Saying Good-bye: The Hostile Takeover

By Dennis L. Rubin

“All good things must come to an end”; this well-worn anonymous saying dates all the way back to the year 1374, and it certainly describes my career. The conclusion of one’s chosen career is often a “good ending.” The end of most “watches” is well planned and greatly anticipated. However, in some cases, the ending could be a surprise and abrupt. Regardless of how "the last day of work” arrives, it will happen, and it will be time to hang up the fire helmet and move on to the next station in life.

It seems as if it were only a few days ago that I was walking down the halls of the fire training academy as a brand new recruit in October 1971. The anticipation of becoming one of America’s Bravest drew a spectrum of emotions that included excitement, challenge, and nervousness—all at the same time. Who knew that I would have the honor and opportunity to serve as the fire chief in a few incredible communities during my fire service career? The worst assignment that I ever had was amazing, and the best was “heaven on earth.”

Looking back at all of the trials and tribulations connected with the position of chief, the job is well worth the stress that comes with wearing all five speaking trumpets. When it is time to “take up,” it is generally a bittersweet occasion. The change to a new venue for a different position or to enter into retirement causes a break in the personal friendships and relationships whether intended or not. Of course, the feeling of leaving others behind is the bitter part for me. However, the excitement and opportunities associated with a new assignment are palpable for most folks, and this is the part that represents the sweet aspect of making a change.

Most of the time, the transition process is amicable. Generally, this major organizational change is associated with two very important celebrations:  First, the exiting fire chief should be acknowledged for the work, effort, and contribution he or she made during his or her tenure; perhaps a retirement party or similar event is held to mark the occasion. This event will come with all of the traditions that go along with the “old regime” stepping down and lead to the “welcoming gala” for the next new era. The new commanding officer should be welcomed into the organization as the person who will lead the agency into the future. Some of the best and most memorable events occur when the outgoing and incoming fire chiefs are celebrated at the same time and place. A wise and good friend, Fire Engineering Editor in Chief Bobby Halton, pointed out to me that the military has a process whereby the Change-of-Command ceremony is used for this purpose. It is no surprise that the military would model this very interesting and effective behavior. The federal government does the same when a new Commander-in-Chief takes office on January 20, every four years after a national election. The good-byes are short and sweet but very effective. There is a lot of symbolism associated with tasks, including the exodus of the retiring president by helicopter at the appointed time and place.

The changing of the community’s fire chief is by no means as big of a deal as an inauguration of a new president or even as impressive as the changing of commanders at a military installation. But, the transition rules should be generally the same: civil, effective, and respectful of all parties. We should conduct a ceremony that is a meaningful good-bye for the  outgoing chief and let him leave the organization in respectful peace. Chief Halton originally asked that I write about how to use the change-of-command ceremony to illustrate its importance to the continuity of the leadership of a fire department and perhaps highlight the traditions involved in saying good-bye to the fire executives who are leaving and saying hello to those who are coming in. What an honor and great assignment I have been asked to tackle!

However, I would like to tell you that this article is about the “fun” side of changing command, but that is not the case. I instead asked Chief Halton if I could report on the “hostile takover” process I experienced. Despite the fact that I did not experience a formal change-of-command ceremony at the beginning or end of my term, I did have the best experiences associated with becoming the new chief and leaving the chief’s position.  

One experience stands out, however--the horrendous way I left the organization. Interestingly, I am not the only chief to be ushered out of office while being repeatedly stabbed in the back. I will not mention the names, but other chiefs have lived through a similar set of experiences. Trust me, the “banished” fire chiefs are out there, and their numbers continue to grow. Because really bad public treatment and disrespect may be directed at any outgoing chief, I feel compelled to share my experience with high hopes of preventing similar actions or, at least, preparing the separating fire chiefs for the possibility that they may need to protect themselves.

I am writing this column to help other chiefs prepare for and maybe avoid the unnecessary postemployment embarrassment, harassment, and personal attacks and to protect their good name and character. This advice will go a long way to help limit stress and allow the outgoing chiefs to retain their dignity and sanity. This article is about the “hostile takeover,” not the “change of command” process, which is an opposing action and best describes the worst-case scenario when leaving the office of fire chief. Following are examples of actual events intended to help an outgoing chief avoid the intended fallout and stress that a weak successor brings to the table.           

