Straight Talk: May 2012
By Kevin Foster
By Kevin Foster
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. When thinking of setting and reaching goals, it is rare to achieve them through a straight-line approach. Take, for example, a sprinter running 100 metres. The finish line may be the achievement, but the goal – to get there faster than anyone else – is a result of countless hours of training, which led to achievements in other competitions over time, before finally accomplishing the ultimate goal. Sometimes there are competitions during which lessons are learned but goals are not achieved.
The fire service is highly skilled, professional, and passionate. Generally, though, it is not patient. We regularly find ourselves frustrated by the glacial speed of politics. Current economic times have exacerbated the frustration, as the focus on fiscal conservatism has further constrained progress that comes with any type of financial implications for municipal councils or provincial ministries. So, what are we to do? Sit and sulk? Throw temper tantrums? Feel free to give it a try and let me know how it works out . . .
The current state of the economy, as I see it, has not slammed the doors of opportunity shut on the fire service, but has let the doors close gently on our collective foot, because of the work we have done and the relationships we have built. So, let’s not fall back into obscurity and be seen as complainers; our foot is still firmly in the door. How can we get all the way back in?
Several months ago, a trusted colleague wrote in this publication about lobbying as a strategy for moving fire-service issues forward. He said, “Show up and make friends, and when you’re done, show up again and make more friends.” This strategy has proven fruitful for many fire services across this country. Perhaps it is of value to recap some of the fire service’s major successes: the volunteer firefighter tax credit (Canada); firefighter workplace presumptive illness coverage (all provinces except Newfoundland and Labrador); provincial funding for fire apparatuses (Newfoundland and Labrador); fire sprinkler requirements (Ontario). Like the world-class sprinter who has improved with training and practice, these successes have come with hard work and some less-successful initiatives.
It is far from my intent to suggest that we rest on our laurels; actually, I hope that reflecting on these achievements gives us the energy to build on them. Our work is not done; we have more races to run and more training to do. In my view, now that the times are a changin’ (or maybe they have already changed), we must step back, refocus and re-energize. Hopefully, the successes listed above will help us feel better about what we have achieved, and will rejuvenate us so we’re ready to tackle issues that still require work.
So, get back out there and make friends with the new political and staff faces at the local, provincial and national levels. It is imperative that we become knowledgeable about different ideologies that these influencers may have, and the fiscal challenges that they may seek to overcome. Where there are familiar faces, we need to re-acquaint them with our issues and areas of concern. This will help to define or refine your approach to an issue.
One of the more difficult challenges is to prioritize the issues. Unfortunately, the multitude of factors that demonstrates the diversity of the fire service are the same factors that drive the divisiveness in our ranks, and this makes it even more difficult to determine which issues to embrace.
Typically, the individuals who we want to act in a desired fashion – politicians or agencies – are able to play us off of each other because fire-service groups are unable to agree on a preferred outcome, or the path to achieving it even if we do agree on an outcome. Overcoming that challenge is step one.
So, pick the issues that are winners for all, and save the more contentious matters for another time. Doing this will probably limit the number of topics. Don’t discard the other issues, because they are important; it’s just that perhaps this isn’t the right time to fight those major battles.
As you work through the factors that influence the decision about which issues to tackle, you may find that you elect to proceed with those that are not the most pressing or influential. The opportunity to capture smaller wins may be the key that unlocks the door to the bigger victory when times are better. Now is the time to build and nurture partnerships and create coalitions.
Prepare to deliver your key messages time and time again to all who will listen – perhaps not even to those you are trying to influence, rather maybe to those who simply ask questions and will then deliver your message to someone else, who may ask the question that will lead to the actions you’re after.
Yes, it’s more like a twisty, 42-kilometre marathon than a 100-metre sprint, but medals are awarded for that event too.
Kevin Foster is the fire chief in Midland, Ont., and the first vice-president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org