Common Goal: Partnerships between the fire department & private corporations reap mutual benefits

Common Goal
Partnerships between the fire department & private corporations reap mutual benefits
Story & Photo by Rob Ugaste

As you scan this article, you’re probably wondering why you should invest 5 minutes of your life to read about public-private partnerships. In return, I’ll ask you a question: How important is the health and profitability of your city’s corporate entities? Can your community afford to lose a major taxpayer? Would the trickle-down effect impact your agency’s funding?

In this era of forced downsizing and diminished budgets, the wellbeing of our current funding sources must become a priority. Do you have a contingency plan to assist your corporations in the area of business continuity—and if you don’t have a plan, do you need one?

What business owners often need is the opportunity to speak to a fire department decision-maker who’s willing to take the time to build trust and understanding. In return, they can offer us expertise and support when we’re dealing with a problem at their building, something they currently may not even realize we need.

Business Continuity … Connected
Corporations know they can’t afford to lose their buildings or personnel, because loss of productivity results in loss of revenue. A small fire that forces employees to evacuate can cost the corporation more money in 1 hour than your agency’s entire annual budget. Worse yet, extended closures can result in closed doors that will never reopen.

Corporations often employ business continuity experts whose entire focus is to keep the corporation safe and profitable. These people are paid to see the big picture; while we’re focused on salvage and overhaul, they’re activating “war rooms” to determine where they can move employees and how they can minimize impact.

Unfortunately, many business continuity experts work in a vacuum, which results in plans that do not mesh well with the realities of incident command and other public sector expectations. They need a partner who understands these concepts and can help them create realistic and effective plans.

The reality is, we need each other. The fire service has the tools and training to deal with emergencies, but we’ll never be as knowledgeable about the building as the corporate engineer who spends all their time maintaining the building’s systems. As a result, we need that engineer to become a component of our unified command. Imagine the time that will be saved in decision-making and incident mitigation if we have ready access to the answers we need! In return, our corporate partners need information and cooperation. They need our best guess as to how much of the building will be out of service and for how long, and they need our cooperation in dealing with the media.

So now that I have your attention, let’s take a look at three primary questions that you’ll need to answer when analyzing your public-private relationships.

What’s wrong with our existing corporate partnerships?
If your agency is like most, your current partnerships with the businesses you protect are superficial and one-way. To think that your fire prevention bureau (FPB) can develop real dialogue and meaningful partnerships is simply incorrect in most instances. FPB inspectors are typically “code sheriffs” with a limited understanding of the incident command structure and the public-private partnerships needed during an emergency. Additionally, the FPB usually deals with construction managers or facility managers, not the business continuity and security leaders you need to reach.

What businesses are craving today is the opportunity to speak to a fire department decision-maker who’s willing to take the time to build trust and understanding. In return, they can offer us expertise and support when we’re dealing with a problem at their building, something they currently may not even realize we need. They (or their employees) have ready answers to our questions about their building such as: How do we pressurize the third floor? Do the windows open or is the HVAC capable of selective exhaust? How do we shut down the UPS system after the electric company has done their job? Preplans and preplanning will always be critical to the fire service, but in reality, the preplans we have at the scene are often woefully inadequate for a complicated situation. As a result, we need these decision-makers to become part(ners) of our unified command team.

Efforts to accomplish this level of partnership must occur prior to the incident and cannot be one-sided. Discussions must be planned with high-level decision-makers on both sides of the table, minimally chief-level officers and business continuity or security leaders from the private sector.

It’s critical that these discussions truly be dialogues and not just about the fire department’s concerns. Make sure the company’s representatives have a solid understanding of your agency’s services and capabilities and give them a contact name to be their point person if they have a question. Ask them if they know who will represent their company at an emergency and whether that person understands they’re welcome and expected to participate in unified command. Ask them if they know how to find your incident commander. In Illinois, we use a green light on the exterior roof of the command vehicle—something that’s very easy to spot but meaningless if you haven’t been prepped to look for it.

Tell them it’s OK to ask questions (during the incident) as long as they understand the need to wait until things calm down for some answers. Questions that business continuity personnel often have include: Will we be able to reoccupy part of the building? When can we reenter for purses and laptops? Should we relocate or send our staff home? These are real concerns from a business and they deserve a serious response from the fire chief.

