Almost every department across the country has has that one neighboring department. The one department that five, ten, or twenty years ago did something to shake the foundation of trust. From that incident, years of rumors, distrust, and animosity grew between your departments. You’re naive to think these situations don’t exist because they do, and they’re every bit as dangerous as the IDLH environments we face. How in today’s modern fire service can we allow generational distrust to cause a dangerous situation where services are delayed, denied, and lives put in jeopardy?
Situations like this ultimately boil down to failed leadership. The leadership on boths ends has allowed this one incident to fester, grow, and evolve into utter distrust. The question becomes, how do we tear down that wall of ignorance and distrust? It’s really not an overly complicated solution, it boils down to being a courageous self-leader and baby steps. Courageous leaders without rank, or informal ones have just as much power to influence the organization as a chief does. For starters, do we even know what the root cause of the problem is? Start by reaching out to those on the other side who want to foster a new relationship just like you. If you honestly start asking what the root causes are, you can almost guarantee you’ll be shocked by the answers you’ll receive.
Recently, our department went through a similar situation. Our volunteer department serves a smaller area, but we're sandwiched between three, larger suburban city areas. With increasing runs, declining manpower, it was clear we needed to make a change to how we provided services to our taxpayers and our adjoining departments. When we started our background investigation as to why the relationship was the way it was the responses we got were actually surprising. Some pertained to some serious concerns over the years. Others were minor communication issues that negativity filled, and others were darn right hilarious. Thankfully for us, communication and restored trust over several years has created an unbreakable bond between several of our neighboring departments.
Why is our story important for you? The relationships that were formed and restored all began at the lowest levels. The firefighters who sought change, began talking more, attending trainings together, and pushed for joint-training opportunities. Our members became the instruments of change. Slowly, as our dependence and communication grew, so did the lost trust. What once stood as an awkward chance meeting at a mutual aid call, now seems like a long overdue reunion. Every neighboring department can offer your department something. However, being in that critical window is not the time to start figuring out solutions to age old problems. Get out there and network with your area members and officers. One of the best parts of the fire service today is the ability to quickly network, share ideas, and provide learning opportunities for our members. If and when problems or concerns arise, quickly address them and stomp out the negativity. Help be the instrument for positive change, with or without stripes. The extra effort you put into developing relationships with your neighboring departments will be one day prove it’s worth. Trust us, the results are real and amazing to see! Be the courageous self-leader and move your department forward.
Matt Beakas currently serves with Middleton Township Fire & Rescue in northwest Ohio. He holds a Master’s Degree in Administrative Leadership and his primary mission is to bring mentoring and leadership skills from his education background to improve and strengthen volunteer departments across the country. He is the founder of “Enlightened Leadership.” A program of passionate instructors dedicated to improving leadership skills. Check out his group on Facebook and Twitter.