Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fire Department, Inc.

I recently attended the IFSTA validation conference in Oklahoma City. Setting aside it was the absolutely hottest weather I can ever remember enduring (108 degrees), the conference was excellent. Chris Neal and Bob England do an outstanding job.

During a reception on Friday evening I was talking to an associate I have known for several years and someone who I would classify as being among the best and brightest in the fire service. We engaged in a discussion about the current state of the economy and the challenges his department is facing.

It was his opinion that most fire departments are being challenged today because the tight economy is forcing city and county governments to look at their operations using a business model-one that is based on profit and loss. He noted that many fire chiefs are not adequately educated to run a business and thus, they struggle.

Being someone who has worked in both the private sector as a banker (perhaps the epitome of profit and loss) and in the public sector as a fire chief, I can relate well to what he was saying. I can recall many occasions when I was conducting meetings with members of my department and someone would vocalize their frustration with my leadership style... "We're a fire department, not a business!" they would say with such disdain that I would feel as though trying to run the fire department like a business was somehow... dirty. Nonetheless, I tried to be patient and help them realize that we are, indeed, in the public safety business.

This mentality is not confined to fire department members. Several years ago I was reading in a newspaper about a battle raging at a city council meeting. The city was looking to hire a new fire chief. The debate was whether or not the fire chief needed to have a bachelor's degree or not. One of the council members was quoted in the paper as saying "I cannot, for the life of me, understand why our fire chief would have to have a college degree to run our fire department." The department in question had more than 400 career employees and a $20+ million budget. The fire chief in a department of this size isn't the "top firefighter." He's an administrator of a very large business with all the challenges and complexities of running a corporation: Budget, personnel, legal, marketing, quality control... it's all there.

Like it or not, the fire department is a business and the sooner you realize that, the better off you'll be. The fire department is not exempt from the fallout of a bad economy. It is going to take savvy business managers to survive these challenging times.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO

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