By Martin J. Rita
As a new chief officer or fire chief in an organization, there are certain guidelines that must be followed to have success. Many fire departments have new officers that are appointed from within the organization. This will complicate things even further when you attempt to acclimate your personnel to a new set of rules. There is a core set of values that must be followed when you are a manager. There has been proven success when these values are adhered to, and proven failure when they are not.
Just as if you are a parent, you must be consistent with your message to all of your subordinates. This will validate that there is no favoring of individuals; it also supports a solid management stance on all issues. Any change in response or policy needs to be updated on paper and posted for the entire membership to see. There should also be a grace period of about two weeks before any changes in operations take place.
Always Back your Officers
Even if your officers make mistakes, they are the enforcers of rules and must be encouraged by their command staff. Mistakes are going to be made, and it is important to not show a sign of weakness to subordinates by disciplining your officer in front of the membership. This may also be construed as a lack of solidarity in the command staff.
Do Not Be a Friend–Be a Boss!
Subordinates will do anything to gain an edge with their boss in the workplace. They will test this theory very early in your appointment, but it is important that you make that division. Separate these relationships by upholding the chain of command. Do not make decisions based on individuals, but on an individual incident basis. It’s difficult to do, because you used to work shifts with these members. Make sure you are being fair and equitable to all your personnel or this can create very big problems in your organization.
Your staff (including management) must be held accountable for their actions from discipline to the completion of delegated tasks. If there are deadlines set or objectives that need to be completed, your people need to be held accountable to complete them or disciplinary action must be taken. This is the only way to ensure productivity by your officers and compliance to policies and rules by your staff.
The primary purpose for progressive discipline is to assist the employee to understand that a performance problem or opportunity for improvement exists. If you are inheriting a group that has lacked discipline from former officers, there is a good chance that they will continue to push the envelope. Managers need to make sure to adhere to progressive discipline to ensure that they are following state and local bargaining unit labor laws, especially when managing union fire departments. There are certain steps that need to be taken to give the employee an opportunity to correct his action.
Step 1) Corrective Action – Problem is corrected immediately with no documentation. These are more than likely very minimal issues.
Step 2) Counseling– Documented counseling of problem with employee
Step 3) Verbal Reprimand– Documented and next step in discipline progression
Step 4) Written Reprimand– Documented next step after verbal reprimand.
Step 5) Suspension– Number of days off after a written reprimand.
Step 6) Termination– last step when all other disciplinary action is exhausted.
Policies & Procedures
An organization must have guidelines and rules for everything from checking the apparatus to attack operations at a structure fire. This will ensure that everyone knows your expectations. Employees need set instructions for operations and when there are no guidelines in place; when injury or death occurs, it falls back on the fault of the fire chief or the authority having jurisdiction.
A Good Deal Today is a Good Deal Tomorrow
Refrain from making any immediate decisions about disciplinary action or change in policy on the day of any incident. Give incidents time to digest and look at all possible outcomes of your actions. Also use this time to discuss this situation with peers and mentors to receive advice about alternate solutions to the problem. Also, address the individual or the incident that took place. Do not punish the entire membership based on one individual’s lack of judgment.
Just because your organization is operating well does not mean that, as a new officer, you shouldn’t be looking for new ways to improve your department. Stay educated with new technology, talk with other chiefs around your district about new equipment and apparatus, and educate yourself about innovative ways to make your department better. Look at new ways of billing, apply for federal grants, and promote your department to the public. Make sure you have a strong public education program, look into citizen fire academy for trustees and city officials, and set up annual open houses to invite the taxpayers into the firehouse.
You have been waiting for your shot to improve your department, and now it is time to prove to your city or village that you are the man for this job! Remember to always continue your education and promote your firefighters to do the same. Network with other chief officers and friends, because the day you have the answer for everything is the day you need to submit your papers for retirement.
Martin J Rita is deputy chief of the Midlothian (IL) Fire Department. He is a part-time engineer for the Calumet Park Fire Department. He is an instructor for the Posen Fire Academy and a Blue Card Incident Command Training Instructor for the Orland Fire District Command Training Center. He is a charter member of the 57 F.O.O.L.S training organization and the treasurer of the MABAS 22 Chiefs Association.