Seasons change. Time flies. As I sit down to write this message, we are just short of two months since the 2017 annual conference in Green Bay. So, let us start with thanks. Thank you to Green Bay and Green Bay Metro Fire Department for hosting their second straight, great event. The support from Green Bay Mayor Schmitt to Green Bay Metro Fire Chief Dave Litton to Green Bay Metro Transit and everyone in between; outstanding. Thanks to the Board and all that attended as well. While a lot of attention at a conference naturally goes towards direct learning; the value of networking, camaraderie, informal discussions, learning and friendships is priceless. So, thank you.
Thanks also to those that have served as Past Presidents, the Board of Directors, our committees and sections. This election was unique in which it was not only an uncontested ballot but that members already serving the Board were re-elected with Chief Bantes elevated to 2nd Vice President. I joked that this election was either a mandate, confirming the hard work of those already serving or nobody wanted to give of their time to be involved in this mess. I strongly believe it is the previous and the time, commitment and energy that the Board gives to the organization and members is substantial and impressive. Nonetheless, as a Board we need to be more transparent to ensure members are well informed and shown the value to being a member beyond the obvious.
The conference also brought change. At the annual meeting members approved resolutions after considerable work was done researching how to improve the reach and representation of the Board. Kudos to the committee that worked extremely hard between the 2016 and 2017 conference to reach a vote on the resolutions. With members approving the resolutions, much work now lies ahead to ensure actual organization success and implementation. Those actions included:
- Future Trustees will no longer be elected "at large" but based on geographical regions. Additionally, there will be career, combination and volunteer appointed Trustees to ensure further equal representation.
- Electronic voting passed which the Board is again hopeful will increase representation to all members not just those attending the conference or those allocating their proxy vote.
- Company Officers are now officially part of WSFCA and eligible for membership. We consistently hear about the need for succession planning and extending membership to Company Officers is a good first step. However, as an organization we must follow up with educational and opportunities for Company Officers to ensure it is more than just membership with actual benefits and learning.
With additional work to be done, that is enough, right? No. Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association is no different than most every other association or organization in the struggle to keep pace with change, expectations, connectivity, engagement and value. So, what is on the future agenda for organizational evaluation?
- We must communicate better with members. This was an item mentioned and initiated by Past President Ugaste but an item we must continue to build upon. The "Fire Wire" newsletter and "Burning Issue" updates have filled in gaps between magazines but we must do more. This is where social media can help push out real-time messages. So, be sure to follow WSFCA and push those messages out further. Additionally, we will consider further opportunities for members to be informed and communicate with the Board.
- With the re-organization of Trustees behind us we should evaluate the principal positions. While there certainly are time, effort demands beyond expectations with the roles of Vice-President's and President, there are limitations to serving a one-year term. While serving a one-year term confines the commitment, it also limits change. How willing is someone to make change when the burden for follow through and implementation is shifted to those in future years? How willing are those down the line to support current change knowing that disruption is in their future? Or on a more basic level, are we losing organizational identity by not having consistency? Yes. Twice recently other organizations that we partner with did not fully know who we were, who we represented or who our "face" was. So, we must have discussions and evaluate keeping current terms for principal board members, extending them or keeping them as is and adding a position that offers some consistency.
- Evaluate expenditures and look for new sources of revenue. As an organization, we generate revenue by two primary means; memberships and the annual conference. Despite increased efforts by Trustee Romas and the membership committee, membership remains flat. So, the organization's annual profit or loss comes down to the annual conference. This is extremely risky and not a good business practice. We must explore additional opportunities for revenue streams. If we can increase revenues, we can hopefully offer increased learning, outreach, training opportunities and benefits to members which will then potentially increase membership and revenues and so on.
Looking beyond WSFCA to our individual departments, we face the same problems despite the size or make-up (volunteer, combination, career) of our organizations.
- Recruitment, retention and generally how we have traditionally operated will challenge us as our communities continue to change.
- As the sprinkler issue continues to play out, we must realize, adapt and convey the challenges we face. It is unimaginable that at a time when fires are burning hotter, faster and more toxic that we are lowering safety thresholds. At a time when we are using lightweight materials to construct new buildings, we are lowering safety thresholds. At a time when spending on public safety is stagnant or being reduced that we are lowering the pre-emptive safety thresholds. At a time when we are struggling to recruit and retain, we are lowering pre-emptive safety thresholds. We must convey these messages to our state and local governments. WSFCA will continue to do so but we need help at every level. Additionally, ensure that our members are fully aware of the challenges they face when arriving and that they continuously make a risk vs benefit analysis.
- Get involved politically. This does not mean only at budget time or just when there is an issue but build trust and respect among community leaders. Political acumen is one of the "Five Wicked Issues" developed by the IAFC that we must no longer ignore and encourage to address. We prepare ourselves for fire-fights but how do we prepare ourselves, our organization, future chiefs for the political-fight? In actuality it should not be a "fight" if we have built relationships.
Add these challenges together along with the stressors of everyday life plus going on stressful, traumatic calls for service and our emotional health can be tested. A good first step would be attempting to eliminate unnecessary organizational stressors. Second, we must invest in people, not the number of people we want but the people we have. Provide them expectations, feedback, training, professional development and give them tools that make them safer and more efficient. Finally, we need to eliminate the "suck it up buttercup" mentality, embrace Peer Support and recognize our behavior needs and the needs of others (search IAFC VCOS "Under the Helmet" as they have prepared a white paper on behavioral health). As such, the creation of a WSFCA Peer Support Task Force will have been established by the time this is read. The task force will ensure that fire and EMS members have access to support and services needed. In the meantime, keep an eye on yourself and others. If you notice a change in yourself or others, reach out. Peer Support and traumatic stress is vital to us individually and organizationally. We will put processes into place to ensure WSFCA members have access, but in the meantime if you or someone you know needs a connection to support or your organization has a traumatic event and needs assistance please do not hesitate to call me directly, confidentially. Admittantly, I do not have the answers but will make the connection to those that can assist.
Thanks for reading, and while the challenges we face can seem daunting, let us instead view them as "opportunities." Keep your gear clean, be well, be safe and if anything please reach out to email@example.com or 414-301-2646.
Chief Jon Cohn
President, Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs' Association