Developing Relationships With Policy Makers Pays

Recently I had a discussion with another fire chief who had asked the simple question, “How do you educate your elected officials so they understand the needs of the fire service?”

After I stopped chuckling, I told him basically you don’t. While somewhat serious, it is too simple of an answer. I told him to let me think about it.

As I gave the question more thought, all that I could remember were the many times detailed reports had been written and presentations made. I wondered if any of the reports were read or how much attention was being paid during meetings. Even those who generally are interested did not have the time to learn the intricacies of firefighting and the needed apparatus and equipment.

In one instance there was a council member from years past who did not know the department used paid on-call members along with career firefighters, so he was unaware stations were not always staffed around the clock. This was in spite of the fact the issues were discussed numerous times throughout the year, especially at budget time when requests for additional staffing were made. If this basic issue was not known by one of the policy makers, what chance did the department have of “educating” those that control the resources as to the basic needs?

Given the fact many in the public gain their basic knowledge of the contemporary fire service by watching “Backdraft” and “Ladder 49,” (How can you compete with Hollywood?) it should not come as a surprise that those outside the fire service will not “get it.”

This is not to disparage those in positions of influence. It is an attempt to understand their positions and realize there is so much to be known that gaining detailed insight is not likely to happen. Potentially equal in the challenge is dealing with a “former” firefighter or a relative of a firefighter.

These individuals always know more than the fire chief or other firefighters because of their vast previous experiences or their numerous conversations with their relative. Their limited or outdated knowledge can make the “education” of them and their colleagues more challenging, if not impossible.

So, the question returns. If you need to acquire equipment or apparatus to provide the service that is expected, how do you convince those that control the resources to approve the expenses?

The answer may not lie with your ability to “educate” them regarding the issues, needs and basic elements of good service. The real answer is about building relationships and establishing trust. If the elected officials (or policy makers) trust both you and the fire department, they are more likely to go along with your plans, as long as the funding exists.

Relationships and trust are established over time. They require effort and good practices. It is also more than just the chief. The organization needs to continually work on its relationship with the “outside world,” meaning those not in the fire service, and maintain the trust that has existed for a very long time. Repeatedly, the fire service has received high marks in surveys when the public is asked who they trust in government.

Interaction and communications go a long way to building a strong relationship. If your only contact is when you are asking for money or trying to explain what is happening, then you are only maintaining a somewhat distant relationship. You and your organization need to interact as much as possible, during official sessions and social settings. People in general want to work with people they like and will offer more support when mutual respect is established.

Build Your Knowledge

There are some things that can be done to establish, build and improve relationships and trust:

Know your business and be the expert. Don’t run the risk of getting caught not knowing the answer to a question that others think you should know. This means that you must continue to educate and train yourself through formal classes, workshops and seminars. You also need to read the periodicals and attend conferences. Whatever you can do to build your knowledge base is helpful – by giving you the tools that you will need and also adding to your reputation as an expert.

Always tell the truth. This goes without saying. But bear in mind that tact is always important.

Attend functions outside the scope of your job. Social settings present opportunities to build relationships without mixing specific business items. You learn about the individuals you meet, and they learn about you.

Do not air your dirty laundry in public. If there are disagreements within your department, resolve them internally. Members of the department that present opposing viewpoints provide an out for policy makers who don’t want to make purchases. Anything but a unified public posture will be harmful. If you ask for an aerial truck that can cost three quarters of a million dollars, you will not want another member questioning that decision to a policy maker in public or private.

If you have former fire officials or relatives on the policy board, do your best to engage them in the fire department. They may be interested enough to visit frequently and this can help build a better relationship. If they are in your corner, they can become important allies.

Support Other Departments

Support other departments in your community. Being a good team player and looking out for the best interests of others can benefit your efforts.

Don’t give up or pout when you don’t get your way. No one likes a sore loser. Move on and commit to do a better job next time.

These are just some suggestions. Getting approval and funding to purchase apparatus and equipment is as much about others trusting your judgment as it is about gaining their full understanding of your needs.

Everyone in today’s world is busy. Most policy makers will not be able to commit the time to learning the inner workings of your profession. They need to feel comfortable working with you, which is why it will be nice if they like you. And they must trust you.

Trying to educate the policy makers is not necessarily a bad idea. However, the success rate of that approach may not be that high. Don’t get frustrated, try some different ideas to get what you need.

Editor’s Note: Richard Marinucci is chief of the Farmington Hills (Mich.) Fire Department, a position he’s held since 1984. He is 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 holds three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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