Honoring The Past While Embracing The Future

I took a little trip to see my father the other day.  I’m not going to go into the wheres and whys of it, but while I was there, he and I were talking about the changes in the landscape regarding fire and emergency medical service delivery in his neighborhood.  He retired from the fire service about two years ago and moved to my step-mother’s hometown in South Central Pennsylvania, about a half-hour from the National Fire Academy.

While there are all kinds of talk about mergers and regionalization of service in his new community, he took the opportunity to give me a tour of two separate organizations going through merger issues in their own communities which happen to be within several miles of one another- Southeastern Adams Volunteer Emergency Service and Penn Township Emergency Services - who are going through changes right now (they’re in two separate counties).  I am not going to go into the issues that these organizations are encountering right now, nor do I know enough about their situations to comment on them either.  The situations in both places, however, prompted me to want to briefly discuss the emotional aspect of change as related to organizational mergers, since there is a lot of talk about them lately.

Both of these organizations seem to be going about things the right way.  One of them, the Southeastern Adams Volunteer Emergency Service, even went so far as to create a “museum” in their new facility.  The museum honors the fire departments that predated their merger with display areas that you have to pass to get to the display area of the current organization.  In doing so, the visitor gets the message pretty clearly that the history of these other departments is essential to the history of the combined department.  Having been through a merger ourselves back in 1993, I know what it feels like to see the department you once worked for become a footnote in history.

During these trying economic times, we are all trying to find ways to maximize return on investment.  While more recently it seems as if the ol’ merger idea is getting trotted out by communities trying to make things work a little leaner, it’s not just the aspect of merging two organizations that requires discussion.  There are the mergers of fire and EMS, mergers of volunteer and career forces, and of course, the regionalization of resources that is created when different communities merge their agencies.  In fact, while I was writing this, I got an e-mail blast on which the Erie County, NY merger ideas were being discussed, up in Tiger’s neck of the woods.

There is an economy of scale that politicians seem to throw up as the overwhelming benefit for merging, but these same people often completely discount that there is also a certain amount of emotion in bringing agencies together.  Denying that concern would assume that you are oblivious to human nature.  While a merger could make all the sense in the world to us all from a purely pragmatic aspect, there is the sense of loss and insecurity that comes when we make the jump from the known to the unknown.  Some of us may bemoan the change from our current cozy little relationship to a bigger organization.  Some might be concerned that our opportunities might be diminished or eliminated.  Others might understandably be worried that while in our daily existence there is a certain work load that is acceptable and manageable, but a change from that might require increased commitment and turmoil.  In career and volunteer mergers, there is the understandable concern that one side or another lacks respect for the other, or misunderstands the motives of the other, or is simply trying to remove one or the other from existence.  Likewise, the merging of fire and EMS forces often requires the consideration that players perceive their jobs as changing, or their function as being redefined, or even that something they have trained for and devoted considerable energy to their whole lives is now being considered as less than important.

None of these feelings should be discounted when merging and in fact, each should be addressed clearly to outline future expectations and to reduce ambiguity.  Facilitated panels should be created to foster discussion between the merging parties, and community representatives should also be consulted.  After all, they are affected as well and they may have a perception (positively or negatively as well) regarding the merger that must also be considered.

The opportunity for asking questions requires time to be put aside and resources committed to getting and giving answers.  Unfortunately, some of the answers to questions prior to merging might even be, “We don’t know”.  And while some members might take that as lacking commitment or integrity, I seem to think it is a perfectly honest answer when, believe it or not, “we don’t know”.  But while all of these emotions can be attributed toward trekking into the unknown aspects of a merger, they are all really very relevant toward any global change in the way we do things.  There is the perception of loss, the unwillingness to transition from the known to the unknown, and the resistance to added (and undesired) responsibility and workload.  So in order to facilitate smooth change, one must give thorough credence to these emotions and not ignore them, but embrace them.

Think of it this way; this is now a new frontier.  We have the ability (considering you want to adopt best practices to make the transition to a BETTER place than where you once were) to reinvent ourselves, to create a new culture of excellence, to provide opportunity for growth that didn’t previously exist, or to make our workplace more efficient, more safe, more modern, or more embracing of good, rather than poor methods of doing our job.

Bringing people in who have experienced these changes to talk to them and pick their brains, is wise and I think, well advised.  Open minded individuals who have been through these experiences, both good and bad, can advise you on the blessings of such an endeavor, as well as to point out the pitfalls and perils of the same.  But any organizations going through this experience are cautioned that no mergers are the same, and the motives that drive mergers are often not the same, or so altruistically motivated, either.  And of course, depending on what agencies are merging and the positions of the stakeholders on either end of the merger, not everyone will agree with what is and isn’t important when moving toward a merger.  What is important is that all viewpoints are considered (and I don’t mean adopted, but that the emotions are given some credence and there is an effort to understand these perspectives) and that issues are discussed and issues causing concern are communicated.

Out with the old and in with the new isn’t necessarily a good thing.  Mergers that are universally embraced are pretty rare indeed, as someone is going to perceive the event is involving loss.  And some mergers are frankly, a terrible idea. But if the motives of the key players are based on a genuine concern for doing what is best for the community, and that the concerns of those who have to deliver that service are given credence and at least understood, a merger can be a whole lot less painful than many individuals make it out to be.

In many cases where mergers have not gone well, it is because one side or another, or individuals within the dynamic, perceived that a loss or change from their current situation was going to negatively affect them, so there was a choice made to muddy the water.  As in any conflict between parties, if anyone fails to appreciate or understand the perceptions of the other, they are setting themselves up for failure.  The best practice is to try to gain multiple perspectives on the situation, understand those perspectives, and to try to achieve consensus on as many issues as possible.  This is, after all, a team approach, but ultimately, everyone should agree that whatever happens, the motive for merging and moving forward should be based on what is best for the community and the people you are striving to serve.  All other motives should be secondary to that directive.

Merging isn’t easy and pain will be involved.  Anytime change occurs, there will probably be some loss and some resulting pain.  But if these efforts are being undertaken for the right reasons, and if the leaders are motivated to do what is right by the people we are trying to serve rather than to protect self-interests, things can be done to honor those who have gone before us, and to serve professionally those who we are sworn to protect.

  • Nancy

    Great article. Here’s to Sea Pines – Forest Beach Fire Department! ~N

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Michael "Mick" Mayers

Battalion Chief with Hilton Head Island (SC) Fire and Rescue and an Emergency Response Coordinator with the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ National Disaster Medical System Incident Response Coordination Team.

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Although I am affiliated or employed by certain entities, I in no way speak in this forum or others on behalf of those entities unless I have specifically stated such. Any implication otherwise is doing so contrary to my agreements with those entities. The result is that the observations and opinions by myself or on behalf of Firehouse Zen are not sanctioned by any other entity other than Graffiti Train Sherpa Publications and are protected by the copyright laws of the United States of America.

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