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To Merge or Not to Merge: That is the Question - Part 2

There are a number of issues which must be considered in any situation where a merger or consolidation is being considered. In many cases a small group within one of the constituent organizations is driving the train toward what they perceive to be an inevitable outcome. Leaders and people like these generally do not care what others may think. It has been my experience that these people see themselves as being smarter and more astute than their fellow travelers. People like this cause far more problems than they solve. Again it has been my experience that people like this take the beating of dead horses to the level of an art form. You need to guard against people like this trying to ram through a merger or a consolidation in the face of wide scale opposition. Ling (2001) stresses that, "… (U)tilizing an open means of communication will be one of the most efficient ways to do this" (p. 7).

In considering the potential for success with regard to fire service mergers and consolidations, it is my opinion that it is critical for leaders and the people the lead to make sure that the following questions are properly addressed and the answers fully studied:

  1. Is a merger really needed?
  2. Who is making the decision?
  3. Do the members of the constituent groups see the need to merge?
  4. Are there any long-term biases or animosities which must be considered?

There is a process involved and it is important to be as inclusive as possible when deciding which members of the affected organizations need to take part in the process. It is within the confines of this process that the answers to the above questions can be fully explored and properly answered. An initial meeting of all interested parties should be held in a venue sufficiently large to accommodate all who might wish to attend. Weidner (2010) suggests that the following be developed:

  1. A study task force with members from all affected groups, as well as the public who will end up paying the taxes for the product which will be produced
  2. Involvement with the local dispatch operations
  3. Subcommittees to study such items as demographics, finance, and a set of proposed by-laws for the new organization you are seeking to develop
  4. A public information point of contact
  5. A rumor control person

It is important to insure that all parties to the process, internal and external, are kept informed of the ongoing status of the process. Weidner (2010) further stressed that, "…a breakdown in communications between the task force membership and fire department personnel will not only stymie the process but also degrade its credibility" (p. 37). He suggested that these various task forces and subcommittees will need to meet frequently to perform their assigned tasks. The communications pipeline must be kept open at all times. Any missing bit of information will almost certainly be replaced by a rumor and rumors can be quite destructive indeed.

Let me stress at this point that in order to achieve success with mergers and consolidations in the public sector fire service, it is necessary to understand the benefits that come to firefighters and other who actively plan for the future success of their organizations. Change is inevitable and resistance to change is a given. Ling (2001) suggests that a number of considerations which you must understand before beginning the merger/consolidation process. They are:  

  1. Basic resistance to change
  2. Autonomy and identification issues
  3. Inter-jurisdictional and political considerations,
  4. Personnel issues (p. 9).

Each of the above issues must be a part of the deliberations which are undertaken to study any possible merger or consolidation scenarios. Like a friend of many said some time ago, "…I do not mind progress as long as nothing changes". This sort of attitude is far more common than any one person would like to admit. Do not be shocked by such a response.

It is important to stress that tools exist which can be used to assist leaders who are preparing for a merger/consolidation process. First get a firm handle on where the organization and its staff stand today, in terms of organizational membership, direction, and capabilities. Let me suggest that no organization can hope to make a journey into the future if it is unaware of where it is at the beginning of the process. That is like leaving on a long car trip without the benefit of at least a set map(s) or a modern, finely-tuned GPS unit. These will allow you to know where you are, where you want to go, and how to get there.

One of the best ways to accomplish this planning task is to use the strength, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats analytical (SWOT) tool. This process will allow you to perform the necessary environmental scans to gauge your current operations, as assess your potential for growth and future success.

The use of the SWOT analysis procedure will allow for an organization which may be pondering a merger or consolidation effort to develop a thorough understanding of the depth and range of their existing organizations. In making the decision to consolidate or merge, organizations must, of necessity, develop a vision of what they want the new organization to look like, the goals they wish to pursue and the manner in which they hope to reach their future vision. Once again, you need to know what you are doing before you can decide on what you might like to do in the future.

The above-listed questions need to be asked of all individuals who may be impacted by any possible merger or consolidation of fire departments. Their response to these questions should be studied and their impacts weighed and evaluated. Decisions on the magnitude of such things as mergers and consolidation are of an order of importance so great that they should never be made lightly or in haste. They should never be made behind closed doors by a group of self-proclaimed insiders. The SWOT Analysis is an extremely effective tool in the toolbox of the thinking mergers and consolidations people. Every community will have its own reasons for considering a consolidation or merger. For that reason, if for no other, a full-scale analysis of the area involved should also be conducted.

