As the funding for fire departments and everything else continues to decrease around the country we have seen an increase in the number of news stories asking very tough questions about how the money that is available is being spent. The call for financial accountability has taken a toll on the reputation of a large number of fire departments around the country. It has become an important factor behind the image problem the fire service is experiencing.
The issue is usually pushed by the public and political leaders or generated by a news organization's investigation (or a combination). While sometimes these citizens, politicians and reporters solidly hit the mark and uncover a real problem, there have been other cases where the data is flawed or someone's agenda took precedent over the facts.
A series of articles this week in The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown, Maryland looks closely at how money is distributed and spent by the Washington County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association and the individual volunteer fire companies. The fire companies are funded by the county budget, municipal budgets, state funding, federal grants, the association and private gaming (click here for the article on funding sources).
The headline on the main article is Where is the accountability?. It documents how financial reports the fire companies provide each year to the Washington County Division of Emergency Services, as a requirement for receiving money, are rarely examined. Director Kevin Lewis says the staff isn't available to scrutinize the reports either before or after the money is distributed. The other big issue in the articles is how the association distributes its portion of gaming money and how much it keeps.
The issue of financial accountability is currently being used elsewhere in Maryland as one of the reasons behind efforts to change the makeup of volunteer controlled fire commissions in Prince George's County and Montgomery County.
This is far from a volunteer issue. Locally, we had the story of questions being asked about the expense of take home cars for the command staff at the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department in Virginia. Across the country, the combination of pensions and salaries for career firefighters has people outraged over what they see as excess compensation at a time when revenue continues to shrink.
My purpose in bringing all of this up is not to pass judgment on the facts in any of these examples but to ask are you as a fire chief, union president, volunteer president or association head ready to effectively deal with such scrutiny of your department, your firefighters and your finances?
I am far from expert in financial matters (I can barely balance the checkbook, even with Quicken), but I think I know a few things about dealing with your image and reputation based on my experience as a reporter and following the clear pattern of these stories across the country for the last three years or so.
Here are some tips (far from comprehensive and in no particular order).
Get your house in order. Deal with problems that will likely cause distraction from the real issue and give your enemies ammunition. For example, sick leave abuse allegations that could crop up at a time you are dealing with pension issues, or videos showing up on YouTube that cause reputation problems while you're trying to hold on to funding or authority.
Be proactive. Don't wait until you are under attack. Anticipate what the issues will be and start dealing with them now. If needed, do your own audit or investigation. Find out what the financial problems are and deal with them before someone else does it for you.
Don't defend the indefensible. No one wants to hear "that's the way we've always done it", or "it's tradition", as an argument when the financial picture is bleak. Cut your losses, move beyond the things you can't win and focus your political capital where it can be effective.
Have good solid arguments and justification for your positions. Focus on public safety and firefighter safety.
Don't just reach out to the public and the press for help when the going gets tough. You should have a communications strategy that helps you build reputation equity in your community each and every day. The public needs to know who you are, what you stand for and how you are relevant in their lives if they are going to come to your defense when you are under attack. The reporters also need to know who you are and that you're an honest and credible broker of information.
Be passionate about what you believe in but lose some of the emotion. Make a strong, believable case, but be very careful about using threats and attacks. They can and will backfire. In most cases it isn't going to work anymore to say stuff it, we're firefighters, then make a personal attack on the opposition and hold your breath until you turn blue.
I am sure there are many more tips and ideas for weathering these storms. Certainly there is enough experience out there in recent years from those who have dealt first hand with these problems. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section.