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New World Issue for Fire/EMS Leadership

Return to the July 1, 2013 issue of On Scene

The fire service is a victim of its own success!

We've been very successful in educating the public about fire prevention. There have been fewer fires, better firefighting equipment and methods, and a significant focus on prevention. Coordination of efforts and improved civilian and corporate responses have all resulted from the demand for interoperability.

Over the last five years, leadership has been forced to focus on financial status mostly because of economic pressures. Fire and EMS are being forced to reconsider services and delivery as costs are being scrutinized. Cost-cutting measures beyond employee/staff reductions are being developed. Regionalization, shared services, incorporation of fire into public-safety departments and resource pooling are some of the strategies being explored.

There has been a reduction of opportunities for those who have served on the front line and are now seeking another means of continuing service in the communities they have loyally served. Everything in the fire and emergency service is being affected; nothing is sacrosanct.

Fire service leaders needs to look beyond the symptoms of today’s economic challenges. We appear to have lost public acceptance of traditional services; now they're being scrutinized. The challenges we're experiencing aren't just symptomatic—they're actually systemic in nature!

Many departments are treating these challenges based on the symptoms—cut expenses through staffing cuts, reduction of service or creation of creative ways to share services. The challenges reflect the problem of understanding traditional services and their goals.

If the challenges aren't dealt with at this fundamental level, the authors see an insanity in the whole of fire and EMS occurring where the symptomatic behavior is repeated without end because no one sees that it doesn't address what's challenging in the environment.

A different way to approach today’s challenges is to take a system-thinking approach:

  • Who are we as a service?
  • In what ways have we contributed to our communities?
  • How will we do so in the future?

When we begin by asking these questions, we can approach the historical assumptions each of the different constituencies’ hold about fire services and our delivery. Assumptions are the thoughts and beliefs that drive our own behavior and reinforce our constituents' expectations of us. Here are some examples of past assumptions:

  • We love and fully support our fire service.
  • Fire services will never be touched.
  • Fire budgets won't decrease.
  • Employee pensions and healthcare will remain the same.
  • Fire service employees are always interested in the welfare of and sacrifice for the population.

When we fully understand our constituencies and their needs, we can answer the following questions with facts:

  • What do they want and need from us?
  • How do we deliver emergency services effectively and efficiently with a reasonable cost structure based on what the community wants to "purchase" from us?
  • How do we manage the required change to get to where we need to go?

To be successful, we need to start preparing for change—the organization and its stakeholders must be in a state of readiness for radical ideas about fire and EMS in the contemporary world.

Chiefs can't take this systemic change effort on alone. They need many eyes and hands to help in this effort.

Fred Cowper is chief for the Meridian Township (Mich.) Fire Department; Neil Simon is president and CEO of the Leadership Forward Group.

Chief Cowper and Mr. Simon will offer a workshop at Fire-Rescue International in August: Engage Employees in the Change Process: Creating a C3 Environment, providing examples and tools that can be used to support this process of questions and research.

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