Loyalty is a perplexing concept. A while back, Fire Chief Ron Miller in Moline, Illinois resigned after his city council chose to pursue a reduction in force. At the time I had mixed thoughts about Chief Miller's decision and I still do. Some might ask if he was being loyal to his community when he opted to leave instead of lead. Conversely, others might point out the lack of loyalty the elected officials, and by extension, the community, showed Chief Miller in failing to support his stance on providing public safety.
There are hard decisions to make when we have a bleak economic outcome but have to still somehow provide for all the other services a city needs. Chief Miller indicated that he tried to educate this same council on the issues of providing fire safety in their community, which I think many of us have done in regard to our mission and the ever-changing priorities of our governing entities. Some might say that he abandoned his community. Some might say he was being loyal to them.
As a civil servant, our jobs are there to provide expert observations and leadership around subject matter that is not normally understood by the masses. If anyone could do the job of a Fire Chief, for example, anyone could logically fill the position. Therefore, if someone is placed in the position of Fire Chief, it is incumbent upon that individual to report and educate council if those elected officials are grievously mistaken. Unfortunately, many City Councils around the nation right now aren’t doing this, but instead opting to get their advice from an uninformed and emotional electorate, or just follow the incoherent ramblings of trolls on the local blogs.
The result of restricting resources to public safety agencies is that they cannot do their job as efficiently as if they had the resources. There is, however, a line that must be drawn between handing organizations a blank check in the name of saving lives, and recognizing that there are limits on funding, just like anything else. But for any panel or council to naively suggest that personnel reductions and other resource denials won't adversely affect public safety just because “they say so” is ridiculous and in fact, dangerous.
If a council wants to make a risk/benefit analysis and determine risk doesn't justify the expenditure, then they should just say so. That won’t happen, though, because elected officials tend to not have the guts to say that. Saying that means that they just put a price on your life, or the life of your family. But these same individuals should not for a moment suggest that the Fire Chief's take on the subject is flawed because they shared the bad news, specifically, that your choice impacts public safety negatively, because it does, whether you choose to believe that or not.
It comes down to an issue of trust. The council has to be able to trust that the fire chief isn't resorting to hyperbole when the statement is made that "People may die because we failed to staff that station." And ultimately, if council feels like the expense is unnecessary, perhaps instead they should have the balls themselves to say, "We understand the risk, we appreciate being informed, and we choose not to exercise that option”, instead of belittling the official for being candid.
The community has to understand that when the Fire Chief says “We need this”, that individual is doing the job. In many cases, elected officials have failed to support an effective plan for emergency response in their jurisdiction by failing to support necessary equipment purchases, better fire prevention codes, necessary programs, or essential personnel.
When the citizens are screaming for action, instead of accepting the responsibility for making those decisions, without fail the responsibility has been shifted to the shoulders of the responders. Those same politicians should be tried publicly for their cowardice. If elected officials want to take the approach of denial, those same politicians need to face the citizens when they are angry that their home burned, a child died, someone drowned, or devastating loss occurred and the resources weren't there to save the day.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can all agree that there are plenty of Fire Chiefs who trot the “People Will Die” argument out for every little adjustment that comes along. Council needs to trust that the Fire Chief isn't advancing a personal agenda of kingdom-building, but honestly, truthfully, has data to support the requests being made. But all of that comes from selecting the right individual for the job, monitoring their efforts in managing the community’s safety, and keeping an honest dialogue. If your fire department is engaged, proactive, and community-oriented, I'm trying to think of a reason why asking for resources is all of a sudden an indicator they are trying to pull one over on the taxpayers?
The truth is that while data is necessary to support any position, it is the relationship between individuals that makes the data convincing, especially since many "leaders" have massaged data to fit their context and to support their position while abandoning any effort at objectivity. As real leaders, transformational leader, our job is to make the story less intriguing and more convincing, and we do that through transparency and honesty and forthrightness.
The only way to fight back against this kind of anger and distrust is to remain positive and continue striving for excellence. Of all of the jobs we have as emergency service providers, we must show we are above this kind of rhetoric by being compassionate to the people we serve, by helping them when they need help, and providing service at a level that the public finds shocking later, having heard all of the terrible comments about us as being a burden on their pocketbooks.
You combat times like these by developing positive relationships. Take an extra moment to promote the good that we do when a family comes by the fire station to see the trucks, or when you run into someone at a kids’ soccer game. If we work together, we can continue to push toward excellence and to prove that what we are doing saves lives, contributes to the public good, and in the long run, actually saves money by limiting loss to homes and businesses.
Don’t give the haters what they want. Remain positive, remain engaged, and stay the course. Haters love to see you give up. It means they won. Success is the best revenge.