Mindset matters: 3 keys to financial crisis management during COVID-19

Committed leadership, mission-focus and a data-informed mindset will allow us to effectively manage the financial challenges ahead

The COVID-19 crisis is by no means over, but for now, I believe, the fire service has adjusted to the virus and the many challenges it presents.

We implemented new tactics based on the best scientific information available and our firsthand knowledge and experience. And using various methods, we developed best practices to mitigate the risks associated with the virus. That broad strategy allowed us to meet tactical challenges, directly resulting in successful outcomes.

There are new challenges on the horizon, though.

The new fiscal reality will require adaptive thinking and solutions that we are not accustomed to exercising or implementing.
The new fiscal reality will require adaptive thinking and solutions that we are not accustomed to exercising or implementing. (Photo/Getty Images)

We will soon be faced with the need to mitigate the financial consequences to local, state and national economies. All jurisdictions around the country will be affected to some degree by the added cost to combat the virus and diminishing revenues resulting from the closing of economies. The toll COVID-19 has taken on our economy will soon be devastating for many organizations if not properly managed.

The new fiscal reality will require adaptive thinking and solutions that we are not accustomed to exercising or implementing. The mindset for addressing the fiscal challenges that lie ahead will require committed leadership, a continued focus on our mission, and a data-driven mindset.

Let’s review these three key elements to the financial management mindset – and how they interact.

1. Committed leadership

Department leadership will need to be committed to their strategy, as it will be relentlessly challenged by our spirit of tradition and our natural uneasiness with change.

Leaders will need to be open to new ideas and clear on the strategic direction, the methodology needed and the honest consequences of the strategies adopted.

Further, leaders must be willing to embrace the responsibility for the decisions made, especially when the results are not as anticipated and mid-course corrections are needed.

2. Mission-centered focus

As we focus on the details of new strategies, we cannot lose sight of our primary mission.

We typically consider many of the services we provide to be indispensable, and passionately argue to preserve not just the programs but also the way we deliver the service.

The new fiscal environment offers us an opportunity to challenge traditional thinking in ways we are typically not comfortable doing. For instance, we will need to use data to determine what is most critical and impactful in our communities.

3. Data-driven mindset

Data should guide our assessments and decisions about the effectiveness of our programs. After all, it is critical that we are good stewards of the limited funds available and that we direct those funds to the programs that have the greatest impact.

Data should inform all operational and administrative strategies; this may lead to subtle, or in some cases significant, changes. For example, tactical rescue services may have to be discontinued or delivered as part of a regional approach. Staffing goals may need to be reevaluated, even leading to staffing reductions in worst-case scenarios. A cost-benefit analysis based on accurate, relevant and reliable data coupled with an honest assessment should result in the best options.

A word of caution regarding data: It has to be collected and analyzed properly. We must ask the right questions and seek the information we need, not the information that is easy to get. We might be tempted to take a shortcut by using data that does not exactly answer the precise questions we need answered. Trying to adjust data to meet our needs will likely lead to erroneous conclusions and poor decisions. In order to make sound decisions, we must understand whether there is a causal relationship between the data and the programs and policies being evaluated. We also need to understand if there is no causal relationship, as it will lead to a different conclusion and possibly ineffective solutions. If we do not have data immediately available, we need to use our best professional judgment and develop a plan to collect relevant, quality data to effectively evaluate the policy in the future.

Putting it all together

The solutions developed should allow for the fulfillment of the mission at the lowest cost possible without added risk to first responders or to the community we serve. Any resulting changes may not always be easy to implement and will therefore require the continued commitment and support of leaders at all levels.

Internally, the leadership will have to ensure that department personnel understand the need for the change, the evaluation process, and a vision of how the department will move forward, looking after its community without the program. Externally, the leadership will have to ensure that the politicians, community executives and the community at large understand both the benefits and disadvantages of adopted strategies.

Leaders often assert that we will do more with less. The reality is that we will do less with less but will continue to work to the best of our ability. For instance, eliminating programs may lead to longer response times for certain calls. Painfully, it could mean giving up or modifying programs we championed in the past. These types of decisions are especially difficult when financial and emotional sunken costs are involved and must be written off.

Precisely in times like this, we must focus on the mission and rely on the data. The data may support cutting or reducing a program but could also justify keeping all members of the department in order to ensure that other services can be delivered effectively. The goal is to maximize the resources available in order to fulfill the mission while maintaining some degree of operational resiliency.

Resiliency requires flexibility, which is not always efficient but that provides for the ability to manage large-scale, high-risk or unusual incidents, such as mass shootings, natural disasters or another pandemic. Resiliency is necessary to fulfill the mission and thus must remain a priority.

As we modify our service models to meet new financial outlooks, the process will require us to collaborate internally and with other agencies and regional partners.

The goal is not to use data to make budgetary cuts for the sake of a reduced budget but to maximize the benefit of the limited funds available. In some cases, this will mean making cuts, and in others, it will just mean making adjustments to improve our service delivery.

Regardless of the approach, our new financial landscape will require a good understanding of our organizational mission, and a clear vision for the future. Committed leadership will be required to clearly and honestly communicate decisions and their impact to the organization members, community stakeholders and the general public. Persistent leadership will be required to assume responsibility for the results and make adjustments as needed. Compassionate leadership will be needed to reassure those who are reluctant to change and to overcome the natural fear of undertaking a new path.

Committed leadership, focus on the mission and a data-informed mindset will allow us to effectively manage the financial challenges ahead and lead our organizations to a better future.

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