Perception and Reality

Nov. 7, 2005
A recent message from one of you kind folks out there in Reader-Land got me thinking the other day. It was a short but cogent comment that begged me to take it to the next level. It involved a short observation on the difference between the perception of what people think our fire departments can do for them and the reality of what can really be accomplished. Here is the comment from the kindly soul out there in Pennsylvania.

A recent message from one of you kind folks out there in Reader-Land got me thinking the other day. It was a short but cogent comment that begged me to take it to the next level. It involved a short observation on the difference between the perception of what people think our fire departments can do for them and the reality of what can really be accomplished. Here is the comment from the kindly soul out there in Pennsylvania.

"I just finished reading your article, Flexibility: The Key to Living a Life in 2005. I agree with you concerning our society. I know many business and fire service leaders who think they can use their education to manage problems away, by giving the public and elected officials the perception that they are providing the best service. The fact is these leaders do not have the staffing, equipment or most importantly the financial support to back up their claims."

Let me make a critical initial comment. That lack of the ability to get the job done does not stop some people. They are trust BS-Artists. They can create a beautiful picture for their communities based upon the age-old combination of a good quality of smoke and some really great mirrors. This man was right on target. Sadly, far too many of our folks in positions of leadership use their education and training to weave an intricate web of falsehoods and deceit.

These folks are unwilling to face reality and provide a true assessment of their agency's capabilities to their citizens and their local governments. They create elaborate ruses to drive the wolf of reality away from the doorstep of their lives. These people create elaborate plans which have absolutely no basis in reality. It is their belief that by building these elaborate glass-houses made of transparent lies they are in fact providing their communities with a modicum of security.

My friends, the only security these prevaricators are interested in is their own job security. Their efforts will not withstand the onslaught of actual emergency circumstances. One needs to look no further than the failed response of the local, state, and federal governments to Hurricane Katrina in order to see the consequences of major plans which are crafted in the absence of reality.

Bear in mind that when I say failed in this instance, I mean failed at all levels. No one at any level within the response scheme can escape being tarred with the brush of blame in the Katrina instance. One need only compare the giant emergency plan prepared by New Orleans with the specter of the hundreds of hundreds of school busses swamped in their parking places to see the disconnect between perception and reality.

This becomes an even more apt comparison when you compare the swamped busses with the newspaper pictures of school bus loads of people being evacuated in Texas to make this point. It is no one's fault outside of New Orleans that their plan was a sham. It was the proverbial house of cards that quickly crumbled when the first winds struck the Big Easy.

My point here is simple. The massive pointing of fingers at the federal government must be tempered by the fact that the perception of preparedness put forward by New Orleans and the State of Louisiana paled in comparison to the reality of what happened when the disaster actually occurred.

This is but one example among many. What happened in the Gulf region is a disaster on the macro scale. It is a horrendous event which would challenge the skill and mettle of any well-prepared emergency service agency. So it should not be the standard which we should use to justify our every day operations.

We need to create future-oriented plans that can escalate during times of major emergency, but we also need to keep our eye on the prize of taking care of our routine, day-to-day business. With that in mind, let me now turn my attention to a critical everyday-issue in our nation. I am referring to the untold thousands of fire departments which are masquerading as real, all-service, community-oriented protective agencies.

These are easy for you and I to find, because we know that which we should be looking for. If you are in the business of providing fire and EMS protection you should have a handle on how it should all work. However, the public has to put their faith in us to provide a life-saving service to them. That is what these charlatans depend upon to succeed in their nefarious doings.

What does a citizen know about the fire department? They know that we come when they call. They see our fire stations and feel safe. They peer in through the windows of those stations, see big shining red (or some other unnatural colored) fire vehicles and are comforted. They are unaware of the fact that two people arriving on a pumper is an inadequate level of service level. They just see the fire truck.

In the volunteer world, they see us in the big parades and come to our fund-raising events. In the career world, they see us when we visit their schools, travel the streets of the community or respond to their emergencies. What they do not know is that we may be a hollow shell of a fire department passing ourselves off as what we once were.

A citizen usually only cares about how well we deliver our services when we come to their home. Since these same people usually believe that fires only happen to other people, they do not expect to see us, so that if there are not enough of us to get the job done, who cares. They can still drive by our stations, look in at our equipment, and feel really good.

It is at this point where the divergence between perception and reality begins to create some serious problems. How many fire departments are you aware of which consider two people on one pumper to be a sufficient response? How many of you know about fire departments which have more equipment than they have people on duty, or available, to drive all of it.

It is my belief that there are people in very responsible fire service positions who are serving as practicing penurious prevaricators. What I mean to say is that they lie so well in the pursuit of saving money that Persian rugs call them for advice. There must be some sort of defective gene within their psyches which allows them to create masterful tales of deceit, sell them to an unsuspecting government and an unknowing public, and then go home for a good night's sleep.

How else can we explain why there are fire departments in North America which have one or two people on duty? It is almost as though these few on-duty people are being used like the parakeets which once served as the gas detection system for bad atmospheres down in the depths of the mines of our nation. When the parakeet in the cage passed out, the miners knew it was time to bail out of the mine.

As you might expect, there were some tragic failures with this particular type of mine safety protective system. So it is too with those woefully under-staffed fire departments which send two or three people to a fire and then brag to the public about the cost-effective protection that their department is providing. These fire chiefs supply the mirrors and then when there is a fire they deflect the smoke with the mirrors.

My words to you are simple. You need to begin demanding the truth from the people who are "leading" your fire departments. Bear in mind that I use the word leader advisedly. You must also remember that for many of these people, the truth is not a known commodity.

These folks have been stretching the truth for so long that they might not know the truth if it landed on their heads. In my training course on fire service budgeting I specifically offer the advice that a wise leader needs to be armed with three things in the battle for budgeting bucks. Presuming that they are honest and truthful (a stretch in many cases), these folks need to arm themselves with three things:

  1. Facts
  2. Figures
  3. Friends

These attributes can make the job easier. Stick to the facts. Use truthful figures to sell your story. Develop a network of friends in the community, and within government, who will support you.

Let me close with a simple thought. It takes years to build a reputation. It only takes on lie (or act of betrayal) to destroy a reputation. I leave you to decide whether you want to deal with perceptions or with reality. My choice has been made. I leave you to yours.

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