Management Flexibility Seen as Key To Meeting Challenges of the ’80s

Management Flexibility Seen as Key To Meeting Challenges of the ’80s

National City, Calif.

The fire service in America continues to evolve. The technology used today in the suppression of fires is generally superior to the techniques used 50 to 100 years ago. Activities undertaken to prevent fires and eliminate the causes of fire continue to expand and improve. Our knowledge of our work continues to grow.

Regrettably, much that adversely affects the fire service continues unchanged after 100 years. Steeped in traditions that may have been palatable when we worked 20 or more shifts a month, we now find ourselves under assault from every sector of our community. Politicians demand a costeffective service. Colleges and universities train our personnel in the practices and procedures of modern administration and then we ignore their desire to implement change. Citizens either do not understand our services or demand services without regard for true need, which we base on accepted standards that we keep to ourselves.

These forces in our society can become destructive of our ability to provide service at any level.

Extracurricular activities

Recently I had the opportunity to drive by the headquarters station of a Southern California fire department on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Four fire fighters who were clearly visible to the public were cleaning and repairing a boat. I would venture to say that on Super Bowl Sunday in virtually every fire station in the county, fire fighters spent the day watching that game on television. Weekend routines tend to differ radically from weekday activities.

The holiday routine generally demands a cursory check of equipment, a little station maintenance and then a quick retreat to the television room or kitchen.

The above are only examples of the activities engaged in by fire fighters in many jurisdictions. The question to be asked is, “What effect do these activities have on our image in the community?” Talk to some of your community’s blue collar workers—the people who work five days a week. Find out if their work allows for “holiday routines.” Did they watch the Super Bowl while at work? Ask how they feel about fire fighters repairing their boats while on duty and at the taxpayers’ expense.

A single bad example can be spread about in a community in ways that will undermine all the good you can do in a whole year.

Budgets can be cut

Taxpayers are tired of government. Don’t deceive yourself into believing that we, in the fire service, are above being the target of cuts in budgets. We have a role in local government. However, we must constantly be attacking our own internal shortcomings if we are to be supported by our communities’ policy makers.

Fortunately, we can at any time choose to change our own perception of our service and how we deliver it, and we can also take action to improve the image of us held by the community.

The motivation for internal change in our organization must be our own sense of self-respect for what we do. Can we let go of our image of a standby service? Can we, in fact, let go of our self-imposed traditions? Are we capable of developing programs of service to our citizens that cross over our idolized weekend routines and holidays and provide real and measurable results from our efforts? For years, we have hung onto our fire fighting image. What we do as fire fighters is important. It isn’t all that we have time for, however. Young men in fire departments today need challenge. We can use their energy and creativity to bring about a higher level of service and to improve our own productivity. Perhaps the word productivity should become one of the guiding principles of our work in the 1980s.

Let people know

There are many departments today that are active and well thought of in their community. Often we are overly critical of our efforts simply because of outside pressure. We must learn to sell what we do and to sell our services with enthusiasm. Let people know what services we provide. Then present our services in every sector of the community as aggressively as though the selling of our services is vital to our survival.

Make sure that you are sensitive to those needs in your community that you alone may best be able to deliver. Don’t rush into a new service without examining its impact on your existing services and be sure the service may not be better provided by the private sector.

Fire prevention and training activities seem to capture a major portion of the time being spent in many departments. Both these activities are of major significance in our work. All members of the department should be trained to conduct a fire inspection. Engine company inspections are vital in assuring the safety of each member of the community.

Specialization in our work is becoming more important. Each of us must be a generalist in fire fighting and yet possess special abilities. Fire fighters can be taught to work in a variety of fields, such as developing grant applications, research, etc. We often leave untapped the special education and skills that members of our departments have simply because they don’t have a certain rank. We should let go of our rank structure when we aren’t involved in fire fighting and begin to delegate jobs to men who are best able to deal with an interesting or specialized task.

Flexibility a necessity

The future in our field belongs to those leaders who can integrate new management styles and needs with the basic requirements of fire fighting. Flexibility as to the management style selected for different problems is a necessity.

We in the fire service who aspire to manage must take a good look at the expectations that our councils and city administrators have for our operations. We must meet with them and seek their input as well as share our own organizational strengths and weaknesses. We must not fear the changes that are coming in the 1980s. We must become the innovators who control the destiny of the fire service.

In the decade ahead, let’s take charge, change our image if need be and set service to the community as our production goal. We will meet with each sector of the community and our delivery system will be tailored to meet local conditions with a high regard for the best of the ideals for which the fire service has long been highly regarded.

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