Public-Private Partnerships: A Success Story!

Public-Private Partnerships: A Success Story!
A critical incident partnership in Illinois proves successful at bringing the public & private sectors together
By Rob Ugaste

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a series on public-private partnerships. Read the first article: “Common Goal”

As a chief officer on a suburban fire district, I had learned to accept the fact that working with large corporations could be problematic. Our Fire Prevention Bureau typically dealt with issues through the facility manager, who was often at the mercy of the organization’s business continuity and security leaders. This was usually where an intellectual disconnect occurred. Issues that seemed simple and clear-cut from a public safety perspective were not so easy to solve when viewed from a corporate standpoint. It was obvious to me that real dialogue at a higher level was needed to resolve this apparent impasse—but the question was how.

Each meeting of the Lake-Cook Regional Critical Incident Partnership centers around an educational theme and features guest speakers. Meetings bring together public and private sector leaders to discuss how they can work together better to meet public safety and private business needs. Photo courtesy Rob Ugaste

The Door Opens
The answer, in my case, came in the form of an invitation to an informational session about a proposed public-private partnership. The meeting was hosted by a major credit card corporation in our Fire District, but the invitation was for any public- or private-sector entity along a business corridor of the Lake and Cook counties in Illinois. This corridor is not only the dividing line between two counties, but it is also home to a significant number of large corporations. In addition, the Lake-Cook corridor passes through multiple villages and protection districts, resulting in a variety of police and fire chiefs being included.

The meeting, attended by about 50 private- and public-sector leaders, was led by Brit Weber from Michigan State University. That day we learned about a concept called the Critical Incident Protocol (CIP) that was designed to help public safety agencies and large corporations develop a working partnership.

The benefits seemed obvious enough. The partnership would provide a platform for the public and private sectors to discuss real issues and problems while striving to find solutions. The goal was to break down the walls that had been preventing meaningful change. The key, according to Weber, was that both the private and public sector would need champions to step forward to lead the way.

At the end of the meeting, the attendees decided to give the proposed partnership a chance. A few corporations offered meeting space for future events and a handful of public- and private-sector leaders agreed to serve as interim leadership until formal elections could be held. As one of the public sector leaders, I was intrigued by what was happening. The corporate and public safety leaders were genuinely excited about the potential this partnership offered and the early organization was falling into place without any major complications.

More meetings were held, and to ensure the integrity of the organization, nominations for 12 elected positions were requested. In my mind, the results of the election process would be a strong indicator of what the future would hold. We were off to a strong start, but were totally dependent on volunteer time; a weak showing in the election process would indicate a lack of commitment.

To my surprise, there were not only plenty of candidates, but those who didn’t get elected were truly disappointed and wanted to help in the form of committee participation.

Based on the election results, an identical hierarchy of a chairperson, co-chairperson and four director positions were established for each sector. The idea was to create a board of directors from diverse backgrounds that would equally represent both public and private interests. The results were promising: The leadership for the private sector contained heads of security and business continuity from the telecommunications industry, major financial corporations and a large hospital, while the public-sector side of the board contained two chief fire officers, a fire marshal, a police commander, a county health department representative and the county emergency manager.

Although the invitation to the original meeting was to organizations along the Lake-Cook Corridor, it was apparent that the boundaries had grown far beyond the original concept. As a result, participants decided to call the new organization the Lake-Cook Regional Critical Incident Partnership (LCRCIP). Today, 3 years later, the LCRCIP reaches from just north of Chicago to just south of the Wisconsin state line; its membership, which consists of 65 corporations and 42 public sector agencies, continues to grow.

Productive Meetings
The LCRCIP membership agreed to meet on a quarterly basis; the board of directors meets monthly or more frequently if necessary. The quarterly meetings follow a formula that has proven effective. After each attendee introduces themselves and explains where they work, the host corporation provides a welcome with a brief overview of their business. This is followed by a recap of the history of the LCRCIP and the sharing of success stories from the past 3 months.

Then the meeting picks up speed as the educational theme begins. One meeting revolved around violence in the workplace, which was considered a hot topic due to recent incidents in combination with the economy and forced layoffs. One of the guest speakers that day was a student from Northern Illinois University who had been wounded during the highly publicized campus shooting there in 2008. Needless to say, there was total silence in the auditorium as the story quietly unfolded. Other experts explained what to do in an active-shooter incident and what to expect from arriving police and SWAT teams. The result: The audience walked away with a well-rounded education on a difficult subject.

Since the LCRCIP doesn’t charge any fees, we have no funding for guest speakers. This may sound problematic, but the extensive network of the LCRCIP leadership has provided many high-quality speakers at no cost. For example, during the pandemic flu scare, business and public safety leaders were struggling to find out what the health department planned to do and how they could protect themselves. Thanks to a well-timed quarterly meeting, the LCRCIP brought in a panel of experts from hospitals, health departments and business continuity to discuss available information and answer audience questions for over an hour—all at no charge.

Following the educational components, committee reports are given on subjects such as membership, the website, grants, etc. Each meeting finishes with a tabletop scenario. This is one of the most popular components, as it encourages public- and private-sector leaders from similar areas to sit together and discuss how their organizations would react to a disaster. The results of these tabletop exercises are far from predictable; both public and private sector representatives are at times surprised by the policies and/or plans of their counterparts.

Keys to Success
What’s made this grassroots organization so successful? The answer is value. The LCRCIP provides attendees with a 4-hour opportunity to learn and discuss the “elephants in the room.”

Example: At one meeting, a business continuity leader spoke with obvious anger as he explained how his large warehouse in another part of the country had been shut down for an entire day following a small fire. He felt the fire department involved had abused their authority and had unnecessarily cost his company a lot of money in the process. He also felt that his request for a reasonable compromise had fallen on deaf ears. This led to discussion on local practice and gave the public safety officials who were present a chance to respond to the man’s very real concern.

Another meeting focused on the revelation that many corporations fear calling public safety for advice in a “suspicious substance” situation. Their concern is that we will arrive with a small army that will order a mass evacuation without ever listening to the on-site personnel. This of course is followed by visions of a hazmat team in big blue window suits and helicopters hovering overhead. The dilemma they voiced is that they would like our advice, but they don’t know how to avoid an overreaction on our part. Once again, this led to extensive discussions as both corporate and public safety strived to find common ground to develop reasonable solutions.

Fire service leaders took this opportunity to educate the businesses on the need for a building representative to go to the command car as a resource throughout an incident. They explained that they could not be experts at every building in their district and that a building engineer or even an employee with a portable who could get answers to the incident commander ‘s questions could help bring the incident to a conclusion quicker and, in the process, get the business back to work sooner.

This building representative, they explained, would also benefit the business because he or she could ask questions of the IC regarding business resumption issues. Businesses experiencing an emergency with resulting evacuation need an estimate of how long they will be out of the building. If there’s a fire, they need to know if they will be able to resume business in unaffected areas, and how soon. They need to know when they can go in and retrieve laptops and purses or whether they should relocate to another building. As a result of this discussion, the businesses are now building a public safety liaison into their policies.

The Bottom Line
None of us are strong enough to stand alone; we all need partners. That’s why public-private partnerships are so valuable. By partnering with corporations who need our help to stay in business and who have resources to offer us in return, we create a win-win situation. We must work together to design corporate policies that really work during emergencies—and we must listen to one another’s concerns. A public-private partnership provides opportunities to head off problems before they occur and to address issues on a familiar and friendly basis after they occur.

All it takes is a few champions willing to leave their egos at the door.

Next month: Creating a full-scale exercise that benefits the private sector—How to train your people and educate your private-sector partners at the same time.

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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