Expert Teaches Ways to Avoid Killing Your Department

BALTIMORE – There are probably more than 10 ways to destroy a fire department, but that’s how many William Jenaway, a Firehouse Expo instructor outlined at a class he did Saturday morning.

Jenaway, who is the executive vice president of Volunteer Firemen’s Insurance Services (VFIS) educations, training and consulting, presented a class titled “10 Ways to Destroy Your Fire Department & How to Prevent Them.” In his 42 years in the fire service, including as chief of the King of Prussia (Pa.) Volunteer Fire Department, and his work with the VFIS, Jenaway has seen a lot of department-killing actions.

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“If you haven’t dealt with one of these in the past, you will in the future,” Jenaway said. “When you get shot at, it might be a glancing wound, or you could take it in the heart and you’re dead.”

Jenaway went into great details about each of the following 10 items: 1. Having no relationship, or a poor relationship with elected officials; 2. Have no agreed upon plan (vision, mission, strategic plan, goals, objectives or standard of cover); 3. No solid leadership; 4. Failure to understand your clientele; 5. No SOGs, policies, or rules to live by; 6. Overspending; 7. Don’t report your activities; 8. Don’t control the financial processes of the organization; 9. Maintain the organization as your father’s (or grandfather’s) fire department; 10. Don’t leave the fire station unless there’s a call.

Elaborating on the points, Jenaway said departments that don’t have solid relationships with the people who are elected are often left out when it comes time to decided budgets or purchase new equipment.

Likewise, those same elected officials will often want to have written objectives and plans for the fire departments because they have to answer to the taxpayers who want accountability.

“Elected officials are saying cut, cut, cut,” Jenaway said, noting that experts are predicting it will take five years for communities to get back where they were five years ago. “There’s going to be an extended period of austerity and they’re going to want to know what your plan is,” he said, cautioning that those departments who don’t have a plan will likely have one made for them.

Lack of strong leadership can often lead to the downfall of a fire department, Jenaway said noting there are four kinds of leaders for the fire service. The first is being like President Abraham Lincoln, a man known for his persuasive methods of getting people to do what was need, or on the opposite end, Attila The Hun, known for aggressive pillaging and leading with brute force.

Then, there are leaders like his father who was World War II veteran who ruled the department like it was part of the military, or leaders can be enlightened and working as 21st Century fire officers.

He said leaders who fail to accept direction from those who are in charge, like the elected officials, are headed their department into disaster.

To his fourth point, Jenaway said fire departments can get into trouble for failing to recognize the people who they serve. By example, he said he has watched fire departments in southern states disappear because they failed to adapt to the changes in demographics in their communities. Northerners demanded more and faster services than the all -volunteer departments were able to provide.

So, the northerners created a new county fire department and put two volunteer fire departments out of business.

“I have seen that happen six times in the last 12 months,” Jenaway said.

Standard operating guidelines shouldn’t be optional, Jenaway said, especially when there are automatic aid fire departments responding. When two departments work together and they sudden realize they don’t speak the same fire language, it can be problematic on the fire scene, he said.

Overspending is another way to kill a fire department, he said.

“Like a family at Christmastime, we see a new toy at Firehouse Expo and we go and buy that toy,” Jenaway said.

The consequences of overspending can be dramatic, he said, adding that one fire department he knows of bought a new fire engine for more than $400,000 and ended up not being able to afford it, even with monthly fundraising activities.

“They ended up having the truck repossessed and going back to 1972 Mack they had been running,” Jenaway said.

In the same light, Jenaway posed a question regarding incentives for firefighters. If a department over incentivizes its members, it might not have money to buy a couple of new nozzles it needs.

“Over spending can affect operations,” he said.

Jenaway said departments who don’t report their activities don’t make much of an impression on those who pay the bills – the taxpayers. So, when it comes time for new equipment, or money for operations, taxpayers have no idea why there’s a need and no idea what they will get for their money.

Along with overspending is the need to have control and checks and balances over the department’s funds, he said. Too often, it’s too easy for people to take money from fire department funds by embezzlement cases or outright theft.

Jenaway offered several methods for avoiding situations were money can be siphoned from departments, including regular audits, dual check authorization, allowing no relatives to be in charge of money and checks and balances for receiving cash and making bank deposits.

To the issue of being progressive leaders, Jenaway said the tendency to remain traditional, or stuck in the past is a sure-fire way of killing a department. Technology and techniques change over the years and departments need to keep up, or risk fading away, he said.

And lastly, Jenaway said fire departments need to be interactive with the community and not just a building with its doors closed and only seen responding to a fire.

“You need to be out in the community and involved,” Jenaway said. “You need to be out in front of the public’s eye or they forget what you are all about and there’s no value perception. So, get out there and do something.”