The approach we must embrace is that we are stronger as partners and that whether we like it or not, we’re in this together! In addition, don’t forget to train your own staff on this partnership. All your hard work will be wasted if your incident commander ignores the corporate liaison or worse yet, is rude to them because they don’t understand the partnership approach.

Why encourage the privates (corporations) to partner with each other?
The reality of today’s fire service is that we’re often spread too thin and that multiple significant emergencies can stress our systems and delay help. A widespread disaster will result in calls being triaged and stacked, with fire service help being delayed or unavailable.

With this in mind, isn’t it time we were honest with the companies we protect? We can encourage them to work with their neighbors to share resources and to develop legal agreements that will allow them to partner when tragedy strikes—agreements to house each other’s staff in an emergency, to share security in extreme situations, to provide maintenance help when practical, or even to develop memos of understanding (MOUs) to share “war rooms” and other critical facilities when needed. These are partnerships that will truly make a difference.

Why do we need a unified and preplanned approach to the media?
Our mouths are capable of doing more damage than the incident itself when we say the wrong thing to the media. Most fire chiefs aren’t comfortable being in front of a camera, and for good reason. How many times have we laughed as we watched co-workers or neighboring chiefs become tongue-tied and say something silly while standing in front of a throng of microphones? Unfortunately, this is no laughing matter to corporate leaders. In today’s world, the fire at the corporate headquarters down the street might lead to negative headlines that could have a devastating impact on the stock values of a global business.

So why not work with the PR person who is paid to represent that corporation? The idea is to strive for an ethical and honest response without releasing unnecessary information that could harm the company’s bottom line. Reporting that the company had a fire that was extinguished with no injuries may not be as exciting as telling the reporter that a global credit card data center was severely damaged; however, this type of comment is honest and it allows the company to determine how much information should be released. Another consideration is your own personnel: Do you have policies in place to forbid non-authorized employees from speaking with the media at incidents?

But Wait, There’s More!
If I’ve peaked your curiosity about public-private partnerships, there are many good resources to help you better understand the process. Michigan State University has put together a guide ( ) that identifies best practices for critical incident partnerships (CIP). The CIP concept is a proven one that has been used to develop pubic-private partnerships throughout the country.

Next, share this article with one of your private-sector partners to determine their reaction—are they interested in building better relationships and finding out more about how you can work together?

Lastly, spend the time to implement your own public-private initiative. Yes, it will involve some extra effort, but it will pay dividends in the long run.

Next month: Public-Private Partnerships: A Success Story!

Rob Ugaste is the Deputy Chief of Administration for the Lincolnshire-Riverwoods Fire Protection District in northern Illinois. During his 30 years in the fire service, he has achieved Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) and Illinois Fire Officer Level III; he is also a Public Sector Chairperson for the Lake Cook Regional Critical Incident Partnership and an Accreditation Manager. Ugaste has a bachelor’s degree in Public Safety Administration, is completing his master’s degree in Fire Service Leadership, and is in his third year of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program at the National Fire Academy.

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Comment by stephen Delisle Miller on August 13, 2010 at 5:38am
Great/excellent article!

As a member of our local (Barbados) Fire Prevention & Community Relations Unit, I am consciously aware of this reality. We cannot live in vacuums, we definitely/certainly need each other!
Comment by Norman E. Flanders on August 11, 2010 at 11:50am
Excellent article. We've been doing this for years in our community and its been very benifical. Not only do we work on this partnership for our beneifit and knowledge, but I encourage my surrounding fire departments to do the same at key businesses in my community.

We have our surrounding fire departments take tours and do a building familiarization in the event they are providing mutual aid coverage. This also makes them familiar with the building, its process, safety features/hazards, danger areas and fire connection hookups. Its a greater benifit for when they are providing mutual aid in the event of a fire/incident.

Recently we had a business move in to the community and from the onset I was at that business, meeting with the owners, learning the process and establishing a partnership before they became operational. Now the fire department {and surrounding fire departments}, tour this facility yearly. Our relationship, mutual tours and being positive has paid off during recent fires at this facility.

Being positive from the begining has paid off for both the business owner and the fire department.
I strongly encourage any and all who have not done this type of practice to do so. All it takes is a friendly visit to let the business owner you're there to establish a working relationship between the FD and his/her business.
You'll be amazed how open minded and happy these individuals are that you're wanting to establish a working relationship, being positive for helping with fire protection/prevention and wanting to take the time to tour and preplan their business.

Stay safe, train often and share knowledge.

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