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Let's Call Things by Their Proper Names

This year the fire service will hold its’s sixth Wingspread Conference. These conferences, which are held just once a decade, began in 1966 and generate consensus “Statements of National Significance to the Fire Problem in the United States.”

Six of the twelve initial Statements addressed shortfalls in professionalism and education. No single theme has ever had such dominance in subsequent conferences.

In 1976, the Wingspread II report included an impressive list of milestones achieved since Wingspread I, including:

  • The Fire Research and Safety Act
  • Appointment of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control
  • A system of professional qualifications
  • Publication of America Burning
  • Creation of what is now the National Fire Academy

Wingspread I is clearly one of the most significant influences on the professionalism of the contemporary fire service.

In the 1990s, another significant influence on the professional development of fire service leaders arose: widespread reforms in the spirit of Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector.

Our quest for professional status, combined with pressure from our elected officials to become more efficient in the face of swelling budgets, to become more like the businesses many of them led as private citizens, have combined to lead us to adopting a business mentality.

From about the 1990s through the early 2000s, this approach yielded positive benefits for a range of reasons. Perhaps the most important was that fire chiefs were required to justify their decisions (that is, in their budgets) and generally were directed to do so using metrics familiar to the private sector.

There are invaluable lessons and practices from the business world that can and should be borrowed and applied in fire service management and administration, such as in capital asset management, workforce cost analysis and fleet management.

However, an overreliance on private business practices in the public sector can create compounding errors. Beginning in the early 2000s, an increasing number of conundrums began emerging, suggesting that the “reinventing government” strategy was having some unintended consequences.

What is the proper ROI threshold for CPR training or for a fire station located in an area that has the lowest tax-revenue value? How entrepreneurial should public administrators really be; that is, should they make big, risky decisions on their own without the process of public discourse?

One of the unfiltered business ideas that has migrated into the fire service is customer service. It’s a laudable concept, but it’s founded on the principle of improved sales among competing vendors.

Even business gurus recognize there are limits to applying business ideas in the conduct of government. For Jim Collins, Distinguished Teaching Award winner from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, the approach is outright wrong. In Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer, he wrote:

"We must reject the idea – well-intentioned, but dead wrong - that the primary path to greatness in the social sector is to become 'more like a business.'"

We must continue the effort to improve our capacity and professionalism as fire service administrators. This dominant theme from 1966 was still present at in the 2006 Wingspread IV statements:

"#8. Professional Development – Significant strides have been made … but improvement is still needed."

Part of that improvement involves reexamining our seemingly wholesale application of a private sector business mindset. So how can we properly adjust our strategy? How do we strike the right balance of using effective practices from one setting (private business) in another but different setting (public governance)?

I suggest we can begin by reacquainting ourselves with an idea nearly lost to antiquity: stewardship.

Many of us will need to pause here in search of a definition. You’ll find what we’re looking for frequently buried under two or three unrelated references, and it will include the following concepts:

  • The management of estates or affairs not one’s own
  • An individual's responsibility to exercise care over possessions entrusted to him or her
  • In general, stewardship is responsibility for taking good care of resources entrusted to one

We’re indoctrinated from rookie school on with the guiding principle of being responsible for protecting the lives and properties of those we serve. They assume and operate on the trust that we, chiefs appointed by their elected officials, will make all the right administrative and operational decisions necessary to ensure the protection of their lives and property in all situations.

“Customer Service,” though well intentioned, is not the right description of what we do. What we’re expected to do is orders of magnitude beyond mere customer service. We provide stewardship.

An old Chinese proverb has it that “the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” If each of us will approach our discretionary decisions with a mindset of public-sector stewardship rather than private-sector customer service, we’ll make better—and wiser—decisions.

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