Jeff Pomeranz

Greg Buelow

By Jeff Pomeranz, City Manager, City of Cedar Rapids, IA & Vice President, CPSE Board of Directors (@CRcitymanager) and Greg Buelow, Public Safety Communications Coordinator, City of Cedar Rapids, IA

A key component to the success of a fire department and the Fire Chief is the relationship with the city’s Chief Executive Officer.  These leaders need a productive, collaborate relationship.  So, what are those essential ingredients that demonstrate respect and help both leaders build support at a community level?  What components are needed for a Fire Chief and City Manager to build a strong relationship between each other and other members of the City’s executive team?  What do they need from each other and what would be a blueprint for success for a new Fire Chief or City Manager trying to build a healthy partnership?

To begin with, we all know that the fire department is an essential component of a community’s ability to mitigate threats to lives and property.  Effective fire services provide both emergency response and community risk reduction.  Quality service delivery, adequate training and equipment, and positive community relationships help improve quality of life, growth, and economic opportunity in a municipality.

Essentially, the City Manager and the Fire Chief share similar visions and values.   The relationship is symbiotic and, ideally, it should be that type of relationship.  In Cedar Rapids and in many communities throughout the United States, the Fire Chief is a member of the city leadership team.  The leadership team plans, executes, and evaluates organization-wide strategies to ensure that the City Council’s vision and goals are accomplished and community needs are met.  The team is committed to demonstrating a leadership model that provides a vision of the future, clarity of purpose, and a means of communicating effectively.  Leadership teams create a culture in the organization where people can be successful.

The Fire Chief brings substantial value to the city leadership team and helps identify emerging issues and identifies core strategies and policies critical to organizational success.  Working alongside the Police, Public Works, Utilities, Community Development, and Human Resources Departments, the Fire Chief and City Manager  develop common goals and methodologies for problem solving.  As part of the leadership team, the Fire Chief is attuned to organization, resource and tactical planning, core strategies and policies that contribute to the success of city government.  The fire department and Fire Chief become an integrated part of the citywide budget and performance measures systems that are crucial to organizational health.

Local governments are constantly constrained by resources, which makes resource sharing, contracting, and mutual aid an essential component of today’s fire service.  Very much like the traditional mutual aid pacts with surrounding communities provide essential resources in times of need, the Fire Chief’s incorporation into the city leadership team provides invaluable shared human resource management, policy development, and strategic planning.

The closeness of the relationship between the City Manager and the Fire Chief assures that relations are strong, respectful, and mutually supportive.  The City Manager must have complete confidence in the Fire Chief – the individual that will be called up on to conceptualize and implement emergency plans and strategies to protect families and businesses.  There is too much at stake to have doubt when decisiveness and action is needed.  The mission of the fire department is too critical and the service impacts are too substantial for the City Manager and the Fire Chief to not be engaged on a regular basis.

To bond the important facets of the Fire Chief and City Manager relationship, it comes down to ten core relationship attributes and recommendations.

  1. Trust Each Other

Trust, in concert with honesty and openness, is the foundation of a solid relationship.  Open dialogue needs to be encouraged and practiced.  What is said between the Fire Chief and City Manager must be held in confidence.

2. Eliminate the Fear

Being open and honest means that some discussions will be difficult.  However, a fear of retribution or other negative consequence destroys the lines of communication and will erode the trust.  A partnership is patient.  A partnership is kind.  A partnership is not envious, boastful, or arrogant.

3. Agree to Disagree

This theorem makes no statement on preference or value judgment regarding outcomes.  Further conflict would be unnecessary, ineffective, and undesirable.  The relationship remains amicable even though the Fire Chief and City Manager may not agree on the issue.  The emphasis is on maintaining the relationship rather than letting a singular issue divide and conquer.

4. Don’t be a Micromanager

There is generally a negative connotation with the micromanagement style.  Most fire service Chief Executive Officers and city Chief Executive Officers have multiple years of training and experience and today’s leaders are well-educated.  They have a healthy balance of education, experience, and training to improve their departments and their community.   Allow both to do the job that they were hired to perform without controlling or closely observing each other’s work.

5. Establish a Culture of Accountability

Most Fire Chiefs and City Managers yearn for people to “tell it like it is.”  For example, the City Manager must be able to counsel and discipline with both candor and respect.  And, the City Manager must not be afraid to confront or discipline any department leader.  This culture of accountability practiced from the top of the organization resonates all the way to the shift firefighter.

6. Show (and Demonstrate) Pride in the Community

An effective leader takes pride in the community that they serve and celebrates the successes of the city and its employees.  Our community continues to celebrate the designation of an All-America City, a prestigious award that recognizes a city where citizens work together to identify and tackle community-wide challenges and achieve uncommon results.  Our community has faced two significant flooding events in the past 10 years and we were able to rise above the waters because of engaged citizenry, businesses and others working in partnership with city government, including the fire service.

7. Acknowledge That the Other is Unique

We are all unique; our differences make us special.  Both the Fire Chief and City Manager must have the realization that his or her city is an individual city.  You are one-of-a-kind.  It is fallacy to believe that sound decisions are based solely on what comparably sized communities are doing.

8. Value Employees as the Most Important Resource

Employees are considered the most important resource.  At all levels, the employee must be valued.  This means that they are properly trained, equipped, and have opportunities for both personal and professional growth.

9. Be Proactive and Prevention-Orientated

The Fire Chief and City Manager have to be proactive and prevention orientated.   The modern fire service is just as much about community risk reduction as it is about fire response and all-hazards mitigation.  The 5 essential components of prevention include education, engineering/technology, enforcement, economic incentives/disincentives, and emergency response.   Empowering citizens with fire prevention strategies and actions, removing the human element through devices that alert occupants or automatically close fire doors, enacting and enforcing fire codes that change negative behaviors, offering discounts to builders or property owners who install fire protection systems or holding those accountable who do not adhere to fire codes, and effectively trained and appropriately staffed firefighters who provide emergency response are all part of a successful community risk-reduction program.

10. Institutionalize Emergency Planning

Institutionalizing emergency planning is an important means of being prepared.  The City Manager and Fire Chief work in partnership to develop and coordinate an Incident Management Team for response to local emergencies, natural disasters, and public events. For the City Manager, there is no more important responsibility than to ensure that the Fire Chief has the resources to train, equip, and hire the right people to serve so that fire service personnel can reduce property loss, mitigate hazards, and preserve lives.

The Fire Chief is supported when the City Manager has made a significant investment in understanding the Chief’s perspectives and has instilled full confidence that decisions will be supported.  An open and active relationship solidifies integrity of both the fire service and city management.

A common goal, a unified vision, and a culture in which interpersonal dynamics are appropriate are hallmarks of a successful organization.   The strong bond between the City Manager and the Fire Chief makes the organization more functional and formable.  Given the dynamics of today’s fire service, the City Manager – Fire Chief relationship must be aligned to accomplish what may seem, at times, impossible.