you’ll reinforce the mindset that puts some of these agency representatives at your command post or emergency operations center for all significant events.
Conversely, perhaps a reciprocal arrangement will be afforded the fire service from these agencies when they engage in their community response planning exercises. You will now have developed those relationships that you may really need to help with evacuations at hazmat incidents, responses to school shootings, and other events. The small steps you accomplish now at the lowest level will pave the way for smoother operations to transpire at higher levels.
Smaller departments or rural agencies may want to consider active engagement in community projects. Being a participant in fund-raising events for worthy causes will certainly go a long way to garner much-needed public support. Firefighters from across the country have been active in the Joplin, Missouri, rebuilding effort after a devastating tornado ravaged that community in 2011. This has put the firefighters next to their customers and has had the added advantage of promoting the good name of the fire service. The point is to start small, at the lowest operational level possible. These are the first steps to breaking down barriers and moving away from operating in a vacuum.
Alliance building is one of the major advantages of expanding our paradigm. When we begin to look and operate outside our sphere, we start to build trust and friendships that will be invaluable later on. We establish alliances with other entities that can prove to be mutually beneficial. These alliances can produce mutually supportive groups that can help each other in difficult times or when facing organizational challenges. Furthermore, alliances can jump-start movement on stalled initiatives by injecting new ideas, personnel, and resources into projects that might have otherwise been dead on the vine.
In breaking down barriers, we also need to be looking around at our local and regional fire departments and establishing relationships that exist beyond the language of a mutual- or automatic-aid agreement. Many departments across the country have very little interaction with their neighbors unless a major event occurs. We have no problem sounding the call for help when a major fire threatens our entire downtown area or a natural disaster has overwhelmed our resources. And, we answer that call every time, and we’re good at it. But we all share some of the same challenges organizationally and financially. So why is it that we would never dream of calling on other agencies to share ideas on standard operating procedures, new technology, or union contract issues? Are we really that enthusiastic about reinventing the wheel?
Another challenge we can overcome if we break the proverbial mold relates to resources. Recently, I read an article about a small rural department that was having a tough time getting some training that for many larger organizations might seem mundane or even be taken for granted. Yet, this department was surrounded by a group of similar-size departments with the same challenge. It seemed to me that it might be a great opportunity to pool some limited resources and secure the required training in a manner that would be beneficial to all. My guess was that there was surely a larger organization in the same region (perhaps not contiguous to those in question) that could meet that need with relatively little out-of-pocket expense. In an environment without boundaries, that may have been a more obvious potential solution.
As it turns out, getting out of our boxes can be really beneficial for our organizations as well as others. Social media may help us break down some barriers as well. Sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ KnowledgeNet and OpsNetLink are already fostering conversations and building bridges among people and organizations near and far. Organizations are sharing advice, and collaborative documents are being traded to help departments share experiences and successes as well as warn of potential pitfalls already experienced. The explosion of social media and ever-changing technology will only serve to heighten interagency dialog and foster cooperative partnerships.
PARTNERSHIPS WITH PRIVATE SECTORS
Now that we’ve identified some steps to forging relationships in the public sector, the next natural progression will be to develop similar partnerships in the private arena. Although they may seem counterintuitive for a public service, developing these relationships can be mutually beneficial for several reasons. To begin with, the private sector is where our customers are. By and large, our customers are the general public and the business and industrial communities we serve. It certainly behooves us to know who our customers are, and not just by sectors. How advantageous to you would it be if the next time you respond to an industrial fire at a chemical plant the facility manager walked out to your command vehicle, greeted you by name, and handed you a facility map and appropriate material safety data sheets?
Alternatively, perhaps you have a laptop or mobile device (iPad, Kindle, or other tablet) that has this information already available prior to the alarm. Building those relationships in advance is key to such preparedness. Many of the principles discussed here can also apply to local, state, and federal agencies.
