Fire Chiefs: Building Relationships, Forging Partnerships

July 9, 2024
Jared Renshaw urges fire chiefs to get out of the office and into the community as much as possible, to ensure that no opportunity to increase the department's level of service is missed.
Upper-level management in any fire department plays a pivotal role in facilitating the organization’s capability for navigating through challenges and ensuring its continued effectiveness. The fire chief, deputies and assistants bear significant responsibilities, which range from strategic planning and resource allocation to the management of personnel and conducting community relations.
In times of crisis or forced changes, such as budget cuts, staffing shortages and evolving regulatory requirements, these leaders must make difficult decisions to maintain operational readiness while upholding the department’s mission and standards of service. This might involve implementing innovative solutions, restructuring operations, and advocating for resources and support from stakeholders. The fire chief, as the person who is the ultimate authority and decision-maker, shoulders the greatest burden. This person must possess not only strong leadership and executive-level prowess but also a deep understanding of the complexities and dynamics of the 21st century fire service. That said, fire chiefs can’t do this by sitting back and waiting for it to come to them. Being aggressive puts the emphasis back onto the people who fire chiefs serve, ensuring that the fire chief is at his/her best when the members need them the most.
This same mantra should be applied to how fire chiefs lead their department. This isn’t about how they dictate operational readiness or on-scene tactics but how they can increase their effectiveness at the managerial level by building relationships, entering into partnerships and not letting an opportunity pass them by.
Community engagement
Fire chiefs who have any amount of time under their belt in that position likely can recall instances when members of the community were their biggest cheerleaders—either speaking on behalf of the agency at a public municipal meeting, writing to elected officials about a job well done or giving support in other ways.
Those members who ride the rigs are the ones who make public contacts on a regular basis. Typically, they are responsible for most of the community support that a department can expect to receive. This isn’t to say that the fire chief role isn’t critical, but handling the paperwork and sending emails don’t save lives and protect property.
A fire chief is the public face of the department. A department’s name and the fire chief’s name are synonymous, whether this be in a large city or a small town. Being present in the community outside of emergency responses should be part of every fire chief’s job description. If it isn’t, a good fire chief will make it a priority, knowing its value.
Having access to the municipal calendar and to social media and other outlets is a great way for a fire chief to know what events will happen and when. Time must be afforded to fit these into one’s schedule, even if it means working on a weekend and in the evenings.
The return for the fire chief and for the department might not always be one that’s fiscal  in nature, but the fire chief’s presence will yield something that a price can’t be put on. Or can it? Fire chiefs will be able to leverage these opportunities for department gain and growth, and they might have fun while they’re at it, by engaging with the people who are in the community in places where those people feel comfortable and when the pressure is off.
Community partnerships
It isn’t a secret that the cost of doing business has increased exponentially over the past couple of years. This has caused fire chiefs to get creative with budgeting and to frequently shift funds that should be used for A to pay for B.
Take the concept of the traditional boot drive and make it more formal, replacing the boot with emails, letters and face-to-face meetings. Survey the community to see what potential partnerships are out there, then do your homework, including possibly with differing businesses, corporations and civic groups. Besides the desire to help the department, a lot of such entities look for ways to give to benefit themselves, such as tax write-offs and the good media coverage that comes with the donation.
Designate department projects as needs and wants. Build a good rapport with management, and when the time is right, ask to present these to them, to ask for the help to fund them. If your project is fully funded, that’s a win. It also is a win even with partial funding.
In the case of receiving partial funding, group a few donors together to make the project succeed in total. When the equipment arrives—if that was the goal of the project—and is ready to be placed into service, you must give credit to where credit is due. Ask to get pictures with the donor’s management and staff, to use on social media platforms, where you can thank them. Be sure to tag donors, so the department’s followers can access the donors’ social media accounts easily, which might help to generate future business for those who donated.
Also, submit a press release to media outlets and ask them to cover the donation.
Finally, it’s critical to remember to thank those who donated in a public municipal meeting, because this puts the donation on the record.
Beyond local
State and federal elected officials are among a fire chief’s best allies.
Most of the time, these relationships are deemed most effective when some form of grant funding or other monetary goal is involved.
Asking for their support, either through a sponsorship, letter of support or lobbying on your behalf, likely will be key to ensuring success.
State and federal elected officials also can be of assistance when fire chiefs want new legislation or policies, when they seek to gain resources that can benefit the agency or when they want to improve the fire service as a whole.
In my experience, elected officials’ staffers always are willing to help, but having the ability to speak face to face with the officials themselves is what fire chiefs really want to happen. This provides the chance to advocate for the department and leave that lasting impression, something beyond just another name or number on a piece of paper.
Elected officials’ schedule for when they are either in or out of session likely is very full. Persistence—as well as flexibility—is required, to ensure that the time that’s needed of those officials is able to be obtained.
Creating opportunities
The job of fire chiefs always is evolving. The one constant is the requirement to get out of the office and to immerse themselves in what’s happening around them, not only within their local municipality but within the region and state and throughout the country. These interactions will produce opportunities that can show true benefits, which can assist in being able to provide a high level of service, for any all-hazards agency.

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About the Author

Jared Renshaw

Jared Renshaw has more than 20 years of experience in the fire service. He started his fire service career with the Fairview Volunteer Fire Department in South Fayette Township, PA. Renshaw also served with career departments in South Carolina and California and since 2015 has served as the fire commissioner with the Western Berks Fire Department in Berks County, PA. He holds a bachelor's degree in fire service administration and is designated as a Chief Fire Officer through the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). Renshaw  serves as a Peer Reviewer for the CPSE and as a member of the board of directors for the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute. He is a member of the advisory boards for Firehouse and Firehouse Expo.

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