 

SUCCESSION PLANNING (NOT TOO MUCH)

Succession planning is great in theory. In practice, however, it simply does not work in most public agencies or private enterprises. The likely exceptions to this statement are rare. Organizations such as monocracies (position by bloodline attainment) and dictatorships (totally autocratic) demand the succession order of the leadership roles. Although some fire departments may seem to be dictatorships, they most likely are not. The power to select a fire chief (or any other department head) belongs to the appointing authority such as the mayor, city council, city manager, or an oversight board of the organization. The belief that the current fire department leaders can set the course and make personnel selections beyond the time they possess the legal authority to do so is mostly wasted, wishful thinking. Let’s face it: there is no real harm (however delusional) in thinking that the current folks can select their replacements. I do not believe that there is one example of “succession planning” being implemented in a medium- or larger-sized career fire department setting.

I understand that some succession plans have sections that describe the needed/required career development of the membership to assume more responsibility. The value of personal and career development cannot be overstated. To plan for folks to be ready to assume more responsibility within their agency is “mission critical” for the success and health of the department. My suggestion would be to describe this process as a “career ladder” or “career development.” However, personal development is a lot different from the expectations a succession plan can create. It make sense to keep the elected officials updated on the “bench strength” that a fire-rescue department has built, but again it is with great caution that I point out that succession plans are not requirements to be followed by the decision making-appointing authority unless those members developed the plan.

 

MOTIVATION FOR THE HOSTILE TAKEOVER

Many major American cities have for all practical purposes evolved into a single political party operation. Either the Democratic or Republican Party captures the hearts and minds of the locals for a long list of reasons. Typically, the sentiment is that one of the political parties is in line with the community and the others are just simply out of touch. In the communities where I have served, there is very little political party variety to choose from in an election. There may be many candidates, but almost all hail from and are connected with the same political affiliation. The citizens’ focus tends to narrow and sees only one possible party that can provide public governance. What this means is that for a challenger to take out an incumbent elected official, the personal attack is just about the only tactic used to get elected. The party-line philosophy is generally the same for all of the candidates if they hail from the same political background.

So, the way that an incumbent is unseated in many urban communities is with a good old-fashioned smear and negative (muckraking) political campaign. I know that creating personal attacks just to obtain an elected office seems almost un-American, but there is an old adage that sums this process up the best:  “All’s fair in love, war, and politics.” Just when it seems like the electorate will not stand for one more negative campaign advertisement, the hopefully “attacking politician” gets the prize and is put into office. By the very nature of successful candidates who run negative campaigns, the voters reinforce the notion that the name-calling and backbiting works well to propel one into elected office. The point here is that this behavior is rewarded regularly, so it is very unlikely to stop anytime soon. The fire chief’s role in all of this is to stay politically neutral (as best as he or she can) and to understand the opportunities and pitfalls of this lopsided process.  

 

IMPACTS AND EFFECTS OF THE HOSTILE TAKEOVER

The impact and effects of such a personal political attack can cause a lot collateral damage. The people who work near and with the incumbent official  being politically attacked may get drawn into the battle. Most fire chiefs did not sign up to be in the political crosshairs, but this is the “nature of the beast.” It would seem that public safety is a basic and critical element of the operation of a local government. Politics should never enter into the selection and retention process for a city’s fire chief. However, as we all know, this is not a realistic expectation. Just as with the succession planning process, the spoils go to the winner; in this case, the elected executive gets to pick his or her supporting cast of characters. This is not necessarily a good or bad process for a community. Generally speaking, if the elected person is of high quality and a capable performer, so are the fire chief and other department heads he or she selects. If the elected person is corrupt or incompetent, likely the same can be said for the members appointed (birds of a feather?).

If this election process is a reality in your community, most likely the fire chief will become a political casualty  and be replaced by the incoming official (so much for the succession plan!). All of the folks in the outgoing administration will be asked to tender their resignations; their fate becomes the decision of the newly elected person. The belief is that if the senior elected person (most likely called “mayor” for a city and an “executive” for a county) must distance him or her from the old administration, the broom should sweep clean—all new cabinet officers may be on the horizon.

