Lately, much has been made of the importance of a fire department’s (and its personnel’s) reputation. There is no doubt that the traditionally high public approval of the fire and emergency service has declined in many communities–and some would say at the national level, too. Even if your department hasn’t been raked across the coals by a broad spectrum of cable news shows yet, make no mistake that your department is in the spotlight. As the chief, it is your responsibility to make sure the light shining on your department is a positive one.
Perception as Reality
Reputation, by design, is a matter of perception. The biggest challenge of building and maintaining a good reputation is the constant pull between what is actually taking place and what is perceived as taking place. All of this is complicated further by the number of audiences (e.g., personnel, union, elected leaders, community) involved–audiences whose perceptions will likely vary.
There are a number of ways to ensure your perception and reality remain aligned: the development of open channels of communication, consistent means of data collection and analysis, quality customer service, and even taking a proactive posture in “marketing” the success of the department.
None of this means that you need to please all the people all the time. We often need to act decisively for the good of the organization, regardless of whether some dislike and don’t understand our decisions. In fact, attempts to build a good reputation by “staying out of trouble” will likely create a reputation of inefficiency and weakness. A good reputation requires a constant eye on the best ways to protect your community, advance your personnel and improve efficiencies. It requires balancing tactics and administration. It embraces the best of our traditions, while taking an active role in shaping an even greater future.
How do you accomplish this? A team approach is essential. To stay focused on the breadth of the organization, it’s important to have a team of chief and company officers who have the tools, authorities and understanding of the issues to manage the depths of the organization and constantly contribute to the positive reputation of the department.
But what are these tools and authorities and what are the issues that need to be understood? In order to establish and achieve the strategic vision for your department’s reputation, you must pay attention to the many details related to specific policies and procedures covering conduct, technology, tactics, information sharing, training, education and more. The IAFC and other fire and emergency service associations can be great resources for tapping the knowledge and experience of your peers and finding models to build from; ultimately, however, you will need to build a process that reflects the mission and values of your department and even the laws of your community.
Handle It Well
As with a personal reputation, a department reputation can take years to build and a moment to destroy. The action of one member can be the downfall of not only the chief, but every man and woman in the department. It is critical that when things do go wrong, fire service leaders have the full understanding of what actions they can take to address the situation quickly, the broader impact of those actions, and how to articulate the process openly to the department, elected officials and the public. Oftentimes, people will remember an incident for how it was handled more than the incident itself.
The fire service is a microcosm of our society. We, like any other profession or other group of people, have “bad people” in our midst. We also have good people who make bad decisions, and good people who find themselves in bad situations. We must be prepared for all these scenarios, but we must also take an active role in ensuring that in bad times, people see the good in us.
A department and its leadership’s reputation go hand in hand. Read more from Chief Parow on building your professional reputation in the Oct. 15 issue of IAFC On Scene at www.iafc.org/onscene.