Today's political climate ensures a completely different dynamic than we have been accustomed to in our careers. Elected officials and taxpayer advocates no longer assume the fire chief's expertise as a public-safety professional. Citizen interest in public safety ranges from the apathetic to the antagonistic.
At the strategic level, we have to engage stakeholders to the point where they trust our vision. Everyone involved must clearly understand that our efforts as emergency-service leaders are driven by our desire to see those we protect get the service they want and deserve.
We each face constant challenges in obtaining funding and support. Establishing positive relationships, however, results in the development of mutual trust between the parties involved in moving these projects forward. Trusting relationships are obviously more productive than adversarial relationships.
Nobody Is Bigger than This Project
In 2003, I was one of five people appointed by the state fire marshal to plan and implement a statewide US&R program. We saw initial resistance to some of our initiatives, confirmed by results of an Executive Fire Officer-applied research project I completed in 2005, which detected a need to more deeply consider stakeholder perspectives.
Project leaders from the previous attempts to implement the program expressed that the reason for the death of each effort was primarily funding. However, in the eyes of external stakeholders, the previous efforts lost support because of divergent funding priorities, unanswered questions in the implementation plan or skepticism about the need for the project.
Digging deeper, though, resistance to "the state telling us what to do" time and again was the discovered as the real source of the challenge.
Therefore, instead of dictating to stakeholders how things should happen, we asked questions and engaged local and regional partners in decision-making. The result was that these partners were more inclined to listen in return and help where needed. Our work group took a very different methodology with our main rule of engagement: "None of us is bigger than this project."
The program management team agreed any time our egos created difficulty in sustaining political momentum toward implementation, we would be expected to place the project first. As we brought others in, we reaffirmed this rule. By keeping personal agendas out of the picture, this conviction helped us carry out the mission.
Informal relationships were the genesis of the program's philosophy. A number of groups already had a vested interest in the outcome. Getting them all to work together for the good of the whole was the tricky part.
Instead of being exclusionary, we maintained an environment of inclusion; there was no differentiation between civilians, career or volunteer responders. If you were interested and wanted to contribute, we wanted you.
Sidelining our egos allowed us to approach everything in a different light. Placing a higher priority on maintaining our customer relationships resulted in a lot of support and subsequently served an alternative purpose: people are reluctant to oppose a team they're a member of.
If your stakeholders really are part of the team and not just a necessary evil, they'll back you to the end of the earth.
While formal relationships were also pursued to obtain resources and to legitimize organizational recommendations, issues are still present that must be addressed to fully implement the plan to its potential. Some of these issues are very disappointing, as they show there is still, in some individuals, deeply held antipathy toward making the project a success.
In spite of this, between the extremely hard work and the dedication of my colleagues, as well as the valuable aid from our partners at the local, regional and state levels, SC-TF1 is a viable entity.
As executive fire officers, it is incumbent upon us to establish positive relationships with stakeholders at many different levels. Relationships like these will serve to promote discourse, to obtain feedback on critical issues and to market the organization. For some fire service leaders the conventional method of interaction has been, "I am the expert; you need to listen to me."
The challenge, then, is to put ego aside and to work with others—not as an authority but as a partner.
In some communities, due to the lack of engagement, having no relationship at all seems to be the default position. We understood very quickly that program survival required a different approach from previous attempts to develop a solution. The emergency-service community served by the program was surveyed, interviewed and even regularly asked to participate, while previous initiatives told communities how the program would work. Taking such an outreach approach doesn't work only in this kind of scenario, but also any time fire chiefs need support from the people they serve.
Developing partnerships between your organization, allied groups and reputable community advocates will garner your organization a lot of support. Where partnership opportunities exist, join them and work to make them better for the whole. Where partnership opportunities don't exist, create them and invite others.
Michael "Mick" Mayers, EFO, is battalion chief of the Hilton Head Island (S.C.) Fire & Rescue and a member of the IAFC On Scene editorial advisory board.