BY RICK HAASE
If you HAVE read any local newspaper (small town or metropolitan area) in the country frequently, you have probably read about the problems of local fire service agencies. Whether it’s a small-town volunteer department, a neighboring combination department, or a metropolitan career department, it seems almost all departments are running into problems such as low finances; inadequate staffing; limited resources; lack of management; and pressure from local, state, and federal regulations and increased demand.
If your department is having problems, it’s not alone. Thousands of departments across the country face the above problems. All fire service agencies are looking for new and innovative ways to meet regulations and deal with the problems of increased demand on all public service agencies.
Through the years, fire service agencies have looked to the local, county, state, and federal governments to procure assistance to help work through their difficulties. Typically, fire service agencies have asked for legislation and increased funding to help meet their needs. Many fire departments also have asked local service agencies such as the Rotary, Kiwanis, veterans’ organizations, and so forth to provide financial and other help. Still many others ask for support from the general public through fundraisers. All these resources are very worthwhile.
Local business and industry, however, is another often-overlooked source of assistance that can provide specialized help. To benefit from these sources, you must understand what type of assistance your department needs and then develop a partnership with the local businesses to meet these needs.
DETERMINING RESOURCE REQUIREMENTS
To develop a partnering plan with local business/industry, determine what resources your department needs. Most fire departments see funding as a primary need. Remember, however, that it is likely that local business and industry is already funding your department through taxes. Many other forms of assistance they can provide will either directly or indirectly yield some type of financial return.
Deciding the exact form of assistance to request from local businesses may be the most difficult task. There are literally hundreds of resources they can provide. Let’s look at a few that are available.
Regulatory compliance. One volunteer fire department faced a real dilemma when confined space regulations were introduced several years ago. It wanted to provide this service to local manufacturing industries and had people willing to be trained. However, the department had no confined space rescue equipment, and the training budget could not absorb the extra cost of the specialty training. Rather than let the issue die, department officers went to a local cardboard box manufacturer and explained the dilemma. In response, the local industry purchased several thousand dollars worth of confined space equipment and donated it to the fire department. The following year the industry conducted a confined space entry and rescue class for its employees and invited the local department and several mutual-aid departments to participate.
Inspection and testing. A combination fire department recently faced budget cuts because of a reevaluation of taxes for several large industries in its response area. One major concern was the department’s ability to conduct continued inspection and testing of its equipment to ensure readiness and legal compliance. The department contacted a local oil refinery in its response district that had an on-site emergency team and that conducted an extensive inspection program for emergency response equipment, asking if the business could provide information on companies that give specialty inspection services at a reasonable cost. The business itself offered to help and conducted the local fire department’s annual ladder testing and SCBA regulator flow testing as part of its own inspection process. Its instrument technicians also routinely calibrate the department’s multigas analyzers free of charge.
Public safety education. A volunteer fire department was looking to expand its public education program. Although working on an almost nonexistent budget, it wanted to reach as many people as possible. After the department contacted representatives from local newspapers, the papers agreed to run one or two public education articles per week at no cost to the department. The initial discussion opened the floodgates for the department’s public education program. The department received free airtime from a local radio station and free advertisements on the local cable TV network. During Fire Prevention Week, the department even talked numerous local businesses into displaying fire prevention ads on their business marquees. Several local insurance agencies provided public education pamphlets free of charge.
Personnel development. Another department wanted to develop its officers’ personnel skills. It explained the situation to the human resources/training department of a local chemical business, which worked with the department to develop a standard personnel effectiveness program. The local business not only helped develop the program but also provided instructors to teach the classes, training manuals, and training resources.
Local business and industry can provide numerous types of help, including repair, fabrication, training, financial management, and computer programming services. Your department should conduct a needs assessment and prioritize the services required. For a list of some of the available services, see Figure 1.
When developing your list of needed resources, don’t be afraid to “think outside the box. ” Use a committee system to define your resource needs. For each program your department is trying to develop and implement, assign a team of three to five members to identify the resources needed and then create a list of potential candidates to provide them.
IDENTIFYING POTENTIAL PARTNERS
After pinpointing your department’s needs, it’s time to identify those in the local business community that may be able to help. Remember, when identifying a potential partner, don’t discount anyone. Every member of the business community, from the smallest business to the largest industry, is a potential resource. Below are some examples of possible resources.
Bunker gear repair. One very small department with very limited resources had several sets of bunker gear donated by a larger department. Most of the gear was in good shape, but several coats and pants had tears in them. The department needed every set of gear it could get but could not afford to send the gear off to be repaired. A department member obtained the appropriate NomexT thread, and a local upholstery business repaired the items free of charge, using its industrial sewing machines.
Grant program research. Another department wanted to obtain a state grant to provide additional haz-mat response capabilities in its area. The grant program required an extensive survey of the haz mats that were transported through the district, but the department did not know where to obtain the necessary survey information. Rather than lose the grant funding, the department turned to the local college for assistance. Students in the college statistics and data management classes conducted the extensive survey and provided a very detailed computer-generated model of the results. Other members of the college’s staff assisted in completing the necessary paperwork.
