Fire chiefs: How to build regional specialty teams

Creating and operating a successful regional team rests on communication and trust

The recession may be officially over for the private sector, but as most fire chiefs know further budget cuts are a very real and present threat. This, of course, is at the core of a chief's conundrum of how to provide the same or better service with fewer resources.

One option is to cut services, like hazmat or technical rescue, until funding to pay for that equipment, personnel and training is restored. Another option is to find partners to share the load.

That's where Randall Hanifen comes in. Hanifen is a lieutenant with West Chester (Ohio) Fire Department, a fire-science adjunct professor and someone who has been on the forefront of creating regional partnerships to deliver specialized fire and rescue services.

Hanifen is also one of the speakers at this year's Fire Rescue International, hosted by the International Association of Fire Chiefs in Atlanta later this month (you can register here). One of Hanifen's presentations will be "Regional Collaborations: Strategic and Tactical Actions Needed to Make it Happen."

If getting fire and rescue leaders from different jurisdictions, plus their elected and appointed officials, on the same page sounds as easy as herding cats — it's not; it's harder. However, with the right planning it can be done, as Hanifen can attest to as he's built them from the ground up.

Hanifen put together his county's first special operations team focused mainly on technical rescue, that then moved into water rescue and is considering expanding to include hazmat.

Initial steps
To succeed, everything boils down to strong communication with and gaining trust of those involved, Hanifen says. That, of course, is much easier said than done.

A major obstacle to getting started is the people involved. "Any collaboration is going to involve some sort of change," Hanifen says. "And it often involves a change of power." People don't like to give up power, but once they look at a collaborative effort, they often find that they have more power, he says.

One of the most important factors to building a winning team from the start is ensuring that those members are experts in their fields — that's the trust factor. More research is needed, he says, but there is evidence that job knowledge is among the top predictors of a successful collaboration.

"Why that proved as a common theme, I can't say," Hanifen says. "I looked across leadership, management and personal traits and none of that included job knowledge and education."

On the communication front, success comes when communication is dominated more by listening than by talking. "That was the major differentiation that we found from our normal command-and-control function to collaboration is the ability to listen," he says.

Start-up and sustained funds
Those people skills aside, the need for money is quite real.

For many regions, building a team will mean finding the initial resources to get it going. In Hanefin's case, they had a FEMA grant to get the ball rolling. That was great for initial training and start-up costs, but it didn't address sustained funding.

They looked at two funding models. One was a per-capita fee that would charge participating communities based on population. They also approached county elected officials seeking money out of their general fund.

There were two reasons why it made sense for the county provide on-going funding: the services were countywide, and the county was used as the entity to apply for, and ultimately receive, grant money.

In the end, the county bought into the program and provided on-going funding. But in the spirit of not keeping all eggs in one basket, Hanefin established a non-profit group through the fire chief's association to do independent fundraising; they also kept the research on the per-capita plan — just in case.

Another option to augment sustained funding is to have the legal ability to seek reimbursement from private entities for expenses incurred, such as supplies used, during an incident. In Hanefin's case, that means enacting a law at the state level — something they are currently working on.

Going live
Hanefin cautions those entering the regionalization arena not to expect overnight results.

"I was the guy who looked at it … and thought we can knock this out in about a year," Hanefin says. "Five years later, we went operational."

Hanefin's group was starting from scratch in terms of equipment to be bought and personnel to be trained. The more things a group has in place at the start, the shorter the time to being up and running.

When the team is needed, a common dispatch center uses the Active 911 to dispatch members' to smartphones. Each month, one person is scheduled team leader and a back up is scheduled in case the primary commander is unavailable. The commander can see who is coming and where they are coming from using the app. They can re-dispatch if more personnel are needed.

The team roster was set with built-in redundancies to ensure enough members would respond. If you need one person, you have to roster three to overcome those who cannot show, he says. "We wanted 20 personnel to respond and have kept a roster of 60."

Levels of commitment
They also had to deal with some tensions between career and volunteer departments at the start of the process. To solve it, they opened membership to any firefighter who committed to the nine months of training and the eight hours of continuing-education training every other month.

"The only volunteers we got were sponsored through their volunteer department, but were career firefighters other places," he says. "It just wasn't feasible (for volunteers)."

One way his team involves volunteer organizations in more rural areas of the jurisdiction is by sending out members to teach those departments proper initial response to various incidents that the team is likely to be called to.

"We explain what they can do to help without getting themselves in a situation that is going to make it worse," he says. "We look at it as a tiered system where we aren't independent of any organization; we are more of a force multiplier."

That force-multiplier attitude is another way trust and communication come into play when the team is dispatched to a volunteer or career jurisdiction. The notion of saying, "We're here, step aside" is never going to work, he says.

Logistics of people
Liability issues are sure to come up when multiple jurisdictions are involved. One thing Hanifen learned from benchmarking other regional teams was to title all of the vehicles and equipment to the county and make each municipality responsible for the members they send to the team.

The memorandum of understandings between the team and the municipalities details that the municipalities maintain all liability for their members, which includes things like workers' compensation if someone were to be injured.

"I always joke that we are the largest organization that doesn't exist," he says. "By the time you get down to the legalities of it, each person belongs back to their organization."

Of course organizing the team is half the battle. Keeping members interested and participating is quite another matter.

"You have to provide something new and exciting for them," he says. "If they are learning something and working with people that they respect and have a friendship with, they are more than likely to show up."

The wish list
The other challenge is more external in that it is important to market the team's skills to other agencies. Getting dispatched for interesting and useful tasks will bolster interest among team members. One example was Hanifen's team showed police the technical capabilities they had for locating lost persons.

While Hanifen says his team's structure is near ideal, he would add to a holiday wish list a paid logistics person and someone to train and meet agencies and departments within the county.

"That is the Achilles' heel of any team — the continued maintenance of some very high-tech equipment that doesn't get used on a continual basis," he says.

Problems aside, the push toward regionalization is one likely to continue as a means of coping with increased demands for service and reduced resources.

"No single department, no matter how big, can afford to provide the training, equipment and upkeep," he says. "It comes down to we have to provide that service, but we can't afford to do it on our own."

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