Just Problems, Again?

Oct. 1, 2003
There is a Chinese proverb that can serve as both a blessing and a curse. I suppose that the double-edged statement may have something to do with the balance that Asian philosophers always seem to be seeking out in their lives. The "yin and yang" theory, as it were, is important to self-understanding and internal peace. The passage's English translation is, "May you live in interesting times." I dare say that the American fire-rescue service is in transformation making our time of service "very interesting," to say the least. Perhaps we are living in the greatest period of external and internal metamorphosis that our business has ever experienced. The only thing that seems certain anymore is that everything is changing.

During this time of uncertainty, there are many unanswered and perhaps unthought-of questions. A great place to start is, "What will be the financial impact to a department because of various external factors?" First, the fire chief must have the tenacity to ask the boss difficult questions without fear. This correlates to being secure and competent in holding the chief's post. Second, when the chief comes calling with a question, concern or problem, it makes sense that he or she will have an answer, or even two or three, prepared as well. When several effective and efficient options are provided for the strategic issue, the chief's "stock-in-trade" (value to the organization) goes up significantly. Hence, the title of this piece is, "Just Problems, Again?"

Several years ago, I conducted training sessions for a large (population and land area) fire department near a major summer resort. The operations chief was a very close friend of mine, Joe McNeese. It was painfully obvious that the department's resources were woefully inadequate to handle much more than a room-and-contents fire in a single-family dwelling. On major vacation weekends (Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day), the six or eight career members were responsible for protecting nearly a million visitors occupying every type of housing configuration known to mankind. Truly, the department could be overwhelmed with the same room-and-contents fire on the fifth or sixth floor of a high-rise condo.

Joe, being an excellent chief and responsible for the department's budget, regularly asked for dozens of new (additional) personnel in order to make his community's risk profile reasonable. When given the chance to address his governing body, he had many options for the board to consider. The selections were listed from the most objectionable to the much more plausible. As I recall, the elected officials allowed the department to add eight new starts per shift (24 total) and implemented a tourist tax (no local impact) to fund the positions.

I was fortunate enough to review another chief's proposal to greatly expand shift staffing. This chief used a comparison of the department's current ISO Class Ratings versus the revised rating with the additional members on duty. The savings were sizeable for residential policyholders and even more substantial for commercially insured occupancies. The end result was a favorable vote to significantly expand the staffing levels of the department based on the return on investment to the community.

In summary, when the fire chief is confronted with a difficult problem, I would strongly suggest carrying to your boss several solutions with the problem. Consider prioritizing the solutions that you offer up. If you place a possible remedy on the table, you'd better be capable of living with the results, if implemented. As a strategic approach, I suggest that you offer the most "far-out" possibilities first and save the most workable solutions for last.

Next, solve the problems that you can at your level without taking the issue "up the corporate ladder." This action can be a little risky if the city manager is a micro-manager and craves every detail. Hopefully, you are not in this type of situation. One way to measure the need to escalate a specific issue is to ask other trusted department heads for their opinions and if they think the problem is worthy of kicking it up to the front office. Most managers would say that if you are not sure, then ask away so that the city manager is not surprised by the department's emergency issue.

The danger in taking all issues (large and small) to your boss is that both your boss and your department will perceive you as a weak leader or manager. Try to find that proper balance between action and advice as soon as possible. You don't want to become a "habitual complainer" type of department head. You know, the one who is always showing up at the door with problems. Your boss will not look forward to seeing you (Pavlovian response) if you are always dumping on him or her.

Finally, if you can, try to position yourself to help solve broader problems in your community than just fire-rescue issues. Perhaps the city is striking out on a new housing initiative. The chief would be wise to be a participant in helping with such a major project - gaining a lot of respect and support from the manager along the way.

Dennis L. Rubin, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the city manager and public safety director for the City of Dothan, AL. He is a 30-year fire-rescue veteran, serving in many capacities and with several departments. Rubin holds an associate's degree in fire science from Northern Virginia Community College and a bachelor's degree in fire science from the University of Maryland, and he is enrolled in the Oklahoma State University Graduate School Fire Administration Program. Rubin is a 1993 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program and holds the national Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) certification and the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He serves on several IAFC committees, including a two-year term as the Health and Safety Committee chair. Rubin can be reached at [email protected].

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