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Fire back: When to address or ignore attacks

Fire departments are easy targets for criticism; fire chiefs need to know how, when, why and if to respond


Someone makes an angry comment at a city council meeting about a fire response. A blogger creates a cartoon that makes the fire department look incompetent after a recent event. An anonymous person posts inflammatory comments about the fire department online.

As fire chief, you will be affected by all of these occurrences. You might feel angry, defensive and ready for a fight.

The question is: Should you respond to every attack? And when you do choose to respond, how should you do it for best effect?

Some chiefs tend to go to extremes when it comes to responding to public criticism. On one extreme are those who leave no attack unanswered. It doesn’t matter what is the source of the attack, the chief meets it head on.

This approach can have the benefit of portraying the chief as a fighter for his or her department. But it is also exhausting, time consuming and not necessarily effective in the long run.

On the other extreme are chiefs who refuse to engage in any public dispute. They put themselves above the fray in a way that may make them look dignified, but will as easily make them seem out of touch and uncaring.

Four Ws
What’s a conscientious chief to do? It can help to have a plan. A simple approach to strategic response is using a modified version of the old journalist’s questions: who, when, where and what.

First, consider who is the source of the comments or criticism. There is a big difference between an anonymous online troll and the city manager. The latter demands response, the former is probably best ignored.

When a comment was made is important when considering response strategy. The immediate aftermath of a disaster or tragedy is not the time to get into a war of words with an individual. It is better at this time to just focus on doing your job and keeping the public informed in a professional way.

Next consider where the critical comments were made. What was the context? Was the criticism made during a comment period at a public meeting? Was it a formal complaint?

There are situations in which a question is asked and it must be answered, otherwise it will look like you are avoiding the issue or concealing information. On the other hand, if general accusations are made in a comment section of a website, there may be no urgency for response.

Finally is the issue of content. What was actually said? This may be the most important criteria for deciding if and how to respond.

  • What is the real substance of the dispute or accusation?
  • Is there merit in the comments that have been made?
  • Is the source credible?

How to respond
Some issues demand response; others may not have the same urgency. Be clear about what the issue is before deciding whether to respond to it.

As a result of this analysis, you may decide that some response is required from you, the chief. How will you make that response? Again, the four Ws can be useful.

First, if you are going to respond, who will you respond to? Do you really want to get into an argument with a single person online or would it be better to craft a response to a more general audience? Will a public statement be effective, or do you need to meet directly with affected individuals?

When is the best time to respond? In some cases, you cannot wait. Some events require immediate response.

On the other hand, sometimes delay can work in your favor. For example, studies show that substantive apologies are better made after a pause that indicates consideration of all the facts and effects of the event.

Now think about where to make a response. What is the optimal venue for you to be best understood? Consider whether it is enough to simply write a letter of rebuttal to the newspaper where the first letter was published. If not, you may need to call a press conference.

Sans emotion
And finally, the most important — what. The substance of your response is critically important.

It can’t just be an angry screed directed at those who oppose you regardless of how unfair their opposition is. You need to take the moral high ground. You need to be the voice of reason.

Be sure of your facts. Take all the time you have in this area. Do not react emotionally, no matter how high your emotions may be running.

Remember that no reaction is always a choice, and may be the best one in some circumstances. You don’t need to engage in every battle.

In some cases, you might be able to get others to do your work for you. For example, if baseless and libelous comments are made on a website, you could inform the website manager of that fact. Then they can handle the troll instead of you doing it directly. Public interest groups that support the fire department will often step up to counter unfair criticism without the fire chief being directly involved.

Every problem does not need to be solved at the level of chief, and every attack does not deserve to be answered. Conserve your energy and resources for the battles that really matter, and be strategic rather than emotional about how you choose to respond in any given situation.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.