More and more often, we hear about fire chiefs and their executive teams struggling in their relationships with policymakers—whether a board of directors, city council or other group. Many fine fire service professionals reach the fire chief level quite unprepared to deal with politics. It's different and carries with it a whole new set of challenges.
Technical competence and the clarity of command make navigating the grey areas of political processes difficult for many. Political acumen has become an ever-increasing component of fire leaders' executive duty.
Three major factors play into the development of adverse relationships between fire chiefs and policy groups:
- Unclear expectations
- Lack of direction
- Poor communications
The expectations that policymakers have of their fire chief should be crystal clear. The fire chief should have a comprehensive position description, clearly describing the nature and duties of the position. A detailed and written delegation of authority should clarify for the policy group and the chief who has authority over which decisions. The chief should have an employment agreement that details the terms and conditions of employment.
The policy group should provide the chief with very unambiguous direction. There should be a comprehensive set of policies that describe the board or council's direction on such matters as type and level of services to be provided, financial practices, duties and authority of individual policy-group members and others as appropriate to the jurisdiction.
As important as policies is the need for a comprehensive strategic plan. A quality plan should include the organization's mission, vision, values, long-range goals and clearly stated objectives with timelines. Outcome-based performance measures and targets should clarify the level of service desired by the policy group.
Communicate Clearly and Often
Even with these in place, good and frequent communications between the chief and the policy group is essential. Successful chiefs say these suggestions will go a long way to improving relationships between chiefs and policymakers:
- Talk early and talk often; there's no such thing as too much.
- Take advantage of one-on-one conversations with individual policymakers, but don't discriminate.
- Information shared with one must be shared with all. Make that an inviolable rule, even if an individual policy-group member requests otherwise.
- Establish communication rules for major events. What do policymakers want to hear about and when? Do they want the phone call at 3 a.m. or do they want to wait until the next day?
Focus on Outcomes
Elected officials want fire chiefs to focus on outcomes, especially in discussions of money. Think in terms of what the community gets in return for its investment. It matters little to them that a budget proposal will improve engine staffing from two personnel to three. What they care about is how that expenditure of funds will make their service better. Will it mean less fire loss, more lives saved or other real benefits?
Analyze the Right Information
Chiefs should also become wise practitioners of management analysis. This is a combination of data, statistical and financial analysis that allows chiefs to quantify return on investment. This requires capturing the right information, analyzing it appropriately and communicating it effectively.
Don’t Neglect Your Community
Finally, the fire chief needs to stay in close touch with the community. They're paying the bill and they're the sole reason for the fire department's existence. Their expectations, concerns and issues must be clearly defined and used in charting the future course of the fire department.