How Universities Can Help Solve Critical Fire Service Issues

By REID A. WODICKA

Throughout the United States, fire service members are finding new and innovative ways to accomplish goals while reducing costs. Many localities are facing serious revenue reductions, and states and localities have laid off tens of thousands of employees in the past few years. Finding ways to stretch taxpayer dollars is one of the most important jobs of public managers. As such, a common theme in fire service trade journal articles is ensuring that the department is using its resources to the fullest. Even in the traditional sense, “resources” is a broad term that can mean anything from the personnel who staff the firehouses to the actual fire engines, trucks, and heavy rescue vehicles that allow us to do our job. However, it is important to think beyond the traditional concept of fire department resources; fire service leaders must use original thinking to solve complex issues facing our departments.

In light of recent financial stress, fire service leaders must look for additional resources in unconventional places. Although the fire service has been traditionally self-sufficient, an emerging trend in the public sector has been the use of expertise found at local colleges and universities. Although fire service learning has occurred on college campuses for years, this was done by an individual or a small group of college students and faculty rather than as a concerted effort by the academic programs to engage public agencies. However, a new model of community-based service learning built around class consulting projects is emerging in the United States—that is, a professor will converse and work with agency leaders to identify a problem within a public organization (in this case a fire department). Then, the professor builds a course around addressing the problem, researching and providing ideas for solutions and, in some cases, beginning the initial steps of implementation. This is a very inexpensive option for public organizations to receive outside input (many times at no cost) and provides students and faculty members with the opportunity to work outside the traditional framework of university courses and to work in the “real world.”

No chief needs some group of college professors and students to tell him how to manage a house fire or the most complex hazardous materials incident. However, managing a fire department—or any public agency—is much more complex than just understanding what the organization is designed to do; it is more than just responding to emergency incidents.

In career and volunteer organizations, there are complexities that are difficult to manage. For instance, in volunteer organizations, leaders have to develop effective fundraising efforts and recruit and retain volunteers, none of which are easy tasks. Leaders in career departments face issues ranging from politics to labor relations. Although university faculty members cannot reliably make recommendations on how to manage emergency incidents, problems related to the organization’s administrative functions could be improved with an outside view.

When I was the town manager of a small town in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, I worked on a similar project with the town’s police department. A new police chief had just taken over and, administratively, the department had been a disaster for many years prior. Personnel relations were very poor, as were the relations with the town council and the community as a whole. This was the result of many years of poor leadership within the department. The new chief and I recognized the need to improve the department’s conditions. We then partnered with James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia, to conduct a consulting project that analyzed the police department’s administrative functions.

The four-month-long project resulted in a 100-page report outlining what students and faculty perceived as problematic and gave suggestions for improvement. This information was collected through community surveys, interviews with police officers, and analysis of other data pertinent to the administration of the department such as personnel turnover rates, salary comparisons, and the departmental budget. Although the chief and I could have probably done all of the work done by the students and faculty members, it probably would have taken us much longer, and the opportunity cost of doing so would have meant that we would have had to abandon our other responsibilities.

The nearly 1,000 work hours that were expended were completely free of charge, and the ensuing report allowed us to better understand what was going on in the department and the community, how we compared with other communities, and how we might solve the problems that faced this department. The department’s administrative functions have since been altered and, I believe, the department functions more effectively because of this project. From this partnership, we were awarded the Virginia Municipal League’s Annual Achievement Award for towns with fewer than 5,000 people.

The next year, the program at JMU conducted a project with a local volunteer fire company that was designed in a similar manner and found problems related to accounting practices, did a cost-benefit analysis of fundraising efforts so that the company could focus on highly effective fundraisers, and made recommendations for improving recruitment of volunteers. Those recommendations are in the process of being implemented.

In light of these experiences, two colleagues and I recently conducted a national survey of city and county managers, attempting to gauge the need to engage in partnerships with universities. We found through that research that most city and county managers felt that while there had been some small attempts to work with universities, this opportunity had not been fully taken advantage of and there were many more opportunities for growth. This is obviously not the appropriate place to describe the numeric results from the various statistical tests applied to the collected data, but suffice it to say that most city and county managers recognize the benefit of university-municipal partnerships and fire departments are among the agencies that they feel could benefit. Although only 30 percent of city and county managers reported that their fire departments had worked with universities, approximately 95 percent indicated that they felt that their fire department could benefit from such a partnership.

In addition to providing justification for expenditures, many times the outside view of university-municipal partnerships can help identify programs and activities that are not necessary or not beneficial to the citizens or the department. This is accomplished by making analytics ranging from simple comparisons of comparable departments to complex cost-benefit analyses using data from the department. Use any of these methods to determine how to prioritize the use of scarce resources. Streamlining unnecessary expenditures can be an excellent way to build political capital with politicians and, in a challenging political environment, that’s what it takes to get done what the department really needs.

Although my training and experience have been in public policy and administration and I tend to focus heavily on those academic programs when considering university-municipal partnerships, there are other academic disciplines that could be beneficial to the fire service. Academically, I look at developing strategic plans aimed at solving problems and meeting the challenges of the future and on analyzing the effectiveness of various programs. However, the possibilities of projects are endless. Leadership or human resources programs may help develop training for developing officers, engineering programs may help design components of new fire stations, communications programs could help develop a public information campaign, and so on. The list of potential projects is only as limited as the imagination of those involved.

There are certainly a few downsides to this approach, such as that few college professors are fire service experts and that students have other academic obligations. However, the benefits—least of which is the cost—of this type of partnership for fire service members greatly outweigh the challenges involved. If you are willing to work with some of these people to help them understand the intricacies of your department, it is almost certain that you will find students and faculty interested in helping you do the work.

In an environment in which no department is sacred when it comes to municipal budgets, it is imperative that fire service leaders have solid justification for expenditures. Although it may seem natural that fire engines need to be replaced, for example, it may not be a huge stretch for a politician or a member of upper management to want to push that sort of project off until later. Providing information that has the backing of a college or a university can many times add legitimacy to your needs. Additionally, it can help you tailor your requests, ensuring that the taxpayers are receiving the most benefit from the department’s expenditures.

Throughout the United States, the fire service is faced with great challenges that will truly define its future. In today’s budgetary and political climate, it can be difficult to continue to provide the highly effective services for which the fire department is known. And although there are multiple methods by which leaders can solve problems, this is an example of an emerging trend in public sector administration that might prove beneficial. Only through analytical decision making will public agencies continue to maintain high-level service delivery.

REID A. WODICKA has a BS in public policy and administration and a master of public administration degree from James Madison University. He is also a PhD student in public policy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He has 10 years of fire service experience in volunteer and career departments.

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