 

THE WARNING SIGNS

The first signs that the transition to the new Fire-EMS administration at my department was not going to be very smooth or effective were blatant. It seemed so innocent at first glance. The soon-to-be appointee fire chief wrote on Facebook: “Want Rubin’s job.” Nothing wrong with that; I am sure that he was not the only one interested in replacing me at the helm of the department. However, a second posting went up just a few minutes later: “and Rubin’s head on a stick.” The second posting caught my attention and would set the stage for what was heading my way in a few months—in essence, announcing the “hostile takeover” was just around the corner if the incumbent lost the election. These postings caused me to realize that I was being replaced by a person who despised my administration and the accomplishments that happened during my watch with the department. I was “served notice” that if my boss did not get reelected, the personal attacks would soon be public. This silliness caused my team to develop a very interesting and informative transition plan that defended our collective honor and will be discussed later in detail.

The nonsense didn’t end with the new guy getting his coveted appointment as chief. Once in the office, the “newbie” made some rapid and poorly planned changes to erase all evidence of my team’s efforts of the past four years. Stranger than truth, there was a “building exorcism” to cast out the evil spirits in the fire administration offices. Next, the department’s official seal (shoulder patch and apparatus door emblem) was changed abruptly. This move cost the taxpayers more than $40,000, which the local media noticed. When questioned, the new selectee pointed out that what the previous administration used as an official seal was a “disrespectful insignia to the people.” When pressed on the disrespectful part, he pointed out that the Rubin-era logo did not mention the “emergency medical services” aspect of the department’s operation. Of course, this was not true! It was fired off to the media to defend the indefensible and unnecessary taxpayer funds expenditure.

Shockingly, the old logo was remanufactured by the new chief without the “Fire & Emergency Medical Services Department” component. His rendition of the seal reflected just the words “Fire Department.”  The fictitious patch was printed in the newspaper and shown on local television. The “watchword” for the newly selected administration was that if the information or statistical analyst didn’t align with the current need, just manufacture the information that serves the purpose; “Just make it up as we go” was the new attitude. I understand that this seems ridiculous and impossible.  However, from apparatus purchases to rehiring terminated employees without explanation to reserve apparatus fleet capabilities, the battalion chief’s promotion list, the annual aerial and ground ladder certifications, the number of arson fires that occurred, and paramedic staffing levels—this guy simply made up the needed results. I would not have interest in his fibbing, but in just about every case, he pointed to me as  the direct cause of the problem.

This section of this article may seem like “sour grapes” and that I am not a graceful loser. I assure you that I left the organization better than I found it and quickly took to the door with my head held high; I understand just how this statement must look to the average fire-rescue person. However, this is a factual depiction of the truth and the actions that have occurred. I have been personally held up as the culprit, the cause of all of the problems for a nearly three-year period.

“Trickery from the old administration” is the quote given to  the news reporters as they pressured the “newbie” to explain why $70,000 of fire resistive (FR) uniform shirts sat rotting on the shelves at the Logistic Section when two firefighter/EMTs were severely burned and two more members were moderately burned at an incident. Their recovery took weeks in the regional burn unit at a tremendous cost of personal suffering and pain. The burn injuries received by the firefighters that night were unquestionably exacerbated by the non-fire resistive shirts that the four were ordered to wear. The reasoning behind the must-wear orders was to have the correct logo even though the required uniforms were made of a 65 percent polyester blend that added to the severity of the burn injuries.

To reinforce the need for this department to place all line firefighter/EMTs in FR cotton uniforms, the department’s company officers had suffered a 60-percent full thickness burn around 10 years prior to this incident. Our member survived but was mandatorily forced to retire on a small disability pension. An extremely productive member of the department was permanently sidelined with great personal pain and suffering early in his career. The attending burn surgeon reported that the injured member’s polyester uniform greatly compounded the burn injuries he received. The FR cotton polo shirts had the “disrespectful” logo affixed and could not be used because of my “ “trickery” to place everyone in a safe station uniform ensemble.  

 

OUNCE OF PREVENTION

Realizing that the mayor-elect would be accepting my resignation because of the pending political changes for the community, it was time to develop a detailed transition plan for the “health and well-being” of the organization. I would love to report that this was solely my idea and that I could foresee the bitter attacks that would soon be heading my way. However, two executive staff members, in particular, urged me to spend the time and energy to develop a comprehensive transition plan. The defeated mayor asked all department heads to put together a few notes as to what were mission-critical departmental concerns that would need to be addressed by the incoming folks. With the mayor’s and executive staff’s insight, a great idea was vocalized and followed.

