Taking the Long View

Being everything for everybody is fiscally impossible, and--let's be honest--the fire department doesn't need to try to do it all.
(Charlottesville Fire Department photos)

Leadership’s Defining Edge of Excellence for
Fire and Emergency Services

By Joe Powers and Ben May

Are We Courageous Enough to Create Our Own Future Now?

Walt Disney said: “Courage is the main quality of leadership.” Leadership in the fire and emergency services today defines the truth of his statement. Courage is one of the defining characteristics for every man and woman who takes the oath to serve and protect our citizens day and night. There is no nobler mission. But it’s not as easy as it was some years ago. We don’t mean “easy” in the challenges to do the job. That’s never been easy. It takes a special kind of person to be a firefighter–or any kind of first responder. It’s an extremely high bar in mental and physical ability and dexterity. The decision to lead firefighters and officers is the high ground of courage. It’s never easy to lead. It’s messy; sometimes we don’t know if we’ve made the right decision until years later. Today we are faced with every possible emergency facing our citizens and now are in the middle of a global pandemic. It seems like our services just keep expanding in the face of budget cuts and layoffs. 

Shaping a New Future 

Courage in leadership is defined by shaping the new future, maintaining traditional brand values, creating a foundation for sustainability through fostered innovation, and thinking differently to ensure tomorrow’s success.  The fire service’s future relies on courageous leaders; however, the success of individual departments providing fire and emergency services hinges on the willingness of those leaders to step out, understand community needs, and begin to adapt now. 

21st Century White Paper

The recent 21st Century Fire and Emergency Services White Paper from the Center for Public Safety Excellence is a blueprint for this adaptation. Released just a few months ago, the White Paper is one of the most comprehensive roadmaps for our service at exactly the right time.  However, the future it describes is now. The actions it describes need to be taken now because our future is meeting us today. The 21st Century White Paper is exactly the kind of leadership so necessary for our profession and the safety of our citizens. It is visionary, strategic thinking grounded in the reality of the challenges we face with real solutions. This white paper should be a working document for every department’s strategic planning process.

A Change in the Wind

In the mid-2000s, the industry began a transformation.  Little by little, fire department leaders across the United States started thinking differently and viewing their communities’ problems not in generalities but in specifics.  Fire departments began to understand that, although fires are a high-risk problem, it is not the only risk experienced in the neighborhoods they serve. Today’s top fire departments hold the distinctions because their leaders stepped out of line, supported innovative thinking, and used their brand to build a foundation for long-term success in the community. 

Community Risk Reduction 

One of the key opportunities emerging from the 21St Century Fire and Emergency Services White Paper is the convergence of citizens’ needs for our service. The growth of community risk reduction (CRR) is the key that unlocks this opportunity for pinpoint service whether emergency or preventive, whether fire and rescue or some other agency that “we” bring into the equation. Incidentally, it’s a marketer’s dream. CRR begins with the brand: Fire Department or Fire and Rescue or Fire and Emergency Services. 

In a recent conversation with one of our finest young chiefs, she mentioned how one of her challenges in bringing in new firefighters was the reality that only 7% of the job included actual firefighting. Yes, this is generally true, but we do not see this as a problem. It’s the evolution of our profession to an all-hazards mitigation service. Our heritage and history have served us well. It is rich in traditions as the stimulus for innovation, and CRR is that next step, with the White Paper to expand well beyond that. 

Defining Risk and Creating a Point of Difference

The mindset of departments using models of CRR is different from all others, and rightfully so. The fundamentals of CRR drive departments to be different from all the others because the communities they serve are individual.  Traditionally speaking, the fire service may provide some of the same services throughout the industry.  However, we achieve the highest level of positive outcomes when we serve our residents with the programs and services most needed.  We best serve our community best by first understanding risk. 

It’s Not a Name Change 

First and foremost, regarding CRR, let’s be on the same page.  Throughout the industry, CRR may be one of the most misunderstood terms.  For those leaders who understand CRR, there is long-term success in operations, community outcomes, and funding.  For those who don’t understand it, CRR is simply a static name change and an unimpressive replacement for either “fire prevention” or the “fire marshal’s office.” What is the most significant risk to CRR?  The lack of understanding by fire service leaders.

Opening the Firehouse Doors for a Transformative Model 

CRR is not public education, fire code inspections, fire prevention, or more work for firefighters.  It is a complete transformation to a model of risk assessments, prioritization, resource deployment, and evaluation.  In the simplest of terms, CRR is all about opening the doors of our firehouses, looking into the neighborhoods, seeing the problems, then going out and helping to reduce the impacts of the biggest problems.

Understanding Enough to Tell the Story

In many cases, CRR uses firefighter perceptions, reliable data, and community insights to better understand the risk faced by residents and visitors.  Collecting and studying the information create fantastic opportunities for fire service leaders to tell neighborhood-based stories.  When fire departments can understand and articulate the unheard stories, they can use their trusted brand to impact communities positively, save lives, and write the organization’s future. This is where we start to see the opportunities of CRR in our departments.  Telling the stories of an industrial area may drive changes to our training academy, the information we collect and share during preincident planning, and how command officers allocate emergency resources.  Within a multi-family community, the stories may lead us to tailor curricula in that specific school district, improve on messaging during public events, and develop partnerships with social services to improve service delivery. 

