The informed, uninformed and ill-informed: There’s no use dwelling on the differences

Fire chiefs must focus on what they can control – their community messaging

Many fire chiefs are Type-A personalities. This means we sometimes display a know-it-all attitude. And yes, that can be off-putting to some, but the bottom line is our experience makes us experts in our field – and yet, we still get resistance from “outsiders.”

  • We say we need more staff; the community says you have too many members already.
  • We say we need newer fire trucks; the bean-counters say it’s too costly.
  • We say we need a new program based in the principles of community risk reduction; the legal department says it’s too risky. (Oh, the irony.)

But why should these non-experts have the final say? After all, do I tell a builder how to build houses? No. Do I tell an accountant how to balance the books? No. Do I tell a farmer how to manage crops? No. So how do we find ourselves in positions where we – as fire service leaders – constantly have to fight for what we know is right?

As a fire chief, the key to success usually rests in your hands – or, more specifically, in your actions.
As a fire chief, the key to success usually rests in your hands – or, more specifically, in your actions. (Photo/Getty Images)

Do you really know best?

With all that said, let’s also acknowledge some reality. Probably the most important thing I’ve learned from my 40 years of fire service experience is that I DON’T know it all. No one does.

I’ve had the honor to work alongside many fine folks over the years – and some not-so-fine-folks, too. We typically don’t have a choice of which type of person we work alongside, but we do have a choice of how we deal with the leadership challenges. For instance, when faced with a new or debated situation, some choose to opine about “how I would have done it,” while others take the opportunity to learn and grow from the experience.

Frankly, the notion that you’re the only one with the right answer is silly. Maybe you do know what’s best – maybe you don’t. Regardless, we’re a team, not an autocracy! As fire chiefs, we simply don’t run our own little kingdoms on high without checks and balances.

4 keys to information-sharing success

As a fire chief, the key to success usually rests in your hands – or, more specifically, in your actions.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made a presentation at a political hearing or similar event, then listened to a subsequent community comment period that makes me scratch my head. Were they listening to the same presentation? Did I say something I don’t remember saying? Where did they get that information?

You’ll rarely be able to capture and bottle the moments after someone has been ill-informed, and dwelling on questions of misinformation rarely leads to successful outcomes. In the end, it comes down to the thorough execution of your messaging – part of the four keys to information-sharing success … that you can control: 

1. Process: Follow the proper and legal paths of information-sharing. If you want people to show up for a hearing, don’t merely advertise the meeting on social media. Advertise across all platforms. If you’re trying to enact a new fee or alter an existing statutory structure, follow the process required to make change (advertisements, time frames, number of meetings, fiscal considerations, paperwork requirements, etc.). Regardless of how goofy you believe the process to be, don’t give someone a legitimate reason to win a challenge against you simply because you didn’t follow the process.

2. Undisputable accuracy: Don’t lie! And don’t use twisted language or phraseology. Make sure you know what you’re talking about before you open your mouth or make challenges you cannot back up. Remember, statistics are your friend. Know the statistics – costs and cost savings, response differences, adequacies and inefficiencies.

[Read next: 4 data points all fire chiefs should know]

3. Thoroughness: While it has been said “don’t BS a BS-er,” you also don’t want to be caught “baffling them with BS.” it is very important that you provide enough information to answer the questions you know will come up, but not provide so much information that people gloss over and lose sight of your bottom line. Beyond the presentation, nothing you do in this role as a salesperson should be one-dimensional.

4. Integrity: Personal and professional integrity really is all you own in life. It is important that you’re challenging the right thing for the right reason. It is also important that you don’t blindside your elected officials with a program or presentation that they don’t know about in advance. Surprises are not usually your friend when it comes to community and political support.

Information, front and center

People tend to hear what they want to hear – and as soon as they’ve heard what they want to hear, they’re off to the races!

Maybe they’re the informed, maybe they’re the uninformed, maybe they’re the ill-informed – it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that you ensure that you are INFORMING them! Your best opportunity to win that race is rooted in the four keys above.

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