A comprehensive 21-page “Department Transition Plan” (CLICK HERE to download as a PDF) was prepared to instruct the “newbie” on what was happening and what needed to continue to be considered. Of equal importance, this plan was to address the membership of the department with the facts as to where we had been and what we had accomplished over the preceding four years. I would say that the plan was a smashing hit on several levels. As “Rubin Execution date”1 drew near, the plan was approved by the mayor and widely distributed to all stakeholders. The submission to the mayor’s office worked out very well and held a special acknowledgement. The chief executive used the Fire and EMS Department’s Transition Plan as a best practice example for other city departments to duplicate for the new administration.

This widely distributed plan went a long way to document the accomplishment and progress that was made by the Rubin Administration. Looking at the long list of tremendous accomplishments, we were able to hold our heads up just a bit higher and straighter as we headed out the corporate door without regret. The members left behind had a great working plan of the mission-critical concerns that had to be addressed by the new people to keep making progress. I will try to redact the departmental specific information and make the plan available by email for anyone who requests the complete plan. See the outline checklist at the end of this article for items that should be considered for inclusion in a Transition Plan (Figure 1).

SPECIFIC COVER LETTER FOR THE PLAN

When the plan was transmitted to the Intranet for the membership and to all of the elected officials and media agencies, a personalized electronic copy was mailed to the selectee to his place of employment and both of his residences. This was an important step; this guy made up his own script of facts. I don’t believe that he would ever have acknowledged receipt of the document without proof of delivery by the U.S. Mail. One of the folks who worked diligently on the transition plan and insisted that it was a comprehensive document was the chief-of-staff gentleman. I mention this since he is still with the department and would be the first to recall developing the plan and sending it to the new guy.

Why did I take the time to discuss the need and purpose of a comprehensive transition plan after a political termination? First, I felt very strongly that the members needed to be commended for their outstanding performance during my watch. Second, this plan also replaced the make-believe and personal conjecture with facts for the public record and focused on what actually happened during those four years. Finally, the plan is painfully clear in what actions needed to be taken to keep the organization going forward. The spirit was to do the most good for the citizens and visitors of this city. I would have loved to have access to all of the projects and programs that the last chief thought was important! Rather than taking six months or so to figure out the organizational direction, having a comprehensive report would have been most welcome.

This document has served as a “reputation defense mechanism” for everyone who served at the pleasure and would be released from employment for political purposes. Whether it was the local media or national media or a potential new employer questioning the newly manufactured reality of the department, having a comprehensive plan provided the best framework to call the bluff (actually to call out “blue sky”) of the newbie chief. In essence, this document was a real stroke of brilliance and worth its weight in gold to all who have been attacked.

Regardless of the reason for writing a transition plan, it just makes good sense to complete an end-of-term comprehensive report that describes the organization’s accomplishments and immediate direction. As I have stated, if for no other reason, prepare the report to acknowledge the frontline troops who do the “heavy lifting” every day. If you include the seated elected officials and the local media, it will be difficult to impossible for someone to “fib” at your personal expense. If the governing body and media folks have the information, it may take a while, but the truth will prevail. I would hope that the mere presence and awareness of such a report would be a chilling factor, shielding the outgoing chief from the embarrassment and stress associated with the type of postemployment treatment I and several other executive officers were subjected to from the newbie chief.

I understand that this is an extreme case of a personal vendetta against me. I could fill many more pages with the unwarranted and unprovoked attacks. However, I would offer that developing this type of plan is simply the right thing to do for the right reasons. Perhaps bring in the new chief (if you know who he or she is) in to help with the development process before the report is published. Maybe this will give the new administration a jump-start on the all-important work of protecting the public while ensuring member safety at the highest level attainable. If you are interested in the full (and redacted report), please send your request to ChiefRubin@me.com.

 

REFERENCES

1. I was relieved of office on January 3, 2011, at 1000 hours.

Dennis L. RubinDennis L. Rubin is the principal partner in the fire protection-consulting firm D.L. Rubin & Associates. His experience in the fire and rescue service spans more than 35 years. He has served as a company officer, command level officer, or fire chief in several major cities, including Dothan, Alabama; Norfolk, Virginia; Atlanta, Georgia; and Washington, D.C. He served on several committees with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, including a two-year term as the Health and Safety Committee chair. He is a graduate of University of Maryland.

MORE DENNIS RUBIN

If you enjoyed this information, Dennis Rubin has written a book that has more details and case studies about being a fire chief in a fairly busy city--Washington, D.C.--to be published soon by Fire Engineering: D.C. Fire. For more info, CLICK HERE.

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