“You know what you should do?” I can’t tell you how many times someone has come up to me and offered me some advice on something that was happening in the department or fire service. There is no shortage of ideas and they can come from members new to the service to long-term firefighters. The reputation of the person offering the advice plays a huge role in how the idea is received, evaluated, and either accepted or rejected. There are some people whose opinions have less credibility for a variety of reasons including their track record, work history, and perceived motivation. Regardless, good ideas come from a variety of sources and should not be discounted instantly without at least giving a little consideration.
Of course, I have an idea every once in a while. Even though I am the chief, most of the time I need to get approval from someone. No matter who you are, you report to someone. One thing I have learned is that there is a good way and a not so good way to offer your opinion. Doing it correctly gives the idea a better chance of being vetted and really giving it appropriate consideration. Determining various factors including cost, complexity, and how far out the idea is a good strategy for offering up suggestions.
Relationships and reputation are big factors in getting the appropriate hearing for your ideas. If you have worked to build sound relationships, you have an edge. Reputations are built over a career and an accumulation of successes is invaluable. But, it doesn’t take too many failures to undo a great accumulation of accomplishments. As such, it is very important to do what you say you will do. It helps to under promise and over deliver. Reliability comes into play. Deadlines must be met and there must be continual quality communications. Over the course of my career, many ideas that have moved forward to action have done so because of relationships, reputation, and reliability. It also helps to not have too many bad ideas that fail!
When pushing an idea, you need to know the receiver. Those in the fire service look at things differently than those outside of it. This affects the strategy. Those outside the service really have limited information about the fire service. They may also not offer much time to present your idea. You need to be organized and able to present the meat of the issue in a short time—sort of finding a way to “set the hook.” Avoid firefighter jargon and put the issue in terms that the receiver will understand, not necessarily how you want to hear it. There needs to be a “translation” in the language that is used. Keep it simple and anticipate the questions that are likely to be asked from their perspective. Almost always there will be questions regarding cost, benefits, risk, resource needs, and why it is a good idea.
The better you know the person, the more likely you will have a better reception. There are a few basic principles that should always be considered. Keep it simple. This job is more complex than ever and people are busier than they have ever been. They are not likely to learn the intricacies and will be sold on an idea based upon a few key things—things that they consider key, not you. Avoid scare tactics. You can be honest, but people in authority are generally positive in their outlook and respond better to a glass being half full as opposed to half empty. Most people don’t want to be backed into a corner or feel like they are being forced to act. A better approach is to focus on service and improvements that will be made in quality. It never hurts to talk about cost savings, but be sure of your numbers. Gaining a reputation of always over projecting will not bode well for future ideas.
Everyone should be on the lookout for better ways to do their jobs or enhance service. Until reaching perfection, efforts need to continue to improve efficiencies and effectiveness. This will continue to be a challenge. Improving the service provided by the fire department is very beneficial to the greater good but there is almost always a cost. There will need to be a balance among cost, risk, and benefit. Knowing how to present your ideas is often more important than the idea itself. Consider how you approach people and look to ways to improve your presentation.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.