On a Mission

I pointed out in my last column (October 2006, p. 132) that regional difference can make the fire marshal’s role difficult to define. I often hear fire marshals wish a manual-or something-existed to better prepare them for the job when they began. This was one of the driving reasons behind the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) development of professional qualifications standard 1037, which, while taking regional difference into account, could not be written if fire marshals didn’t share a lot in common.

For example, whether you’re the only person in the “bureau” or you’re managing 200 staff members, all fire marshals must perform administrative duties. Another common requirement found in NFPA 1037: the need to “administer jurisdictional requirements related to the roles and responsibilities of the fire marshal.” But what the heck does that mean?

It means that fire marshals must understand the organizational structure and the mission of the agency, public or private, they work for. That might sound simple enough on the surface, but investigating this concept reveals its depth and complexity-in fact, it goes to the heart of what it means to be a fire marshal. Understanding for whom you work and where you fit in requires constant attention and reevaluation. My perspective is based on mistakes I’ve made over the years-primarily, losing sight of where prevention fits into the grand scheme of things.

 

Relationships Matter

Organizational structure is much more than a simple chart. Although a chart is a good place to begin, those in the field, and especially those new to the job, should consider more than just their reporting relationships. Because prevention is often threatened by budget cuts-more about this later-it’s critical fire marshals understand not only where they report, but what that means in terms of organizational clout. Who are the people with the most “connection” to the leadership of the department? And where does the fire marshal fit in?

Personal and professional relationships are fluid, even in strictly professional environments. Put yourself in the shoes of the fire chief or other manager who oversees the fire marshal’s operations; you’ll see that problem solvers-rather than problem creators-are your greatest asset.

Further, to know where prevention fits into the organization and its mission, fire marshals must listen to emergency responders and become familiar with the problems they may experience, such as false alarms or inadequate water supply. Becoming valuable to responders may enhance the reporting relationships with the fire chief or other managers. Even when prevention is not managed by the fire department, relations between prevention personnel and emergency responders are crucial. Cultivating successful relationships is as critical as-perhaps more critical than-understanding the structure and mission of our organizations, and I fear some fire marshals will never figure this out.

Such relationships can impact on the bottom line, and fire marshals, it seems, hold a precarious position in the fire service budget. Many leaders espouse the importance of prevention in the overall organizational mission, but too often this feels like lip service. Eliminating a fire station proves more painful for political decision makers than cutting fire inspections because the political pressure to maintain prevention programs is nowhere near what it is to maintain emergency response.

And who would argue against that? The business owner, who pays for the inspections and, sometimes, the corrections made by order of the fire marshal? Not likely. During budget cuts most of my peers have seen prevention be among the first to lose. It’s rare indeed for fire service leaders to value prevention to the point that they will propose balanced cuts or even avoid cuts to prevention. Only by knowing our people and our role within the agency will we be able to demonstrate our worth-and hope to reverse this trend.

 

The Final Word

You won’t find what I’ve said on a chart or a mission statement. Part of the administrative duties of the fire marshal includes getting out the books and reports-and reading between the lines. It also means getting out of the office, listening and discovering the organization’s needs, then figuring out how to meet them.

Such tactics won’t create success for the fire marshal in every case. But without due attention to the administrative part of the job, failure becomes more likely.

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