Collective Influence and Positive Relationships

Two columns I've written in the past year addressed topics that have become increasingly important in recent months. Not that they weren't important before, but as of late, circumstances have arisen that shine a spotlight on them for very special reasons. The first column was titled "Positive and Productive Labor/Management Relations: More Important Than Ever" (September 2009) and the second was titled "Fire Departments and Politics" (July 2010).

The focus of the first column was on developing positive labor/management relationships inside fire departments and the value that doing so can bring to the organization. The column said that "anytime decisions that affect local service delivery and safety are being made outside of the fire department by consultants, city or state administrators, or elected officials, there is the possibility that the leadership inside the fire department will have the need to use their collective capabilities to develop a joint strategy to positively influence those decisions and the plans that emerge from them. When there isn't any collective capability between labor and management leaders in the first place because of a history of negativity and conflict, it makes the fire department even more vulnerable to external decisions that can be devastating to the organization, its members, and the public."

The second column's primary message was that productive political involvement by fire department leaders and labor officials is critical to the level of influence that can be brought to the decision-making process. The column makes the point that "fire department resources can be regulated almost entirely by the decisions that are made within various political processes." It goes on to say, "If a fire department's leaders don't get involved in the political process, they cannot expect to receive a high level of political support on a consistent basis." This is best achieved when labor does the things they do best and management does what they do best to collectively influence external decisions that can impact the safety of the public and the safety of firefighters.

The current economic environment in our nation is causing local, county and state levels of government, as well as fire districts, to be even more cautious and selective about the way they spend money. Fire departments have been asked to reduce their budgets significantly while still providing quality service to the public. However, in some cases, the economic situation is being used by people in positions of authority outside the fire department as an excuse to act out old agendas. One area of focus by these opportunists is outsourcing certain services currently provided by the fire department. As of late, there seems to be a renewed interest in outsourcing the ambulance transport component of fire service-based EMS systems, especially systems that service metropolitan areas.

A paper recently published by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association alerts fire chiefs and union leaders to a push that seems to be underway. They note that a very large private ambulance service provider has made proposals to several Metro Chiefs cities to replace the local fire department (in part or in full) as the provider of ambulance service. According to this document, "the impetus for (these) efforts is clearly the economic downturn and the budgetary shortfall in many municipalities. …They target cities with reported deficits where fire department resources are on the table." Their proposals contain the same old myths that have been asserted in the past, and the IAFC-IAFF-Metro Chiefs document does a good job of noting the facts that dispel each myth.

This jointly published document makes the point that "fire chiefs and IAFF union presidents would be wise to anticipate a contact in their jurisdictions and should be proactive in developing a strategy to successfully address it before there is a proposal on the table. A key to any response to a (private provider) threat or actual proposal is open and productive labor/management communications. Management and labor must be able to work together to protect their local fire department-based EMS system." They go on to assert that "the importance of communications and positive relationships with appointed and elected public officials cannot be overstated. This should be an ongoing effort of both labor and management and can be critical to preventing a (private provider) proposal from being solicited or gaining any momentum."

I couldn't agree more with the suggestions of the IAFC, IAFF and Metro Chiefs concerning this critical threat to fire service deployment models in many jurisdictions. Their document brought me back to the two previous columns I referenced earlier. If labor and management can't deal with each other in a positive and productive way, and if the union leadership and fire department management can't (or won't) use their collective political influence to address critical issues like outsourcing, it opens the door for private providers to pick away at our critical emergency response resources.

DENNIS COMPTON, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of several books, including his newest offering titled Progressive Leadership Principles, Concepts and Tools. He has also authored the three-part series of books titled When in Doubt, Lead, the book Mental Aspects of Performance for Firefighters and Fire Officers, as well as many articles, chapters and other publications. Compton was the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and as assistant fire chief in Phoenix, AZ, where he served for 27 years. Compton is the past chair of the Executive Board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) and past chair of the Congressional Fire Services Institute's National Advisory Committee. He is also chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Board of Directors and the chairman of the Home Safety Council Board of Directors.