Fire chiefs and labor officials are telling anyone who will listen that the current economic times are presenting some of the most difficult operational and political challenges they have faced in their careers. Budgets are being slashed in our cities and states, and fire departments have been unable to avoid being on the receiving end of some of these reductions.
Difficult times can be times of opportunity — opportunities to strengthen the working relationships among the parties while solving difficult problems, or opportunities for elected officials, administrators, chief officers or even a union to take advantage of the situation in a way that is not productive, not in the best interest of the parties involved, and not with sufficient focus on the safety of the public and the firefighters.
A statement jointly released on July 30, 2009, by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association said in part, "We acknowledge the current economic reality. The value of the assets used to generate local government revenue has plummeted. Local governments across North America are contemplating or proposing decreases in size and/or reductions in the span and depth of their services. The fire service is often caught up in that contraction. We must weather this storm by having a realistic strategy grounded in the safety and security of firefighters, paramedics and the public at large." The statement goes on to give some direct and valid advice on dealing with decisions that impact staffing, service delivery and safety.
With that said, whenever 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 need to use its 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. This is a critical example of why an ongoing positive and productive relationship between labor and management leaders becomes so important in a fire department.
The IAFF and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) have for years taken the lead in encouraging the development of positive, productive and effective labor/management relations and processes. They have even co-hosted excellent conferences for their members in an effort to show them the way to a more effective system and to share success stories. This curriculum includes learning to use their individual and collective political and professional influence to weigh-in up front and during the development of external decisions that impact the fire department, public safety and firefighter safety.
The fire service is in a time when this capability is as important as ever. Ideally, it was in place before the current crisis unfolded, but if not, it's still not too late to start working on building them. Bottom line, joint planning and joint problem-solving can enhance the quality of organizational decisions in good times and in difficult times.
It's important that the fire service listens to the IAFF, the IAFC and the Metro Chiefs in their efforts to strengthen the collective capability and influence of our departments at the local level of politics, administration and decision-making. The fire departments that have taken this philosophy and approach to heart and invested time in planning and working together in the past have been able to use the processes they have in place to help them today — and those that have not have found the current situation even more difficult for a variety of reasons.
When labor and management are constantly at odds on internal matters, dealing with external challenges together can be almost impossible. Perhaps our current economic crisis will be the catalyst for future improvement in fire departments that have struggled with their internal labor/management working relationships. After all, it's probably more important now than ever and it could be one of the good things (opportunities) that will come out of all of this in the end.
DENNIS COMPTON, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of several books, including the When in Doubt, Lead series. He is also co-editor of the current edition of the ICMA textbook Managing Fire and Rescue Services. Compton was the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and 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.