An Advisory Committee Can be a Chief's and Fire Marshal's Friend

April 23, 2008
The make-up of this committee can be anything you or your chief thinks will best represent the needs of the department and the community.

Is your department struggling with ways to come up with more money? What about differing views on building a fire station in a location other than where your governing board, commission or council thinks it should be? Is there community debate about EMS transport? Is it time to establish a retrofit fire sprinkler ordinance? Do you need more inspection staff? If these or other issues are prevalent in your community, you may consider establishing a Fire Department Advisory Committee.

Many fire departments report to a board of directors, a city council, county commission or town board. Fire departments also may have established a Fire Board of Appeals to address fire code related issues. While these organizations handle issues related to the function and operation of the fire department, these groups can be politically charged and may or may not be functioning in your fire department's favor. In either case, these entities would likely be served beneficially by the development of a separate advisory or customer service committee.

Why would we even consider this? Is this just creating another hurdle for the fire departments? Let's take a look at and example of the issue of funding. Policy makers are generally responsible for collecting and disbursing funds to the fire department and other governmental entities or programs. In doing so, it frequently becomes a struggle to balance all the community needs and make ends meet. Constituents will argue for parks and recreation, the police department will typically make their case for more personnel and public works can almost always use more money to fill potholes. In all this clamoring for funds, the policy makers are sucked into debates trying to make the best decision for the entire community. What better ways to help them decide than by helping them see all the issues through the input of an advisory committee?

If your department establishes a well-balanced advisory committee their influence on policy makers can be astounding. The make-up of this committee can be anything you or your chief thinks will best represent the needs of the department and the community. Obviously, you don't want it made up solely of people who have known allegiances to the fire department. This would be very suspect and dilute the legitimate function that should be performed.

An example distribution could be a representative from insurance, a contractor, a developer, neighborhood association representative, a banker, a large and small business representative, and maybe a member at large. This diverse group of people can provide varied perspective on the fire department issues, gather lots of support from various constituents, serve as a sounding board for new programs and serve as a good conduit for dissemination of information. The committee should be indicative of the groups, cultures, and diversity found in the community you serve.

The key to having a successful advisory committee is to make sure they are informed and aware of fire department functions and operations. This can take some time and our caution is not to rush the process. The fire service is complex and typically there are many issues lay people are simply unaware of.

Start simple and cover the basics. A good mission statement can be critical. Bring in experts in various fire department divisions and let them meet as many people in the department as possible. Let them get a flavor of the talent and expertise the fire department has to offer. Allow division heads to form relationships with the advisory group to enable information to flow as easily as possible. Provide opportunities for the advisory group to observe your training, your work such as inspections, and make them feel they are important. Create a specialized shirt or jacket for them to give them an identity. Don't forget to educate your department and elected officials who the advisory group members are and what is their role. Once you have formed your relationship and got them up to speed, load them up with issues to evaluate. The group will enjoy the involvement and your department will reap the rewards of their support.

Once they are comfortable, engage them with hard questions. Ask them if they think you should have a budget increase? Ask them if fire prevention is a function that the fire department should perform? Ask them how you can perform your inspections better or if you should do them more frequently? If you have done your job of helping them understand what you do, they will see the need and be a strong advocate. However, be ready for some answers you didn't expect. Sometimes they will tell you something you didn't want to hear or at the very least, didn't expect to hear. Now, the good news is those answers are generally very important for you to hear. They will likely head off contentious issues with your policy makers before it gets ugly. If they help you find a solution, they will also be the first ones in your court helping persuade your policy makers. The group provides you with the voices of the community.

Some chiefs and fire marshals feel this type of participation is unnecessary or even a hindrance. We would propose however, it can be a very smart progressive move, particularly if you are moving into rough political waters. The advisory group can be a strong voice for you but insulate you from being on the end of the spear in many cases. Remember if this group has a concern they can share with you, it is likely a concern of many within the community. This deserves to be listened to before it becomes a bigger issue! Remember, if you establish the ground rules early, you can agree to disagree with them too. This type of respectful interaction is proof certain of your trusting relationship with your community.

BRETT LACEY, a Contributing Editor, is the Fire Marshal for the Colorado Springs, CO, Fire Department and a professional engineer. He has over 27 years in the fire service and has served on various technical committees including NFPA 1031, IFSTA committee for Inspection practices, and Fire Detection and Suppression Systems and the Colorado Fire Marshal's Association Code Committee. PAUL VALENTINE, a Contributing Editor, is the Fire Marshal for the Mount Prospect, IL, Fire Department and formerly served as their fire protection engineer. He has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology from Oklahoma State University and a Master of Science Degree in Management and Organizational Behavior from Benedictine University and is a graduate from the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Brett and Paul co-authored Fire Prevention Applications, published by Fire Protection Publications. They also presented a webcast titled Fire Prevention Applications on Firehouse TrainingLIVE. To read their complete biographies and view their archived articles, click here. You can reach Paul by e-mail at: [email protected].

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