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How to buy fire department management consulting services and training

There are many things to consider when looking for external support for strategic planning and harassment training

By Linda F. Willing

Strategic planning

A good strategic plan can be a tremendous tool for management and leadership in any organization. The process of creating a strategic plan is one that requires considerable work and expertise for the results to be truly useful in both the short and long term.

Some emergency services organizations take on strategic planning using only in-house resources, and there are some advantages to this approach. Using only internal resources when doing strategic planning can reduce financial outlay and may provide professional development opportunities for those who work on the project.

However, strategic planning is a large undertaking and one that is fairly technical in some aspects. The dangers of using only in-house resources for this task include a lack of focus due to other more immediate obligations, failure to meet deadlines, frustration due to lack of experience with the process, and a final product that does not genuinely meet the needs of the organization.

If you choose to hire outside consulting services for strategic planning, make sure the company or individual you select is a good fit for your particular organization. Specifically, you need to ask:

  • What is the consultant’s experience with doing strategic planning? What kinds of organizations have they worked with? Although a general knowledge of the fire service is useful, do not necessarily rule out those who have worked with other types of organizations, especially nonprofits.
  • Are sample plans available from prior work? Although there may be confidentiality issues with giving you access to a complete strategic plan from another organization, you should be able to get a feel for how the provider writes and organizes a strategic plan. Is the language clear? Is the time frame for the plan truly strategic (at least five years)? Are topics easily referenced?
  • Who will be involved in the planning process? Who will the consulting team want to talk to? Will a committee be formed to assist with the process? If so, how will that group be selected and what will be the expectations of members? All aspects of the organization should be represented when giving input for strategic planning, not just the largest divisions, such as operations.
  • What is it like to have a conversation with the person who will lead the project? Is that person clear and to the point? Does he or she listen well, or is there a pattern of rambling speech and interruption during conversation? Beware of this latter pattern, as the resulting plan may reflect some of these tendencies.
  • How long will the process take? Several months are usually the minimum unless the organization is quite small, but make sure you nail this down before you sign a contract. How much will it cost? What will you get for the money?
  • How many copies of the plan will be provided to the organization and in what form? This might seem too detail oriented, but copying and binding documents of a hundred pages or more can be expensive and time consuming. And although it is common now for documents to be made available electronically, you also want to make sure you have an adequate number of hard copies as well.
  • Will there be any type of follow up service after the plan is completed? Follow up activities might include a series of in-person presentations on the plan, webinars, or meetings with key stakeholders to explain key points and answer questions.

Some people see strategic planning as a waste of time and money, just a lot of words with no substance attached to them. But when done well, strategic planning can provide a clear roadmap for the organization in the near and more distant future, and can underscore a sense of identity and mission for all members even during difficult times.

Harrasment Training

Most fire departments and emergency services agencies provide some kind of training in the areas of workplace harassment and discrimination, but beyond that fact, there are many variations on how that training is done. Some departments use in-house trainers, some utilize resources from within the city or parent jurisdiction, such as someone from the Human Resources Department, and others choose to bring in trainers from the outside.

The advantages to having intra-agency personnel do the training are obvious: using in-house people will keep costs low and simplify logistics when planning classes. But be careful. There are some distinct disadvantages to using in-house personnel for this kind of training. In-house personnel are usually not specialists in harassment and discrimination issues, and might not be knowledgeable about the most recent changes in the law. In addition, some in-house people carry baggage from their long tenure within the organization that may hurt their credibility with this difficult subject.

If you decide to hire an outside trainer to do harassment training for your department, consider the following:

  • Examples used in the class must be fire-service specific, and not generically based in a more corporate environment.
  • The trainer should not only have knowledge of fire service operations and culture, but should want to know about specific issues facing your individual department in this area.
  • The trainer must be well-versed in the law, and equally important, be able to explain complex aspects of the law to an audience with little legal background. An attorney may or may not be the best person for this role.
  • Participants in the training must be able to have their questions answered. This means that the class will have a respectful, inclusive format, as well as being primarily based on live classroom interaction rather than video or remote training. Some jurisdictions have laws or policies which limit the amount of video training permitted for this subject.

Ask all potential trainers about their general sense of purpose in doing harassment training. If the main goal is just to prevent lawsuits and complaints, you might want to look further. Naturally, every organization wants to avoid lawsuits, but harassment training that has such avoidance as its main purpose may have the effect of scaring people rather than educating them.

What about having separate classes for different functional groups within the department? On the one hand, all department members need to hear the same thing when it comes to harassment law, so holding one class for everyone makes sense. On the other hand, people in different functional roles, such as supervisors, do have more responsibility and liability under harassment law, and may need some additional training beyond the basics.

If you decide to consider outside training services for harassment training, ask the following questions of any potential provider:

  • What is your legal background and knowledge of harassment and discrimination law?
  • What is your experience working with fire and emergency services organizations?
  • How interactive is a typical class on this subject?
  • What is your sense of mission in teaching harassment and discrimination classes?

This last question may be the most important. Some organizations offer harassment training mainly to “check the box” as a way of avoiding liability in the event of a harassment complaint. Some organizations truly want to prevent harassment but feel that fear is the best way to make the point. But training, even on a difficult subject like workplace harassment, is a critical part of advancing the overall mission of the fire service. When done badly, harassment training may make things worse rather than better. Spending a little time and effort to find a skilled provider of this training will pay off big in the long run.

  • Any other suggestions? Anything we missed in the list above? Leave a comment below or e-mail with your feedback.

Linda F. Willing worked for more than 20 years in the emergency services, including 18 as a career firefighter and fire officer. For the past 10 years, she has provided support for fire and emergency services and other organizations through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. Linda’s work focuses on developing customized solutions in the areas of leadership development, conflict resolution, diversity management, team building, communications and decision making. Linda is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor for the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. She has a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.S. from Regis University in Denver in Organization Development, and is a certified mediator.

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