Let me begin this visit with you by citing a simple principle. There are no free lunches in this world. A corollary to this might be, "…if it looks too good to be true, then it probably isn't. You might remember that I noted this concept in my commentary on the fire department which did not fight the fire in Tennessee late in September. I want to thank you all for making that my most well-read piece in a long, long time. Your comments have gotten the juices flowing in my think tank once again. Now that they have been mixed with the requisite amount of cigar smoke out on my thinking porch, I believe that I am ready to share them with you.
One of the indisputable facts of life is that everything has a price. Make no mistake about it. When I say everything, I mean everything. The words you are reading were created on my computer. The computer was not a gift, nor did it come from a giveaway. I chose this computer and the Dell Corporation sent me what I desired. But they only sent it to me when I allowed them access to my credit card for the necessary cost of buying the unit. There was a cost involved.
My favorite chiropractor Dr. Tim Hayes has taken care of me for nearly a quarter of a century now. I am actually patient number 0001 in his practice. We are buddies, and we get along very well. However, we have a long-standing agreement. He treats me for my pain and suffering and my insurance company and I pay him for the good things he does. This has worked well for a long time. I know there is a price to be paid, but that does not stop me. The price that I pay keeps the pain away. To me that is a really important exchange.
A great number of people in our nation have never come to understand this business of each thing we receive in our lives having a price (or attendant cost). You see this on the news all the time when someone is highlighted for protesting a cut in this program or that program. Rather than realizing there is a price to be paid, these people prattle on about what they are entitled to and how hard life is without their chosen array of government services.
They are only protesting because the cuts affect their friends and them. If we are not careful, you and I can be cast into this same sort of situation when we complain publicly about the impact of budgetary cuts on fire protection services in our communities. While it seems to make sense to complain about our lot in life, we need to go beyond the standard ranting and raving about how lives will be lost if our services are cut. Rare is the case when you can prove that point.
Let me suggest to you my friends that we all need to do more than simply bitch and moan. You and I have seen the impact of fire, and all manner of emergencies, upon the people we have been called to help. We know the chaos and confusions which a lack of staff, equipment, or apparatus can bring to our communities. Rather than crying over spilled mile, we need to gather the requisite facts and tell the very simple story of how everything has a price.
This is not a difficult task to perform. But as I have said for more than a quarter of a century now, you need to arm yourself with three very important things. You must have the three F's:
Just what are the facts in your community? I received an email from a fire chief down south who told me a very stark tale. He indicated that his department receives no support from the town where his fire department was located, nor was there any form of assistance from the county or state where his department operated. How, he asked me, could he operate without any form of support?
It was this sort of situation which drove his department to charge a service fee to the citizens they choose to protect. If you want to call it a subscription fire department, so be it. Incidentally, he did indicate that he would not let a building burn down for want of an unpaid fee. I urge him not to mention this, because people might stop paying. However, it is largely because of his words to me that I crafted this message to you all today.
Through the mechanism and content of this commentary, I am urging him to tell this story to his citizenry. I invite him to use the example of how many fish must be fried, or pancakes sold in order to buy the equipment he needs. Above all, I am urging him to be completely truthful in the telling of his story to the many factions which exist within his community.
Here is where the issue of figures comes in. You need to develop a story based upon the real cost of delivering fire protection in you community. It is critical to be able to tell people just how much it costs to deliver fire protection. Use such data as number of responses, locations where fires and other emergencies have occurred, and injuries caused by the emergencies. Add to this the costs for equipment, apparatus, insurance, and incidentals. To the greatest extent possible, make your story personal.
There is one really important reason why you have to make your story as personal as possible. Fire is usually perceived as being a problem for the "other guy." If a person has never had a fire, or an electrical issue, or a car wreck, these are not things about which that person will pause and ponder. Make them feel your story in their hearts.
You need to devote time on a continual basis to developing friendships among the citizens in your community. Many times it will be awkward for you to put your arguments forward in a public venue. People will perceive you as having a selfish, personal agenda to push. They will not listen as closely as you might need them to. However, if you can have a delegation of non-fire related citizens speaking up on your behalf it will normally be better received by the powers-that-be in your community.
You need to become a member of various community groups. You need to be perceived as a member of your community. I have told you this story before, but it bears telling again. There are many parts to my life. My memberships include the Elks, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and the Masonic Lodge where I served as Master. I have a variety of friends, associates, and fellow travelers. I have helped them on occasion and they have taken time to periodically return the favor.
There are also folks from my local church, as well as high school classmates who live nearby and have assisted me during difficult elections for the Board of Fire Commissioners here in my home district. I have proven myself to them over the decades and they are well aware that my fellow commissioners and I are working to provide fire protection at the lowest possible cost. It is easy to win people over when your figures are correct and persuasive.
It is important for me to offer you hope in your battle for better fire protection funding in your area. Over time it has been my experience that things get worse from time to time and then things get better. However, many times things might never have gotten better were it not for the efforts of hard-working, dedicated folks like you and me. I am asking you to provide a factual story to your community. I am asking you to tell the truth. There are those who have long held that the truth will set you free. I believe that we should all stick with the truth, mainly because it is the ethical thing to do.
There is that group of people who avoids the truth, because no one ever taught them what the truth was. These people grew up telling people what they thought those folks wanted to hear. They convinced themselves that what they were selling was the truth, because they did not know the truth. In the end, they wander around the truth like nomads in the deserts of the Middle East.
Many times people will urge you to tell the truth and then they will glance over one of the critical side effects of telling the truth. I shall not glance over this hard truth. Telling the truth can make people really mad. People often want to hear what they want to hear. They have some fanciful picture of how the world works. When you show up telling the hard facts which often make up the truth, let me assure you that these same people will turn on you. They will abuse you and try to sending you on your way.
It is because of this fear of abuse that many people avoid telling the hard truths in those times when they are sorely needed. They do now want to cause a hubbub to occur. They want a life of peace and quiet. These folks want to be everyone's friend. Let me assure you of one thing. You can never be everyone's friend. Conflicting views are a way of life and one of the most important things you can learn to do in your career is to be able to meet with others and agree to disagree.
Let me close this visit with you by making a single, bold and solid statement. In order to tell the truth you must know what you believe in as a person. You need to develop a solid moral compass to guide your actions. But there is another little element with which you must learn to arm yourself.
You need to develop a tough skin. Many times people will not buy your true story. Many times people will listen to you with their minds all clogged up with preconceived notions. You cannot tell who these people are or when you will encounter them.
What you must remember is that in the final analysis, you will be charged with delivering some level of fire protection. It might not be what it should be, and it might not be what you want it to be, but it will be all that your citizenry allows you to do. That is why your honesty is so critical.
You need to tell people what they can expect from you. You must also tell them what they cannot expect. I have seen this at work in a number of places. Forward-thinking fire chiefs have told the public what they honestly believe they can provide.
When something occurs which results in a serious, negative outcome which lies outside of their department's ability to handle, at the least public was warned. The truth may not set you free, but it will serve as a solid base for the improvements you will be working on over time.
Yes, you may fail in your efforts, but there is also the chance that you will succeed. However, let me assure you that you will never have any chance of success should you fail to try. Do not let the winds of change and uncertainty blow you thither and yon like an autumn leave. Stand your ground. You’re your story and take your best shot. In the end, that is all you really can do.