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President's Letter: Together We Can

Here’s a radical thought: city managers and fire chiefs have something in common.

No, it isn't because they must have had their brains removed to want to do the jobs they do—at least I think that isn't it. So what is it?

Both want to do the best job they can for the communities they serve.

Both have to deal with elected officials that are sure they have the expert knowledge to run a city and don't need high-priced civil servants telling them what they think they already know.

Both know that they aren't going to get any credit when things go right and all the blame when things go awry.

But ask either a fire chief or a city manager and they’ll tell you that they’re okay with that arrangement: we get to be strategic, solution-oriented and forward thinking. Sometimes the job is extremely tough; sometimes it’s an amazingly rewarding experience.

When the challenges are coming hot and heavy, the ability of the fire chief and the city manager to work together toward commons goals is imperative.

I have only been a fire chief—although I have acted as a county manager and as a city manager—so my viewpoint is somewhat lopsided, but I think that if both the fire chief and the city manager have the opportunity to share insights, the synergy will help them improve the service to their communities.

Too often when we talk about innovation, we’re referring to technology or some new paradigm, and that’s fair enough on the surface.

But true innovation requires so much more than just creating something new. It requires us to think in new ways, to keep an open mind, to seek new insights and relationships that will enable change to happen.

Many may think this is an innovative idea in itself, but general expectations—at least for this fire chief—are really basic:

  • To be treated as an expert in our fields; we won’t agree with every expert assertion the other makes, but let’s start from a position that we each might have learned something over the course of our tenure. 
  • To be treated with respect.
  • To be part of the management team and to help find solutions to all of the city's issues. 
  • To think about and act on what would make each other’s job easier and how it may contribute to our shared success. 
  • To be prepared for meetings and with data requested and required. 
  • To be kept informed on situations and community issues that may be important to our individual and collective work.

A couple of years ago, Ron Carlee of ICMA, wrote an article for On Scene—Partnering with the City Manager: What Does It Take? (March 15, 2010)—on the issues that city managers see as important for fire chiefs to understand, many of which echoed my list above. One of his points, to “be sociable,” stood out then as well as now because there’s one more thing we have in common: City manager and department-head positions can be a pretty lonely spot.

Innovation requires not just the spark, but also the information, sweat-equity and support to make change a reality. If we as fire chiefs want to be innovators, we need to think less about the “I” in innovation and more about the importance of “we.” Fire chiefs and city managers must rely on each other, trust each other and be an advocate for one another. Together we can—that may be an innovation in itself.

Chief Al H. Gillespie, EFO, CFO, MIFireE
President and Chairman of the Board

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