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What we have addressed throughout this series is that times have changed and many fire departments no longer have the funding or support they once had. We are now required to justify our programs, services and budget expenditures more than perhaps we have been used to.
In our view, as the economy recovers, life is not likely to return to “normal” and a different leadership mindset is required. Progressive-thinking fire service leaders who have developed strong relationships and used metrics to drive decisions have found fewer surprises and experienced less heartburn over the new challenges we face. Managers who did not cultivate strong relationships and led by the seats of their pants are likely to face a challenging future. For the underprepared leader, this change is not just another “bump in the road.” Rather, it is going to be a long-term struggle.
Demonstrate your value
Throughout this series, we have emphasized the importance of metrics in providing quality data to justify our agenda and to frame the challenges or successes we experience while serving our communities. Because we have made the justification for metrics throughout this series, we will not focus on their use or value here. Rather, we will address key areas that progressive leaders can focus on to demonstrate value to the community.
Let’s examine the term “value” through two different lenses, neither of which is directly tied to fiscal needs. First, let’s look at value from the perspective of those we serve – our citizens and our communities.
The importance of building relationships through community engagement cannot be overstated. “It takes a village to raise a child” is a popular proverb with a clear message: the whole community has an essential role to play in the growth and development of its young people.
In our world, the same could be said – without strong community support, the growth and backing of our fire departments will suffer. When leaders do not understand this, community involvement may be regarded as a minor nuisance and is addressed ineffectively, or there may be a lack of knowledge as to how to engage the community. Either way, the result can be disastrous and the progression of the fire department can suffer.
Sharing your vision with the public means being able to effectively convey and share your plan in order to garner public support. An informed and engaged community can greatly enhance your department’s future success. Having an enlightened, involved and loyal citizenry often will turn the tide if policy makers are indecisive.
Engage your community
Getting out and engaging the community can be accomplished in many ways. We see fire departments engage their communities through many diverse forums. A few examples follow. Keep in mind this is not an exhaustive list.
Annual open house events, which showcase the department, are very popular. Many departments hold open house events in October in celebration of Fire Prevention Month. Some departments hold open house events throughout the year to focus on seasonal safety messages or highlight new activities. Neighborhood fire stations can gain citizen support through the same concept on a smaller scale. Some highlight their agencies in less-formal settings by hosting quarterly “breakfast with the firefighters” or similar events. These are win/win ventures; the community sees how their tax dollars are spent and the members get to interact with customers in a non-emergency setting.
Involvement in community groups is also an excellent way to get your story told and increase visibility for your organization. It can be valuable to join forces with other public safety providers in your community – police and EMS, for example. Service organizations (e.g., Kiwanis and Rotary) can offer valuable access to key community leaders as well. The audience you connect with through service organizations may offer you a different perspective on governance, management and long-range planning because many of their members are the most successful business leaders in your community.