The object of strength, weakness, opportunity, and threat (SWOT) analysis is to identify as much information as possible regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the organization as it interfaces with the community it serves. Aaker (2001) provides the following list of areas that should be studied in the outside environment: The key is the vision. Without a vision, there is no destination for an organization's journey. An important part of the planning process involves conducting an analysis of the external environment where an organization operates. A similar analysis must be made of the organization's internal environment. Aaker (2001) provides an excellent framework for conducting this sort of strategic analysis. In each case he suggests that analysts must look at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that an organization faces.

The external analysis includes the following:

  1. A review of the community's needs, noting which are being met and which are not
  2. A review of the forces working against the fire department
  3. A municipal review that shows what a community demands of its fire department
  4. A review of the external problem areas for the fire department (e.g., technology, regulatory, cultural, demographic, and information needs)

The internal analysis includes the following:  

  1. A performance analysis of staff, apparatus, facilities, and finances
  2. A review of past successes and failures regarding an internal review of the impact of each of the problems (e.g., technology, regulatory, cultural, demographic, and information needs)

Let me suggest that the SWOT analysis should be performed by the members of the task force. These members should create meetings where members from all of the affected groups are brought in. Each organization must actively participate in the process.

Let me recap the steps which you should take if you are considering a merger or consolidation of two, or more, fire departments.

  1. Ask a key question. Is this merger/consolidation really necessary?
  2. Conduct preliminary discussions among interested people to access the actual level of interest in such an action.
  3. Seek advice and guidance. This can take the form of a literature review, or you might contact an agency which has had a successful merger.
  4. Make the decision to begin a formal study of the process. In the business world this would be called doing your due diligence.
  5. Develop a formal study task force. This will include both officers and members from the affected organizations. It may include legal, financial, and consulting advisors. Be sure to appoint a single point of contact for all information.
  6. Create subcommittees of the task force to study such matters as station location, deployment strategies, staffing, personnel policies, and a new set of by-laws and standard operating guidelines for the organization which is being created.
  7. Conduct a SWOT analysis. Use the results to frame the starting point of your journey to a new organizational reality.
  8. Develop a new shared vision and then create a mission, goals, and objectives which will allow the new organization to move toward the newly-identified vision. Make the vision clear and communicate it widely.
  9. As Carter (2001) recommends, "…Communicate clearly, openly, honestly, and often … (These are) the four corners of a solid team" (p. 60-61).
  10. 10. Create the new organization in an orderly, step-by-step manner.
  11. Create a written agreement outlining the steps which have been developed and have the agreement reviewed by legal counsel.
  12. Develop the new operational procedures
  13. Set a date for the merger/consolidation.
  14. Train all members of the constituent organizations in the new procedures
  15. Do it.
  16. Conduct periodic evaluations at a time frame of your own determination. You ignore this step at your own peril.

It is important to remember that the road to future success will be bumpy and chocked full of pot holes. Your organization will also face certain people who take it upon themselves to assume the role of roadblock. These people will do all within their power to create failure. Confront them as needed. Never ignore them or let them get away with their unwanted acts of obstruction and negativity. Handling these folks will be perhaps the hardest part of the merger process. Worse yet, they may choose to take their shots from hidden areas, blaming others, or pointing fingers in your direction.

Do not expect overnight success. It took the individual organizations literally decades to arrive where they are today. In the final analysis, mergers and consolidations are change events of the first order. People who have invested many years into one organization are now being asked to dedicate themselves to a new entity. Be sure they have all had a hand in the creation of the new model.

It would appear that the time is fast approaching when fire departments in a wide variety of places may need to consider mergers, regional fire response agreements, and possible consolidations. Let me urge you all to be open and receptive to the new order.

References

  • Aakers, D.A. (2001). Strategic market management. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
  • Bartels, J., Douwes, R., de Jong, M. and Pruyn, A. (2006). Organizational identification during a merger: Determinants of identification with the new organization, British Journal of Management. (Vol. 17 pp, S49-S67).
  • Carter, H.R. (2001). It's all about me. Conshohocken, PA: Lyons Publishing
  • Gleibs, Mummendey, A. and Noack, P. (2008). Predictors of change on postmerger identification during a merger process: A longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 95, No. , 1095-1112
  • Ling, J.D. (2001). Fire department consolidation: A view from those effected. Ypsilanti, MI: School of Fire Staff and Command. Eastern Michigan University.
  • Reeger, J. (2008). Fire department mergers ahead. Pittsburgh, PA: The Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Retrieved on August 24, 2010.
  • Weidner, J.S (2010). Strength in numbers. Fire Chief Magazine, vol. 54, no. 5. p. 36-37.

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