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10 steps to better collaboration between finance officers and fire chiefs

Connect with finance staff early and often to ensure mutual understanding of needs, requirements and limitations

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These 10 steps will help fire and finance teams to each learn the vocabulary, rules and processes of the other, and develop an ongoing relationship that will continually benefit both.

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The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) are working together to develop resources to promote better collaboration between finance officers and fire chiefs.

An introductory public finance curriculum geared toward firefighters is in the works, along with checklists that finance officers can use when meeting with their counterparts in the fire department (and vice versa for fire chiefs).

As a first step, a working group of GFOA and IAFC team and staff members developed the following list, with items geared toward both central office finance professionals and fire department executives.

For fire departments

1. Enlist early collarboration. Get finance involved early with purchases outside the day-to-day. If you need to purchase a new fire engine or fire truck (yes, finance folks, there is a difference – see #3 below), talk to your finance colleagues as soon as the need arises. Even better, work with finance to develop a long-term equipment replacement schedule for all gear and apparatus.

2. Reach out for help. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from finance staff when needed. If you anticipate a need for additional funding or foresee a decrease in revenue, reach out to finance sooner rather than later. They will find out eventually and making them aware earlier allows them to be involved in helping you develop solutions.

3. Give a station tour. Invite finance department staff to get an up-close-and-personal view of your department. Encourage finance staffers to visit and tour fire stations to see the “tools of the trade” and come celebrate new equipment when it arrives. Invite them to spend “ride-along” time in the station, and to go on preplan inspections with you. These efforts will give finance folks a much better understanding of your job and the challenges you face.

For finance departments

4. Expand collaboration. Build a more collaborative budget process. Involve the fire department early in the process. Ask them to provide a representative to participate in any multi-department committee work, opportunities or initiatives. Provide a project plan or road map to show how the budget will be developed and the steps needed for the governing body to approve the budget. Provide assistance in budget development on an as-requested basis. When fire department staff come to you for help, do your best to help them. Too often, finance is thought of as “the Department of No,” meaning they say no to every request that comes to them. When a department makes you aware of a concern and wants to work together to develop solutions, embrace the opportunity to do so. If you do have to say “not now” to a request, be clear and transparent about the reason for the answer and work toward understanding the urgency of the request. After the need and urgency are understood, you can assist with developing a plan for future approval and/or identifying possible alternative paths to meeting the request

5. Understand your FD’s needs. Know your fire department’s staffing model. Fire suppression, rescue and emergency medicine are 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-per-year jobs. This constant need for staffing usually requires a unique shift work schedule where firefighters work up to 24 hours a day and either 48 or 56 hours per week. Are the firefighters full-time paid, volunteer or a combination of both? Does your jurisdiction have a mandate to staff a certain number of firefighters per apparatus? If so, this mandate might require the fire department to utilize more overtime and acting pay to fill these positions. If you really want to see this schedule in action, ask to do an extended ride-along with a fire crew.

6. Get to know the fire lifestyle. Ask questions and do some basic due diligence to learn more about firefighting. Start by learning the difference between a fire engine and a fire truck! In the simplest terms, an engine holds water and hoses, while a truck is a mobile toolbox that can include very large ladders that extend from the apparatus and don’t come off. Continue by learning the lingo. For example, the predominant designation for aerial-ladder trucks is “Ladder,” as in “Ladder 49.” Some jurisdictions refer to “Trucks,” as in “Truck 10.” Find out what verbiage your fire department uses.

For both finance and fire departments

7. Meet as individuals. Go to lunch or have coffee together without work in mind. These meetups can occur at the neighborhood coffee shop or at a fire station with the fire crews. Get to know each other as individuals, not just as representatives of your respective departments. This allows you to build a relationship and earn each other’s trust – an important precursor to effective collaboration.

8. Offer thanks. Express your gratitude for each other’s work. For example, when warranted, offer public thanks at meetings of your governing board. Send a “thank you” or “good job” note (hand-written, preferably!) to mark successful cooperation. This demonstrates you are paying attention and genuinely appreciate each other’s contributions.

9. Team up for meetings. Hold monthly meetings with finance staff and fire department staff. Review fire department budget reports and performance indicator reports to gain a better understanding of how much money is being spent and what benefits the community is getting as a result. Also, share information about revenue collections, expenditures and community priorities across the entire government in these meetings so the fire department staff can see how they fit into the bigger picture.

10. Embrace change. Be open to questions and finding new ways of doing things. Don’t be offended if someone asks questions about processes. Model this behavior at all levels of your department to promote an organizational culture that promotes curiosity, learning and innovation. And when new people join the finance or fire department leadership teams, be the first to reach out and offer to get them briefed and oriented. Build relationships and understanding through training and collaboration. This will make the partnership real and the work easier going forward.

Final thoughts

Fire and finance/budget folks each have their own vocabulary and processes. Too often, they come together annually – and briefly – to develop a budget. The IAFC/GFOA team believes that by using these 10 steps, fire and finance teams will each learn the vocabulary, rules and processes of the other, and develop an ongoing relationship that will continually benefit both.

Fire Chief Joe Pulvermacher and Katie Ludwig contributed to this article.

John Rukavina
John Rukavina

John Rukavina is the director of Public Fire Safety Services, an executive consulting and teaching service. Rukavina started his fire service career in Minnesota. In 1984, he was appointed fire chief of St. Joseph, Missouri (and served as Interim City Manager in St. Joseph for seven months), became chief in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1986, and then director of public safety in Wake County, North Carolina. Rukavina holds a law degree from the University of Minnesota School of Law, was selected as a charter member of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer program, was named a FEMA Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and is designated as a Chief Fire Officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence. He has served as a resident and field instructor for the National Fire Academy; taught for the universities of Minnesota, Georgia, North Carolina and Maryland; and has served as an instructor for the International Association of Fire Chiefs Chief Officer Leadership Symposium. Rukavina is also an elected a fellow of the Institution of Fire Engineers.