A Multidisciplinary Approach 

CRR, depending on the neighborhood, may have elements of code enforcement and public education.  However, true CRR is not fire prevention or kids wearing plastic fire helmets.  CRR is community-specific services, programs, partnerships, and organizational changes to improve outcomes.  CRR may impact physical fitness training and requirements where wildland and even high-rise risks occur.  It may alter how company officers develop riding seat assignments or how home health care providers interact with their at-risk clients. 

Is It Worth It? Yes, and Here’s How to Do It

CRR sounds like more work, right?  Well … yes, and no.  Creatively collecting information to tell the stories is an additional workload.  However, as you begin to define the risks, the models of CRR drive increased efficiency and decreased organizational workload while doing more in the community.  Although it sounds like a pipe dream, there are several benefits to CRR that most leaders don’t realize. By conducting a risk assessment and understanding the neighborhood stories, departments can better provide the risk-reduction activities communities need.  However, CRR works the opposite way, too, by identifying what services communities don’t need–trimming citywide programs down to only those communities that require the services to increase efficiency and decrease workload.  Also, providing the right services to the right community or population may reduce emergency response demand.

Dig Deeper to Understand the Real Risks in Your Community 

What’s also important to understand is this:  The first time you try to develop a risk assessment, you may not find the real story.  Good risk assessments are the product of trials, innovations, evaluations, and perseverance.  Risk assessments are not a one-and-done document you put on a shelf.  Useful risk assessments use data, the Web, and even interviews to gather experiential data from firefighters, police officers, social works, and more.  Evaluating progress can shed light on improvement opportunities and additional risk assessment elements to better tell the story.

It’s a Partnership that Can Work

Being everything for everybody is fiscally impossible, and–let’s be honest–the fire department doesn’t need to try to do it all.  There are vast opportunities to partner with government and private organizations to improve communities.  Linking up and communicating with social service and mental health resources may improve the holistic response to frequent 911 utilizers.  Partnering with in-home health care, property maintenance, or meal-delivery services puts a number of advocates in homes, which the fire service cannot otherwise achieve.  Even working with local schools and outlining their students’ specific risks can drive changes in morning announcements, lunchroom posters contents, and to-home messaging.  There are so many capable organizations and people who can make a difference.  Provide them with the information and let them do the job.

 The “Fire” in “Fire Department”

As leaders, we have the responsibility to imbue young firefighters with the evolution of our profession and their responsibility as leaders to take it further. The brand equity and public loyalty are symbolized by the Maltese Cross, our uniforms, and our care–not just in time of need but in a comprehensive, interactive approach to safety and prevention with the citizens we protect in the middle. In our opinion, the name Fire and Rescue or Emergency Services is critical. Our citizens trust us in the way they know us. They know us first as the Fire Department, and it is an undisputed market and brand position.  

Comprehensive Safety 24/7 

In CRR, the Fire Department is leading and coordinating this comprehensive safety equation. That is marketing leverage from an unassailable position. It’s our responsibility to maintain that high ground of brand loyalty and equity. We do this daily in the specific actions with ourselves, the public, and the other agencies and professions we involve in CRR.

The fire service has the opportunity to capitalize on its brand and create a sustainable future through CRR.  Risk-matched services, strategic partnerships, and continuous evaluation for improvement can drive outcomes to build our future through strengthening the fire department brand.  

Courageous with CRR

Being courageous enough to intentionally instill CRR elements with the trusted brand of your fire department will put firefighters at the forefront of community change.  Funding for your organization is no longer a government liability, as is seen in a traditional firefighting department; it’s an investment in intentional community change.  Community investments that drive positive outcomes while reducing workload are a sustainable model for our industries’ future.  The outcomes of CRR in one department cannot be duplicated in another.  CRR requires leaders’ courage to step up and intentionally understand the communities served to tell the stories for successful outcomes. 

Leading the Evolution of Our Future 

The future of fire, emergency services, and comprehensive safety is in our hands if we have the courage to lead and shape it. Every fire officer, firefighter, and probie has the intelligence to embrace the shifting paradigm that includes the wellness of our citizens as well as their emergency needs. As the 21st Century White Paper notes: We will have specific data drawing a picture of the hazards and needs of every building, business, and family by jurisdiction and location. We are building a safe future for all our citizens with the fire service in the lead as the master builder.

Joe Powers is a 27-year veteran of the fire service and has a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor’s degree in health sciences. He works with fire departments to improve operational response, reduce operational workload, and tie data to strategic decision making. Powers is the deputy chief of community risk reduction at the Charlottesville (VA) Fire Department.

Ben May is a board director of the Center for Excellence in Public Safety and recently retired global director of corporate alliances for the Walt Disney Company. He has been a marketing consultant to Fire Service Publications (IFSTA) of Oklahoma State University’s School of Fire Protection Technology, the U.S. Fire Administration, and metro fire departments across the country. He has a master’ degree with honors in international communication and Russian.

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