Striving for Mediocrity: The Paralyzing Agent of the Fire Service

There are no longer any “safe” community departments or budgets

Step up to the new ways or get left in the dark. (Unsplash)

By Sal Scarpa

The fire service is a complex organization with a rich history steeped in tradition. Much has been written about the many great things the fire service and specifically firefighters have done to enrich our communities and change the lives of those around us. Every firehouse across America has members who are examples of what makes this service the envy of all other occupations and often the object of admiration and praise of the citizenry. This calling to go above and beyond what is commonly acceptable is the catalyst that puts the fire service at the forefront in many communities.

But the fire service is always in danger of falling out of favor, perhaps more so now than ever before. There are competing forces in the modern world for the attention of our elected officials and the communities we serve. Local governments are persistently derided over the ever-increasing costs of servicing a community. There is a constant clamor for transparency amid concerns over out-of-control spending and taxation. While public safety has historically been considered sacred and spared from excessive scrutiny or the budget ax, that mindset is changing and has been evident since the last economic downturn. By and large, there are no longer any “safe” community departments or budgets; everything is always on the table and subject to change.

This paradigm shift in local government should not come as a surprise to the fire service. Ballooning costs for personnel (which includes benefits, pensions, etc.) and equipment (i.e., million-dollar fire apparatus) were bound to catch up to fire departments at some point. If the leaders in your organization failed to anticipate this change, there may have been a failure to see over the horizon. If your organization has not encountered this shift yet, consider yourself fortunate, but plan accordingly. You may not be facing drastic cuts or demands for reductions in service (yet), but you may be forced to justify your programs and expenditures more than you have in the past. This is likely the early onset of a new normal for most leaders in the modern fire service.

What Has Changed?

Communities everywhere are demanding more accountability of their local leaders. Disenchanted with national politics, citizens have turned to local leaders who are seemingly more accessible and have a closer connection to their daily lives. Some just want to have their voices heard. While local leaders presumably have always been there for their community, there is an increased scrutiny of those in charge and their decision-making process (read: spending priorities). More people want to be heard and share their opinions with local leaders who have direct connections to decisions surrounding local street paving and traffic congestion, public safety concerns, and quality of life issues.

This renewed engagement by community members has been enhanced with the explosion of communication tools local government is employing to connect with its citizenry. More and more communities are actively working to reach their communities with community surveys and social media tools that allow for direct and immediate access to local officials by citizens who expect immediate responses to their inquiries. Local communities have moved beyond simply a Web presence with a repository of information. They are engaging citizens with communications mangers who employ modern media like FaceBook, Twitter, NextDoor, and a variety of other two-way communication media. This is a radical shift for what is commonly perceived as traditional for local government and a trend that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

With increased engagement, civic and political leaders are now more acutely aware of what their constituents are talking about in homeowner association meetings, civic clubs, and neighborhood gatherings. This changed reality has engineered a greater demand for accountability associated with program spending and an enhanced need for justification for expanding services. While perhaps different than what most agencies have been accustomed to, it is not an unreasonable request and certainly should not be a surprise to fire service leaders. In fact, with a little effort, some foresight, and preplanning, this change could actually help the fire service in the long run.

Embracing the New Paradigm

Historically, the fire service has not crafted budget requests and service delivery enhancements with a great deal of justification. Given the new paradigm of local government, organizational leaders must now be prepared to show the value of the changes they are seeking or the acquisitions they are pursuing. This new level of justification is an opportunity for fire service agencies to showcase their abilities and make the case for pursuing a higher level of service. The opportunity is now in front of us to make the case for excellence.

Most fire agencies, most firefighters, and most civic leaders (commissioners, council members, directors, etc.) want the very best for their community. They are not simply striving for mediocrity. Given the option, most would just as soon have an excellent fire department over an average one. When seeking to expand a program or engage in a new service model, the expectation is that this change will enhance the value of your service to the community. A fire chief, for example, wouldn’t presumably seek to add a new station just because he was interested in managing more personnel. There is likely a direct benefit to the community and it would enhance the capability of that agency. This is a key reality that fire service leaders must embrace.

It is this idea of elevating the level of service or capability to the community that fire service leaders need to capitalize on in the new normal. Most council members would want their constituents to have decreased response times or access to a higher level of medical care (advanced life support or community paramedicine). They need, however, to recognize the value for the anticipated (increased) cost. If your agency can frame the discussion with decision makers around the notion of pursuing excellence or seeking the be the best agency you can be, there is merit in that notion with civic leaders. Again, why would they want to have an average fire department when they can have the best fire department? The key for fire service leaders is to be able to “sell it.” The outcome must justify the cost.

Making the Case for Excellence

The pursuit of excellence is the “sell” for your agency. The desire of the fire department to provide its community with the very best service should be a key component in your message to decision makers. For example, if your agency currently provides basic life support (BLS) service as part of your EMS delivery system, migrating to an advanced life support (ALS) service should be seen as an opportunity to provide the very best emergency medical care possible. The change in service delivery should be seen not only as an enhancement to current service but an outcome of your agency’s desire to provide the maximum level of service to your citizenry. If your agency is perceived as wanting to provide the best level of care for its community, perhaps decision makers will be more inclined to consider your request. Again, no one really wants second best.

For fire departments to be successful in these efforts, the initiatives put forward should be part of a continuous pattern of promoting and seeking out organizational improvement. Every agency should seek to adopt a culture of continuous improvement in all areas of service. This means that requests for expanded programs or new initiatives should be seen as a natural evolution of an agency and not an anomaly to what is perceived as a mediocre or substandard fire department. That is not to say that the fire chief should be bringing multimillion-dollar expansion ideas or programs every year to the budget table. (That is not likely to be well received.) However, justifiable program enhancements or expenditure items should become expected evidence of an organization seeking to provide the best service it reasonably can.

It is important to note that being able to justify your request will likely need to be validated with more than pictures of shiny fire trucks or graphs and charts. Visuals such as these are important and can help “tell the story” that your decision makers need to understand. Consider also that showing potential outcomes associated with your efforts can lend credibility to your effort. Using the example above of migrating to an ALS service, if you can demonstrate that the initiative can have a demonstrable effect on medical outcomes of community members who suffer a cardiac arrest or stroke, this is far more convincing than any alternative. To do this, consider a pilot effort of your initiative and document your outcomes. You may also be able to identify success stories in similar sized communities. Alternatively, identify credible studies that provide evidence-based outcomes you can reference that support your assertions.

Moving Beyond Mediocrity

As the fire service embraces the realities of a new paradigm and a shift into the “new norm” for 21st-century entities, there is a case to be made to move beyond “striving for mediocrity.” Fire service leaders across the country will need to be able to demonstrate value and relevance for their organizations to civic leaders pressed for transparency and their citizens who justifiably want to know their tax dollars are being spent judiciously and effectively. Not every request is likely to be unquestionably approved, or even considered. There will be calls for justification and demand for efficiency. Fire service leaders must guard against sacrificing effectiveness for efficiency. An organization that is making do with the status quo may be not be able to pursue excellence for its community and its citizenry.

Times have changed for the fire service. Communities justifiably are seeking a higher level of engagement with their civic and political leaders, particularly at the local level. To remain relevant, fire departments should seek out ways to enhance their level of service and establish a culture of excellence that supports the needs of the community in the most effective manner practical. Pursuing excellence in service delivery and moving beyond mediocrity will enable the fire service to maintain the community favor it has routinely enjoyed and establish its relevancy in the modern age.

Salvatore J. Scarpa is chief of the Columbus (GA) Fire & Emergency Medical Services

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