Leading Change

By Hersch Wilson

James Baldwin, the American writer, wrote: “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity.”

If you are a chief or a long-term volunteer firefighter, you know that the very definition of being a volunteer firefighter is changing; that the world as we have known it is breaking up.

The realization might come as a result of seeing the increase in requirements and certifications for being a volunteer. Maybe it’s the fact that there are fewer of us (and we are older!) and recruiting – instead of having a waiting list – is a major “keeps me awake at night” theme. Or it could be the fact that the number of structure fires we face is declining, and the number of medical calls and “non-emergent” calls is increasing exponentially. Or maybe it’s that your budget is shrinking at the same time demand for services is rising. Or perhaps some questions challenge your very status as a department. Have you been asked yet why your district and your neighboring district both have half-million-dollar fire engines sitting in bays six miles from each other when all you seem to do is run on ambulance calls? (And we often answer, it’s because of ISO! Or, it’s in our budget!)

Oh yes, and then there are the increasing expectations of our two major stakeholders – the communities we serve and the governing bodies. They want fast response times. They want ALS ambulances, even when BLS would suffice. They want data-driven, rather than tradition driven, fire departments.

If you are a chief of a volunteer department, it can feel as if the light at the end of the tunnel is really a locomotive coming right at you.

The gist is that we are not going back to “the good old days.” We are headed towards a new definition and new ways of organizing rural and suburban “volunteer” departments.

As fire officers, we have a choice. We can either hang on to the old, or we can be the innovators of the future.

The fact of the matter is that as a fire officer, just like a CEO of any organization, a crucial skill is to be able to lead change and do it in a way that engages the maximum number of individuals, excites them about the future and change, and finally, reduces unnecessary conflict.

A quick yet essential point that distinguishes fire officers from other CEOs. At any emergency scene, we follow an incident command structure. We are comfortable in the “command and control” mode. But when we are leading individuals through change, when we want them to change because they want to rather than they “have to,” then top-down, command and control, “We’re going to change because I said so!” isn’t that effective.

Next, the truth is that sometimes change is out of our hands. For example, in our department, Santa Fe County Fire Department, change – from an all-volunteer to a dual department (career staff on duty 24/7) – was mandated by the county commissioners to meet the needs of a growing community and a decline in volunteers.

Yet even in those circumstances, the mission of driving change remains the same: How do we get individuals to “want” to go forward into a new and sometimes unknown future?

I’m going to suggest a couple of essential tools that can help a leader drive change in his or her organization.

The “Why:” The Case for Change

If you are going to ask me to change, for example going from being on a volunteer service to being part of a team of career and volunteers, you need to explain the “why.” There needs to be a clear, urgent, and published “case for change.” The case for change spells out why the current way we are organized will not be successful in the future. It needs to be data-driven and thoughtful. One way to craft a good case for change is to think about it for the stakeholders – the community you serve, the governing body, and the firefighters themselves. (I think of stakeholders as any group of individuals that could put you out of business if their needs aren’t met.)

The mistakes that leaders often make are that they assume (always dangerous) that everyone “gets it,” or they make the mistake of thinking that if they say it once, give one speech, or come out with one memo they are finished. The case for change, a compelling and relatable piece of work, will need to be repeated and repeated until you are sick of hearing yourself. Just about then, individuals will begin to understand. The case for change becomes your “stump speech,” something that a leader is giving every time he or she has the chance.

“The What:” A Vision of the Future

A vision statement tells me how the future, two to five years out, is going to look. It is part data-driven, part art and imagination, and part inspirational. The goal is to excite your stakeholder groups about the future. Because the role of the volunteer firefighter is changing, it is vital to be clear about what the role will be. Erik Litzenburg, the chief of the Santa Fe County Fire Department, calls this emerging role the “professional volunteer,” a firefighter with the same qualifications and training as a career firefighter.

As with the case for change, the vision statement needs to be a living document that is thought about, discussed, and actively promoted by officers in the department.

The Work of Change: A Process

The change you’re dealing with might be going to a paid-on-call system, or it might be as radical as going to volunteers pulling shifts in station. The process, the day-to-day work of change, may be different, but there are a few things to remember that will help keep the process moving smoothly.

Over-communicate

It is isn’t about just communicating; it is about over-communicating. Let your stakeholders know what you’re doing next, then inform them when you are doing it, and then let them know when it has been accomplished. Tie all communications to the case for change and the vision. During significant change, it is almost impossible to communicate too much! Of course, some things can’t be discussed (like personnel matters), but when you can, be open, be candid, and over-communicate!

Benchmark

Chances are, given the amount of transformation going on in the fire department world, the change you are embarking on has been done before by someone else. There is a wealth of information out there, what worked, what didn’t work, case studies, and reports. I highly recommend the classic study The Red Ribbon Report: Lighting the Path of Evolution, Leading the Transition in Volunteer and Combination Fire Departments, published in 2005 by the International Fire Chiefs Association, as a place to start.

Dealing with resistance

My favorite saying as of late is, “The two things firefighters hate are the way things are and change.”

One of the toughest challenges is convincing veteran individuals, in this case, volunteers, that their beloved work is changing and they must also change.

From a leader’s perspective, there are usually three groups of people. There are the change advocates, who may be few. There is the group in the middle, and then there are those who for their legitimate reasons resist change. One of the mistakes well-intended leaders make is spending the majority of their time and energy trying to convince the folks in the back of the room with their arms crossed. A better strategy is to enthuse those who are already the “apostles,” get them excited. They will pull the middle with them.

The “folks in the back” will either follow the middle, or they may decide that it is a bridge too far. For example, after 15 years of responding from home, the new “way” of pulling weekend shifts at the station might be just too much of a change. In that case, they should be honored for their service, but the fact is the department needs to move forward.

Lastly, the best way to deal with resistance is to go back to the core reasons that individuals volunteer in the first place. Keeping volunteers committed comes down to five principles laid out in a paper originally published by the National Volunteer Fire Council in 1998:

“People are willing to volunteer in the fire and rescue service provided the following are true: the experience is rewarding and worth their time, the training requirements are not excessive, the time demands are manageable, they feel valued, conflict is minimized.” [Bush, Reade. Schaenman, Philip. Thiel, Katherine (1998). Retention and Recruitment in the Volunteer Fire Service: Problems and Solutions.]

In summary, being a leader today in the fire service is about leading change. For fire officers, that means that we need to be “change-ready,” willing to be open, curious, embracing the new, while at the same time valuing the history and traditions of the service. It is a delicate but vital balance.

But ultimately, our task is not to provide emergency services as we have in the past. Instead, it is to prepare our departments for the challenges of the future, wherever that might lead us.

Be Brave. Be Kind. Fight Fires.

Hersch Wilson is a 34-year veteran and assistant chief with the Santa Fe County Fire Department, Hondo District. His new book, Firefighter Zen: A Field Guide for Thriving in Tough Times will be published by New World Library in May 2020.

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