Volunteer retention/recruitment. One department was looking for a new incentive program to retain current volunteers and recruit potential members. Instead of looking to just one local business, the department met with the local Chamber of Commerce and discussed its needs. A large number of the chamber’s members responded. They donated for volunteers gift certificates and special coupons for services at their businesses. The coupons were made into a book by a local printer and given to each department member. The coupons offered free meals, car washes, and discount prices on merchandise.
Each local business and industry is a potential resource for your department, including retail stores, professional services, contractors, repair services, manufacturers, and transportation companies. The size or complexity of the business makes no difference. Figure 2 provides numerous examples of goods and services donated to departments by local businesses.
Once your needs have been defined, it’s time to formally request assistance. This is somewhat of an art form. You don’t want to be too overbearing, but you need to get your point across. The manner in which you initially ask for assistance sets the stage for any further communication, so it is in the interest of your department to make a good first impression on the business.
Remember, you are doing more than just asking for services or materials-you are developing a relationship. It’s a two-way street. You should be ready to work with the business on a regular basis and develop a good working relationship. Try to offer your services up front. Preplanning facilities, offering public education programs, or just stopping by and telling the business about services your department can offer will set the stage for a good relationship. Get out and meet with as many business and industry leaders in your area as possible. You will be amazed at the benefits you can reap. Below is just one example.
A local volunteer department responded to a fire at a facility that hydrotests all types of pressurized cylinders. After the incident, the small industry made repairs and a number of improvements. When its operation was reopened, the department asked to tour and preplan the facility, to which the owners gladly assented. After the tour, the facility management provided a dinner for the volunteers. During the dinner conversation, several department officers discussed the different services the industry provided. By the end of the evening, the industry offered to conduct hydrotesting for the fire department’s SCBA bottles and agreed to purchase and install a cascade system on the department’s rescue truck-both free of charge.
Generally, a two-step approach should be used in requesting assistance. First, contact a business representative directly, preferably in person, but a telephone call may suffice. Discuss the reason for the contact, and provide the business with basic information regarding your request or project. Do your homework, and find out the appropriate person to contact. In a small business, this might be the owner. For a large business or industry, it might be the public/community relations manager, a safety manager, or someone who routinely attends LEPC or mutual-aid meetings or public hearings.
Always be polite during your first contact-don’t be pushy or forceful. Remember, you are trying to build a relationship that will not end with just one project. During the discussion, look for opportunities that will benefit everyone involved. Don’t force the business to make a decision on the spot to provide resources. Allow it to discuss the request with other members of the organization who need to be part of the decision-making process.
After the initial contact, give the potential partner a week or two to consider the request before making a second contact. The second contact may be in person or by telephone. During this visit, have a more formalized plan ready in writing. Most businesses prefer a written request for assistance to document any donations for financial purposes. A well-written plan will help sell the project and lay the foundation for project operation if it is approved. Again, allow the business time to make a decision, and do not rush. Outline the easiest way to contact you for any questions.
Once the business has made a decision and contacts the department, be grateful whether the news is good or bad. Work to make the process a win-win situation. If the industry can’t help you with the project, ask if there is anything your department can do for it and to keep you in mind if things change in the future. If the business agrees to assist you with the project in any way, set the stage for forward planning.
WORKING THE PROJECT
If the local business or industry agrees to assist your department, the hard part is already past, and it is time to begin the actual project work. Here are some basic guidelines to consider when working with a business on a project.
- Develop a formal project plan, and identify the key project components:
- key fire department and industry contacts,
- location of the project,
- who will provide which resources,
- when resources will be required, and
- overall time frame for project completion.
- Work within the business/industry time constraints as much as possible. The business is providing the assistance-don’t make it work around your schedule.
- Provide as many fire department resources as possible to help with the project. This includes staffing, facilities, equipment, and whatever else you can provide.
- Communicate regularly as work progresses.
- Work through setbacks in the project. There will be minor bumps, but don’t get discouraged-continue to have a positive outlook.
- Keep building the working relationship with the business during the project. Having fire department and industry personnel working hand-in-hand is an excellent way to do this.
PROJECT COMPLETION AND FOLLOW-UP
You have now completed the project, but the department’s work is not finished. Now it must bring the project to a successful closure. Start by conducting a short closing meeting with all involved parties. Express your thanks and discuss any loose ends that need to be tied up. During the closing meeting, the department personnel should provide the business with some token appreciation for its cooperation. It may be a simple thank-you card, letter, or certificate; a plaque; a meal; or a small gift.
In the closing meeting, the fire department should also offer to develop a news release recognizing the efforts of the business. Always ask the business partner if it would like to review the release prior to distribution. Additionally, ask if the partner would like a special letter of appreciation sent to other personnel who worked directly or indirectly on the project. On large projects funded by businesses, some departments recognized the partner by displaying the business’s name on the equipment or apparatus.
Finally, once again, ask the business partner if there is anything your department can do for it, and always accommodate any reasonable request it may have.
In almost every fire department jurisdiction, literally hundreds of business/industry resources are available. To benefit from these resources, departments need to go out and actively request the assistance. It takes time, and personnel need to take numerous steps to ensure a successful project, but the benefits will be well worth the time and effort. In addition to the re-sources, the department will be building a working relationship with industry that can lead to other success stories in the future. Begin developing these partnerships with your local businesses and industries today. Your department, your community, and your local businesses will all reap the benefits.