Integrating the Fire Service into the Domestic Intelligence Enterprise: A Systems Thinking Approach

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Kyle Falkner


The fire service in the United States largely remains an outsider to the U.S. domestic intelligence enterprise. Despite strong support for fire service integration into the domestic intelligence enterprise and numerous attempts to understand the problem, progress has been sporadic at best.
Over the past two decades, the recurring theme within this nation’s homeland security enterprise has been “unity of effort.” The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States first introduced this concept to the homeland security lexicon in 2004 in the 9/11 Commission Report. Since then, there have been numerous attempts to improve fire service integration at virtually all levels of government. While none have succeeded in solving this wicked problem on their own, each has done a great deal to frame the problem of fire service integration while addressing key areas of integration such as policy, training, information sharing, and privacy and civil liberties protection. By merging these individual contributions into a holistic, unified effort, a pathway forward begins to emerge.
As society and government adapt to what Mercer Delta describes as “the rapidly accelerating pace of change,” many of our greatest challenges move out of the realm of complicated and into the complex. Therefore, we must adapt our mindset and adopt new tools and techniques if we hope to keep up. The task of fully integrating the fire service into the domestic intelligence enterprise is complex. This complexity emerges because of the vast number of interrelated and interdependent factors that must be considered when implementing such a large organizational change. These factors include organizational culture, history, formal structure, and informal structure. Outside of the organization, there are additional factors such as intra-organizational dynamics, information silos, resource limitations, and socio-cultural issues. The first step in addressing this complexity is to break from the traditional reductionist problem-solving methodologies commonly found in government in favor of those that recognize the system and endeavor to work within it to bring about the desired change.
Systems thinking provides a framework for understanding complex interactions, both internal and external, that affect an organization. By recognizing that an organization is a sub-system operating within a larger system, the interconnectedness becomes visible. Systems thinking has, therefore, found widespread applicability across a range of disciplines, from its origin through today. More specifically, within the field of organizational development, systems thinking has gained acceptance as a valuable framework for addressing the increasingly complex and fast-paced nature of problems that organizations face. There are notable models used by practitioners in the field of systems thinking and organizational development. Considering the unique, complex nature of integrating the fire service into the domestic intelligence enterprise, the congruence model stands as the appropriate choice. Therefore, this thesis applied systems thinking, through the congruence model, to implement a suspicious activity reporting system within the Fort Worth Fire Department.
The congruence model includes the following steps to achieve fit or congruence: identify the symptoms, specify the input, identify the output, identify the problems, describe the organizational components, assess the congruence, generate hypotheses about the problems’ causes, and identify the action steps. The congruence model serves as a lens through which to view an organizational change or program to highlight the interconnectedness and begin to make sense of complexity. One goal of systems thinking is to understand the role of feedback loops within a system, which is critical to a system’s ability to perform work sustainably. A unique attribute of feedback loops is that they are inherent in any system. If an organization does not intentionally account for feedback loops within its systems, the feedback loops might undermine the organization’s efforts. Notably, many previous attempts at fire service integration have failed to account for feedback loops. It is therefore critical that any effort toward the development of a suspicious activity report (SAR) system within the Fort Worth Fire Department must account for feedback loops during the development and implementation phases of the program. Accounting for and then designing feedback loops will prevent their negative influence on the system’s processes and, more importantly, support an effective, sustainable SAR program. Leveraging the congruence model and systems thinking to achieve the final mile of fire service integration—by developing a SAR program at the local level without losing sight of its original purpose—joins the “unity of effort” in protecting the homeland from terrorist attacks. Local-level SAR programs can then act as a springboard to continue integration efforts at the national level. This bottom-up approach to integration brings to bear all the capabilities of the fire service in support of the broader goal of unity of effort in preventing terrorist attacks.
Beyond the central aim of improving fire service integration into the domestic intelligence enterprise, the congruence model and, more broadly, systems thinking show promise for organizations facing change. When mired deep in the struggle to bring a new program or initiative to fruition, it is easy to lose sight of the original strategy and goals that set the organization on its path. One need not search far to find examples in the public and private sectors of projects that upon completion failed to achieve most if not all their original goals. It is the experience of this author that those in the public sector have fallen far behind private-sector counterparts in the areas of project management and organizational development. The private sector has largely embraced the need for agility to remain competitive. In contrast, the very nature of government causes it to resist change and avoid risk. The government must eschew the old ways of doing business that are no match for the complex and the wicked.
As long as the fire service remains outside the domestic intelligence enterprise, it fails to contribute to the collective effort to use intelligence to protect the homeland from terrorist attacks. At the same time, it fails as a consumer of intelligence, which increases the risk to personnel and the citizens it has sworn to protect. The fire service must, therefore, continue to tackle persistent problems that stand as barriers to achieving unity as it works daily to protect the homeland from those who wish to do Americans harm.

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