Smart, safe firefighting is the message of the day. This message resounds in every conference, every training session, every shift briefing. No doubt, the effects are seen with impact on line-of-duty death and injury.
The importance of relationships can't be understated as a significant variable in the safety equation. Ask what impact we might have on the culture of the fire service (Life Safety Initiative #1) through proactive outreach at the local, regional and state levels. What models are noting success through outreach and becoming a resource to others?
Before developing any external relationships, a competent executive fire officer will develop those from within. These include relationships with subordinates, the firefighters union or association, and civilian employees. As related to safety, strong relationships support leader credibility and willingness to accept a safety message.
Credibility should be built organizationally as well. Perhaps not as much now as in the past, many fire service organizations consider themselves independent, or somehow not connected to the local municipality or jurisdiction. As an organization evaluates needs, a common mistake is failure to consider competing interests within the governing body or overall condition of that body. I further submit to you for consideration the synergy created by working with other department heads to fulfill the common mission of the governing body is far more powerful than standing solo.
So, how does that affect firefighter safety?
As the executive fire officer champions for the organization on various issues, the relationships that have been fostered and nurtured will yield productive results. This may be true with budget items and in services. Don't discount the power of collaborative thinking as well; sometimes, unconventional but reasonable solutions are found brainstorming with directors outside a fire department.
As I peruse various fire service op-eds and listen to anecdotes from progressive fire service leaders, a recurring theme materializes. Departments that respond together through automatic assistance or mutual-aid agreements should use similar communication and response models. Seems easy enough. However, adopting similar radio jargon consistent with accepted incident management systems and crossing multiple jurisdictional boundaries can be quite burdensome. Add to that shared response plans and similar operating procedures—now you're asking the impossible.
Only through established and trusting relationships can these barriers be shattered. Consider the county or regional fire chiefs' meeting as a forum for opening dialogue. Social hours to be sure, but don't discount the value of these gatherings. Trust is built through casual conversation and interaction. Once a comfort level is reached, discuss those hard to resolve issues like a common radio nomenclature and similar response procedures. Start with one that is not difficult and has potential for an early success. Build from there.
I recall one organization that combined two metro area county chief associations and built an injury/close-call after-action review program (LSI #9). A trust existed between these organizations that allowed the review of several close calls that occurred in the region. Lessons learned were shared with the requesting agency and ultimately the fire service in general.
Relationships across the State
Finally, relationships across the state can be valuable as well. Consider desired legislation and relationships with state regulatory agencies.
The modern fire service faces many challenges today, including an influential lobby from special interest groups with more political clout than the fire service. In at least one state, the homebuilder and remodeling lobby was powerful enough to render home rule on the residential sprinkler issue powerless (LSI#15). Only strong relationships with lawmakers may allow for competition.
Fostering good relationships with stakeholders requires communication, and communication is far more complex than that of the traditional sender/receiver model. The more erudite executive fire officer of today thinks beyond the traditional role of single lines of communication between management and those managed.
Every EFO must think of the global mission of the fire service and the myriad intricacies and complexities connecting the fire service to the desired outcome. Get out of the box and connect. Quit talking and start doing. The fire service will be the better for it.