The original title was going to be Fire Chief's as Change Managers and when I looked at the word Managers, it said to me that someone else has created the changed environment and all the Chief is doing is managing that environment. It's a lot like herding cats - difficult. In today’s challenging environments, Chiefs need to be more than managers; they need to be the Change Agents of our industry. Who better knows what we do and who is better prepared to promote those concepts to our elected officials, who through the course of the election cycle are here today and gone tomorrow. The only constant factor is the Fire Chief bridging the election cycle. Some Fire Chiefs are not good at promoting our industry for many reasons and if this is you, then let's have a discussion.
There is a lot of material about how to be a change agent and it all boils down to a position and power issue. Many of our leaders do not have that important seat at the decision making table and we lose the ability to influence change. Many chiefs are promoted from within, bringing the same culture they were indoctrinated with. Is it possible to be the change agent in your department when you are unsure of what changes you can make and how to accomplish those needed changes? Other Chiefs are hired from the outside to be the change agent for the department and fail miserably. What worked in your former department taking thirty years to accomplish, which made you attractive the new department may not work in a department expecting rapid changes in culture and improvement in services. The department remains unchanged and if fact may become less able to provide services. The elected officials are making the decisions affecting the fire department - mostly on the money side of the equation. Their mantra is to do more with less money as they have to cut the budget somewhere and the fire department is now in the danger zone.
There are many fine institution's that can teach the fire chief to be the change agent and enable to chief to place those ideas and concept before the city councils or commissioner groups to compete with the limited dollars to provide a safe and responsive services to your community. The National Fire Academy is one example and your local colleges teaching business management and finance are another. I spoke last month of the need for Experience vs. Education and there is a balance needed for the fire chief to be able to talk the talk to the elected officials.
Our services are changing nearly every day. We are asked to be the nation’s first responder, like we always have, but our role is changing with the additional tasks of national security for threat assessments, bombings, ricin attacks and other acts of terrorism. When did we sign up for that responsibility? Many departments have adapted to those changing needs but at what cost? It takes money and staff to respond to those incidents - and that money well is drying up. Is there another source of revenue available that we have not tapped into? Some of those revenue sources can be fee for services, attach a tax to the motor vehicle tabs or gasoline tax for emergency services. There are sources of revenue available and the change agent fire chief should be able to figure that out.
In my analysis as to the present crisis in our services, our leadership is failing to lead - hence failing to lead in a changing environment. Too many Chiefs are afraid to make the necessary changes so the department survives. Is it due to the fact of possibly losing their jobs by making waves at the city council or mayor level? There is an inordinate amount of pressure to maintain the status quo placed squarely on the Chief's shoulders and some Chiefs are resigning or threatening litigation against their own staff for the perceived lack of leadership. There is lots of pressure to maintain the status quo and at times it creates internal revolution.
There is a tremendous amount of internal and external pressures: unyielding department culture, tradition, rebellious staff technology, elected officials, union, citizens, call volume, changing missions, too many missions, lack of funding, lack of resources and many more placing pressure on the Chief to lead and the department to follow. Unfortunately we are less proactive and more reactive as we do not spend enough time in forecasting or predicting the future with hard facts about your service and the community, promoting those predictions to the elected officials, seeking a funding source and planning and implementing those changes.
Being the Chief of the Department is not a popularity contest and it's lonely at the top. Chiefs must make many hard decisions about the future of their fire department, the delivery model and the fire service as a whole. If the Chief is unable or unwilling to be the change leader, then please step aside and find another to take your place. There is a lot of work to be done if we are going to survive as a service industry.