Citizen fire chief

If you’re like me, you’ve been trying not to obsess about the economy. But the constant chatter about bailouts and budgets has got me thinking about organizational change and leadership.

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In December, I interviewed Tim Butler, chief of the fire department in St. Paul, Minn. Like the heads of other city departments, he had just been asked to model a 20% reduction in his annual budget. And yet he struck me as steadfastly optimistic and committed to offering more—not less—to the neighborhoods the department serves. Huh?

Pulling back the curtains

In St. Paul, the fire department provides ambulance service in addition to the full range of fire and rescue services. In 2007, firefighters responded to more than 12,000 fire calls and 28,000 emergency medical calls. With that kind of volume, and with more than a dozen fire stations across the city, you would expect firefighters to have their fingers on the pulse of the city. And yet the department had developed a culture where “we were in the stations with the curtains pulled,” according to Butler, who became chief a year ago after working for the city’s police and fire departments for almost two decades. “We could guess at what was going on, but we didn’t really know. We weren’t really engaged.”

For the department to become more engaged—more relevant—Chief Butler would like residents to see fire stations as safe havens. “People used to come to the stations for information and assistance and comfort,” he says. “They’re doing that less, not because the stations are any different, but because of society as a whole. You just don’t go to your neighbors and ask for help.” He has encouraged firefighters and district chiefs to pursue their ideas for open houses and a fire station centennial party, to continue bringing their trucks and ambulances to block parties and National Night Out gatherings, and to participate in commnity council meetings.

His vision also includes taking services the department already provides, or could provide, to neighborhood locations such as grocery stores. “Health screenings, blood pressure checks, and flu shot clinics can happen in the neighborhood,” says Butler. “It’s hard to convince people that we can do this, but they’re not thinking partnerships.”

Thinking partnerships

Chief Butler just completed a master’s degree in public safety administration, and wrote his thesis on using fire companies to go to individual homes to do safety inspections. “In the United States, most fire injuries and fatalities happen in homes,” he explains. “We’re driving there fast and using aggressive firefighting tactics, and [yet] most injuries and fire deaths happen before we even call 911.” With risk factors for home fires—smoking, poverty, low education—overlapping with other public health concerns, Chief Butler sees an opportunity to maximize public resources by deploying them in new ways. “The only way to make [home inspections] really happen is to use partners in the neighborhood. The benefit is that you have a real powerful punch. With a multi-agency team [including public health personnel], it can be far more powerful for the citizen.”

“I don’t think we can reach people in the community and teach them and motivate them unless we can go into their homes and their businesses and talk to them like real people, like one of them,” Butler says. As the fire department deepens its engagement with the community, the diversity of perspective and experience of its staff members will grow and eventually lead to greater racial and gender diversity, too.

"Citizen fire fighters"

A few months after I first talked to him, Chief Butler is preparing for slightly more modest budget cuts. While the timing may be imposed, he sees the need to change as an opportunity. His vision relies on what he considers abundant human resources. “[Firefighters] are active in life, they’re inquisitive by nature, and they have a deep compassion for the people of St. Paul,” he says. “They have tremendous talent and creativity.”

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He sees abundant human resources in residents, too. At Polly’s Coffee Cove, an East Side coffee shop he visits on Saturday mornings, “citizens bring all these ideas,” says Butler. “They’re transforming what could have been a run-down or typical neighborhood in some inner cities into something vibrant and growing. They’re taking ground in their neighborhood the way I want to see our fire department take ground.”

Even if all of this makes sense, change is not easy. Where I work, a group of students, faculty and staff called CHANCE are working to strengthen connections between the University and our adjacent Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. It takes time, effort, vision, and leadership, and in order to be sustainable people need to see the investment as being in their self-interest. (Sean Kershaw of the Citizens League writes about the value of "enlightened self-interest.")

With his vision and organizer's sensibility, Chief Butler gives me hope that there's a positive way out of a budget crisis.

Read previous citizen professional posts


Good article, Chief Butler has some good ideas that could be put to use in many areas.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs