The Fire Department needs to improve communications, especially within the department.
Communications was one of the three major goals outlined in its strategic plan. As the Sounder researched the department’s approach to fulfilling its two other main strategic goals – to improve training and benefits to its volunteers and to acquire updated equipment and facilities – we found that the concerns of many volunteers were expressed with reluctance, stemming not from a lack of conviction or lack of concern for the public, but from the fear of reprisal from the department.
The public minutes of Fire Department Commissioner meetings show that when a volunteer spoke to both the Chief and the Commissioners of her concerns of inadequate numbers of volunteers, and volunteer experience and morale, she was told that her concerns would be addressed when the budget was finalized. Now that the budget is done, Commissioner Coffin says to wait until response time statistics are in — a non-sequiter is there ever was one. Commissioner Olsan says of the morale question that, “There’s always a certain few that aren’t happy.”
When another volunteer’s letter expressing his personal feeling about the department was inadvertently published in the Sounder, he was reprimanded before the commissioners.
Responding to such communications with deferrals, dismissals and reprimands are not isolated incidents within the Fire Department and does little to encourage communication, least of all resolution.
It’s become distressingly obvious that volunteer morale at the Fire Department is one issue that has been deferred and squelched long enough.
Communication depends not just upon expressing a fact or opinion, it demands listening, and listening with respect and attention, not just a “hearing.”
The volunteers are in a most sensitive position, serving three if not four masters – their own integrity, their community, and their team of fellow volunteers within the department. The Fire Department administration should not be a separate entity, it should be part of the team.
Within any organization, when expressed concerns and opinions, however unwelcome, are met with dismissal, scorn, anger or chastisement, two things result: the leadership has dishonored its team as a whole, and the persons who spoke up, along with their fellow teammates, are discouraged from speaking up again.
This has no place in our Fire Department. We have heard the utmost respect and sensitivity from volunteers who
spoke anonymously of the Fire Department, in concern for it, their fellow volunteers, and the community they feel honored to serve. Volunteers should not be made to feel divided in their loyalties when they consider these three groups.
The Department has bought into a program to promote physical wellness among its members. Why not invest in Department retreats or discussions to address and resolve its morale problem? There are many resources readily available to turn the Fire Department’s
communication problem around. And it is clear that the Fire Department, and the community would be well-served by spending some money in that pursuit.
In Chief Harris’ last two years before his term expires, he should seize the moment so that his command is respected for its leadership in improving communication, so that those with morale “issues”, whether they are a few or are many, have the opportunity to speak openly and freely about their organization.
All the training, all the equipment in the world won’t make a professional organization unless communication is honored with listening and response.