BY STEVEN MILLS
Managing change in the fire service can be challenging considering the role tradition plays. Tradition has deep roots within the fire service and is evident in everything we do. Firefighters take great pride in their past, because it allows us to identify with our history and those who came before us. This history has also exposed the public to those distinctive symbols representative of our profession and the past sacrifices that have been made. These longstanding customs, beliefs, and methods can make it difficult to introduce change. When organizations do not change, they lose their ability to adapt and, therefore, they become stagnant. On the other hand, organizations that seem to be in a constant state of change become chaotic and lose their effectiveness. Finding a balance that will make it possible to implement the needed changes and to preserve history and tradition is essential for fire service organizations.
Change, whether initiated from within or thrust on a department by circumstances it cannot control, affects personnel, resources, and the overall ability to accomplish the job. Therefore, managers and leaders must understand the causes of change and learn how to manage the accompanying modifications effectively so that new ideas can be meshed with existing ones, helping the organization to achieve its goals and objectives.
PERFORMANCE GAPS AND ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS
Fire service leaders and managers should examine and understand factors that drive organizational change so they can prepare their departments for any revisions that may be needed. These factors originate primarily from performance gaps and environmental factors. A performance gap is the difference between the intended actions carried out in support of a goal and the actual effectiveness of those actions. Wherever the intended and the actual do not match, there is a deficiency or barrier that prevents fulfillment of an objective. Performance gaps may be external, which involve the services we provide, or internal, which more directly impact personnel. Regardless of the type of gap, the longer it goes unrecognized or is unaddressed, the greater the chance that it will widen and the situation will deteriorate to an even greater degree.
External Performance Gaps
External performance gaps indicate those areas in which new services, additional services, or a more timely delivery of services is necessary for the community. In a time of fiscal constraints and careful scrutiny, particularly for publicly funded agencies such as the fire service, performance gaps must be identified as quickly as possible, to limit the negative impact they might have on the organization’s operations. If change is not initiated to address the existing void, the situation may grow to the point where the public becomes concerned about the effectiveness of the fire department’s management. For example, in today’s society of two-income households, the volunteer fire service is being challenged to maintain membership in the face of rising demands for service. Some areas of the nation are finding it difficult to sustain sufficient volunteers to answer calls that have been increasing because of community growth, especially during the day, when the majority of members are at their full-time jobs. Therefore, it is incumbent on the managers of these organizations to be aware of situations that may increase the work load for their fire department during times when available personnel are limited, creating a gap between the intended service to the community and the service actually being provided.
Many fire chiefs have faced this gap; they responded by instituting mutual-aid agreements with neighboring departments, inplementing recruitment and retention initiatives, and hiring career staff. Leaders who allow external performance gaps to develop unchecked take the risks that the gap will widen, necessitating even greater resources, and that a potential breach in public trust will develop if a timely solution is not instituted.
Internal Performance Gaps
Training and equipment are two areas most commonly associated with internal performance gaps. Fire service managers and leaders must ensure that firefighters have appropriate and sufficient training for the vast array of situations they may encounter. Each new challenge the fire service faces necessitates that training measures be initiated so there will be no performance gaps relating to essential knowledge and skills. Performance gaps that involve training may not become readily apparent until the need for new or additional skills becomes evident through our responses. For example, according to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), “Year after year approximately 25 percent of the firefighters killed in the line of duty are responding to or returning from incidents; the majority of the fatalities are from vehicle crashes. This represents the second leading cause of firefighter fatalities.” The performance gap outlined here requires a change in mindset and behavior to be accomplished through training. The USFA has initiated the Emergency Vehicle Safety Initiative, which addresses seat belt use, intersection safety, fire apparatus and emergency vehicle design, driver selection and training, and implementation of alternate response plans. Change through training initiatives can increase firefighter safety and help firefighters to identify and address performance gaps.
Technology and equipment deficiencies often go hand-in-hand and are a regular source for change that impacts firefighting capabilities and personnel safety. Both are internal performance gaps because of the tremendous effect these categories have on firefighters. The advent of motorized fire apparatus, sprinkler systems, and bunker gear shows of how technological and equipment changes were introduced to the fire service. At the time each of these technological advancements was introduced, there were varying levels of resistance to the changes accompanying each one, but all have weathered the change and proved their value. For example, the introduction of bunker gear faced opposition initially from those who believed that it permitted personnel to travel too far into a fire before detecting and reacting to rising heat levels. However, according to Fire Department of New York Deputy Assistant Chief Allen Hay, “In 1993, the last full year before bunker gear was provided to members, there were 1,545 burn injuries that required medical leave. Burn injuries have been reduced by more than 1,100 a year with the advent of bunker gear.” Although bunker gear cannot prevent all burn injuries, the performance deficiency that bunker gear addressed has now become clear. Continuing to close performance gaps with technology and equipment will allow us to do our job with more efficiency and a greater degree of safety, but personnel will also have to adapt to the resulting changes to realize any benefit.
Environmental factors also drive change within an organization. These external elements influence the organization’s operations and drive change. Respective economic conditions are reflected in a community’s ability to deliver services chiefly as a result of tax revenue. Available tax revenue can increase as new businesses arrive and establish themselves within a community and as existing businesses expand. Employees of these businesses also contribute to the local economy by settling in surrounding communities, contributing to the tax base and the exchange of goods and services locally. Unfortunately, businesses can vacate a community more quickly than it takes them to become established, leaving a void in the community’s tax base as the company and its workers relocate. Changes in the economy impact the local fire department’s expense and capital budgets; wage and benefit packages; and ability to maintain or expand staffing levels, thereby affecting community and firefighter safety alike.
