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Forming Relationships Before They're Needed

As one emergency management veteran puts it, "you don't want to start forming relationships when you're standing in the rubble."

Pick up a newspaper or check a Web site for the latest headlines, and it seems that there is almost always news of a natural or man-made disaster: a coal mine collapse in Utah, a bridge disaster in Minnesota, massive forest fires out West. Emergency management professionals spend countless hours training and preparing for such an event. They practice using the incident command system so that everyone who arrives at the scene knows what roles and functions to play. And they typically do a first-rate job (the problems we saw with Hurricane Katrina were far more the exception than the rule).

The benefits of formal training for emergency management personnel are obvious: There are skills to learn and practice, jurisdictional questions to work out, roles to assign, new technologies to master. One of the less-than-obvious payoffs has to do with relationships. It's one thing to learn the latest techniques on containing a fire, and quite another to develop trust in someone whom you've never met before, so that you can quickly share information and rely on each other when a crisis occurs. Trust is critical in such situations. And, as one emergency management veteran puts it, "you don't want to start forming relationships when you're standing in the rubble."

Relationships, of course, take time. And the best time to form relationships is before they're needed. But many public sector personnel don't have routines (like joint training programs) that bring them into contact with staff from other agencies. How can you carve out the time to develop relationships with those whose help will be critical to you some day?

In Charlotte, North Carolina, the law enforcement community has come up with a simple and extremely effective answer to that question. They meet monthly, for lunch.

Charlotte's Monthly Luncheons

Each month in Charlotte, the leaders of various law enforcement agencies representing all levels of government within the greater Charlotte area meet for lunch. These sessions are open to agency directors and their immediate subordinates (assistant special agents in charge, deputy police chiefs, majors, etc.). The participating agencies include the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI, the DEA, Homeland Security, the United States attorney and several others.

Interestingly, there's no agenda. There are no speakers, no PowerPoint presentations. The purpose is to provide an environment where law enforcement leaders can get to know each other, form solid relationships, and discuss business (if they wish). ATF is the sponsoring agency; it handles the logistics of finding a restaurant and communicating about each month's session and location. Anywhere from 8 to 20-plus people attend each time. Some use the luncheons for purely personal purposes; others transact important business issues.

These sessions are useful in many ways. They help the law enforcement leaders:

· Identify the key people in their network rapidly, which is especially helpful for new people in the area. This is great professionally (e.g., learning about jurisdictional intricacies) and personally.

· Form trusting relationships.

· Learn how to cut through bureaucratic layers in each others' agencies, and find the right person for any need

· Maintain an open dialogue, and spot issues early.

· Become very familiar with each others' jobs and duties, so when a critical incident occurs they aren't meeting each other for the first time and can integrate into a command post/teamwork setting in a much more fluid manner.

How do the luncheons help? Two examples:

· During the summer of 2006, a Charlotte Mecklenburg police officer was wounded while participating in a joint effort to apprehend a wanted fugitive who had barricaded himself and a hostage inside a Charlotte home. A command post was immediately set up to deal with the incident, and members from assorted law enforcement agencies joined forces to resolve the very volatile situation. Because of the relationships already built among senior agency leaders, the information sharing and integration of many law enforcement personnel worked well. There were no jurisdictional problems, and CMPD managed to capture the perpetrator.

· The CMPD and ATF are in the process of forming a team to deal with violent firearm crime in Charlotte. These two agencies decided that a collaborative approach would be the best way to develop a creative solution toward reducing the violent-crime rate. This was a sensitive initiative, given some issues that had occurred among the agencies over the years. But those issues were mostly resolved, in large part due to the relationships built at the agency luncheons. The apprehensions that would normally be present for such complex work (it's not easy for agency leaders to open themselves up to the scrutiny of other agencies) were virtually nonexistent when the team was formed, allowing its members to be candid and creative with each other.

One frequent participant in the luncheons sums it up this way: "The bottom line is that I can pick up the telephone and call any one of the agency heads in the Charlotte area at any time, dispense with the formalities, and have a business or personal conversation with them as needed with complete ease."

Building relationships among agencies that sometimes work together on crises is both critical and difficult. But Charlotte is showing that it can be done, if the leaders commit to breaking bread together.

A management consultant, educator and author
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