So how do you make this happen? Reach out and make initial contact. Ask to conduct a walk-through or develop a preplan. Invite the manager to lunch after your next walk-through or inspection. Take the opportunity to get to know your customers and find out about them. If you have a large district, you can’t have lunch with all the managers, so start with those facilities in which you have a vested interest, perhaps the most dangerous facility or the most willing plant manager.
Approach the local business council and make some inroads there. In this venue, you are likely to encounter a host of people who may at least want to make your acquaintance. Use the opportunity to make connections and learn about their needs. Listen first! You’ll have time to brag about your department later. You may be surprised at what you find out. In fact, you may be surprised at how little they know about what you do. Some will even be genuinely interested in how you can work together on drills with their emergency response team, or they may want you to participate in public safety education at their family days. Perhaps they may be interested in an equipment demonstration of that new foam tanker you bought just for this facility. Tactically, your goal should be familiarization for basic response. Strategically, your goal should be relationship building.
Another advantage to making inroads in the private sector is perhaps a bit more selfish: You may find ways these parties can help you while at the same time helping themselves. It’s no secret that government cutbacks are taking their toll on public safety. Fewer dollars are available for those purchases you want. The private sector is aware of this fact. If part of the cutbacks means you won’t be able to afford that foam tanker or mobile cascade system, maybe a donation from the private sector can help with the purchase. Look for equipment needs that are genuine and that also will play a key role in your response to the facility from which you are seeking the donation.
Let’s say you have a large petrochemical facility moving in. Responses to this new customer will be more than your typical industrial response. A foam tanker would be really beneficial in mitigating emergencies at this (and perhaps other) facilities. Approach the customer with information that explains how the equipment will be used to more effectively minimize any fire damage and help get the facility back to full production more quickly after an event. This information may provide you with the ally you need to help acquire items that will benefit you both.
Perhaps only small manufacturing or commercial businesses are within your community. Often, these organizations routinely budget monies to support local responders in making their plants and employees safe. In North Kansas City, Missouri, for example, a local business partner provided funds to help support the acquisition of a mobile cascade system for filling self-contained breathing apparatus bottles. In Rahway, New Jersey, a local energy company donated confined space rescue equipment to the Rahway Fire Department because it functions as the outside rescue team for confined space rescues. In Comstock Park, Michigan, a local sporting goods store donated a ventilation saw to the Alpine Township Fire Department. These examples are just a few of the many in which community partners have supported the fire service.
By reaching out to the private sector, you also help transform your image as an agency that responds only during a crisis into an indispensable part of the community. Your participation in employee picnics, charity walks, and other such events will make your organization a staple in the community, and your presence at these events will become the expected norm. When budget cuts become so severe that public safety resources are reduced and your ability to participate in those community events becomes hampered, the public sector will go to bat for you with local leaders. Imagine the value of the outcry when a dozen or more leaders of the local businesses supplying big tax dollars to local coffers show up at a council meeting to express their concern over planned cuts to public safety. At that moment, all the bickering and fussing over whose turn it was to cook hot dogs at a neighborhood block party seem like a petty problem of long ago.
It is no secret that fire departments have long operated as stand-alone entities. By their very nature, the organizations in which we work have been self-sustaining and have perpetuated an insular culture. However, times are changing. Many of the operations in which we engage and for which we prepare are forcing us out of our molds. There are distinct advantages to expanding our paradigm and breaking down those barriers that keep us estranged from our stakeholders. Sharing resources and integrating operations will undoubtedly yield far-reaching aftereffects. The landscape in which we operate is changing. We must be proactive and change our business model to better serve our customers, or we will fail to meet the demands of a new era in modern fire service history.
SALVATORE J. SCARPA is a battalion chief for the North Kansas City (MO) Fire Department. He has served for more than 21 years in the fire service in career and volunteer departments. He is a national presenter on emerging issues in fire service leadership. He has an associate degree in fire science and a bachelor’s degree in public administration and is pursuing a master’s degree in leadership studies. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer program at the National Fire Academy, is recognized as a Chief Fire Officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence, and is a member of the Institution of Fire Engineers.
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