Politics also influence change within the fire service. The vast majority of fire departments across the country are some form of government entity and, therefore, a political subdivision. Politics may not be one of the elements that made firefighting attractive to us but, nonetheless, our managers and leaders need to develop a competency in politics; politics effect changes in our job. The election of a new mayor may bring the appointment of a new fire chief. A new chief brings changes in management and priorities.
Politics also play a role in funding for the fire department, such as through government grants. Many grants are channeled through local political representatives who must be approached when attempting to secure funding. Additionally, politics are an avenue through which our unions and other associations can lobby for changes in local, state, and federal government arenas to influence benefits and laws pertaining to our profession. Therefore, the political environment in which a fire department exists can effect change in labor relations, available resources, firefighter health and safety initiatives, and fire department management.
ASSESSING FACTORS AFFECTING CHANGE
Identifying where change is needed and maintaining a global perspective of external factors that could influence change within an organization allow fire service managers and leaders to attain an overall awareness that will help them guide their department. However, the change process cannot begin until the problem has been clearly defined. Sufficient time must be devoted to analyzing and researching the problem identified so that all alternatives are uncovered to ensure the most appropriate solution to the problem. Once the solution is formulated, the change process can begin.
Some changes will meet more resistance than others, and there will be occasions when no amount of time spent on planning the method of implementation will motivate personnel to readily accept change. The vast majority of changes can be implemented carefully, empathetically, and skillfully by ensuring that personnel are involved in the process, that the objectives of the change are communicated clearly, that resistance is understood and expected, and that the change process is monitored for effectiveness.
The first step in implementing the change process once a problem has been identified is to maintain open communication with those who will be most affected and to elicit involvement wherever possible. The fire service is a paramilitary organization; as such, it is not one where decisions are based on a show of hands. I am not suggesting that decisions involving implementation of change be any different. I am suggesting, however, that fire service managers and leaders involve personnel whenever feasible so the department can benefit from the members’ experience and knowledge.
A good example of this practice was witnessed recently as the Fire Department of New York, in response to the tragic events of January 23, 2005, in which six firefighters were forced to jump from a burning building, designed and implemented a new personal safety system. Officers and firefighters alike were called on for their insight and expertise in the design process of a new personal safety system. Anytime managers and leaders can involve personnel in the change process, they should do so, because the collaboration of ideas relative to the change can aid in a more responsive and seamless process that often produces better results.
The second step in implementing change is to outline the objectives of the change. Describe the reasons for the change; explain why they are necessary. Here, communication abilities are relied on to inform people of the change process developed to address a specific problem. Effective managers use communication to keep their people informed and to keep to a minimum the speculation that often surrounds change. Communicating objectives can reduce the impact of fear often associated with change by empowering people with knowledge. Informed members feel they are involved in the process and develop a level of awareness and control they otherwise wouldn’t have. Attempts to implement change without keeping people informed foster concern, suspicion, and withdrawal because the lack of communication isolates people from the problem and the objective of the change.
It is necessary to recognize the resistance that often accompanies change. However, you can limit the resistance if you communicate openly and honestly when outlining the objectives of the proposed change. Some will resist change no matter how much communication is used and how beneficial the change may appear. Others resist change simply because they have a stake in maintaining the current reality. People who are pleased with the status quo and anticipate that impending change will impact their stake will resist because their self-interest is in jeopardy. Anytime individual self-interest and organizational development do not align, resistance to organizational change will result in a disruptive and slowed change process. Fear also fosters resistance to change. Individuals’ fear of the unknown and doubts that they will not be able to adapt to the suggested change affect their willingness to readily accept change.
Change is also resisted simply because people do not trust the managers and leaders attempting to implement change, because they believe these people are driven by self-interests. Once again, communication is essential in reducing fears and combating cynical attitudes. Fears can be explored and addressed through communication; cynical attitudes can be conquered when management’s actions and words mirror each other.
MONITOR THE CHANGE PROCESS
The final step in implementing change is to monitor the change process to determine if it was successful in solving the problem. From the outset of the change process, a formalized effort should be made to assess and measure the ongoing effectiveness of the change. Information collected should be used to gauge and formulate an unbiased measure of performance of the situation with the change compared with the preexisting situation before the change was made. Managers and leaders must not hesitate to pull the plug on change that is not working. Wasting time and money forcing ineffective change on an organization and its people is a sure way to increase cynicism and resistance to future projects.
In addition to an overall assessment of a change process, feedback should be obtained from those responsible for carrying out the change. Nobody knows better whether a change is working than the people closest to the issue. These people will have the most informed position and may also have suggestions that could modify the process to better achieve the objective. Allowing personnel to give feedback concerning the change involves them in the process, thereby building a sense of ownership and commitment to the organization.
Change has been affecting the fire service since its inception and will continue to do so. Developing familiarity with those forces that influence organizational change-performance gaps, environmental factors, economics, and politics-will enable managers and leaders to anticipate, plan, and position for organizational change. To ensure that suggested change has a fair opportunity, it should involve personnel whenever possible so they develop ownership of the problem and, therefore, the change process. The objectives of change should also be clearly communicated to those affected because explaining why change is necessary keeps people informed and, in doing so, shows them that they are an important part of the change process. Another benefit of communication is its ability to limit resistance to change. Finally, change must be monitored to ensure that it is progressing as expected. If the results of the change do not reflect its intended purpose, you should consider modifying the change or abandoning it.
• Hay, A. (2004/ 4th). The importance of bunker gear in warding off burns. WNYF, 20-21.
STEVEN MILLS is a career captain with the Ridge Road Fire District in Rochester, New York. He is a nationally certified instructor I and has an associate’s degree in fire protection. He is completing his bachelor’s degree in organizational management at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester.