Fire/Rescue StreetSense ❘ By Kate Dernocoeur
At nighttime training with a neighboring department, we gathered at a house scheduled for demolition. With five or six engaging evolutions to rotate through, we enjoyed a variety of life-like scenarios: placing ladders, rolling into upstairs windows, troubleshooting a couple of tricky corners with a charged hoseline, and more. But what I remember best is this: Toward the end, the new chief of the neighboring department was speaking with his crew. They were gathered close, listening with rapt attention. He commanded their respect—not because he was the boss but because, as was easy to see by their expressions, they really liked this guy.
As a lifelong student of leadership, I found that moment instructive. It made me feel wistful, honestly, because lately I’ve been subject to a couple of situations of tough-to-take leadership. I know, as that new chief was demonstrating (and has continued to show), good leadership is possible. It can be done. Yet, for every example of admirable leadership, there are dozens of examples where leadership is lacking. Lucky are those who haven’t endured situations of poor or tepid leadership—and not just from the chief.
If leadership was easy, everyone would be doing it, but they’re not. Why?
For us, the chief is at the top of the food chain, where the responsibility for leadership is greatest. Generations of little kids have aspired to be that person but, of course, only a few can actually realize their childhood dream. And, just because someone wants to be a chief doesn’t mean that person can do the job well.
What is evidence of “tough-to-take” leadership? Look to those being led for clues about the leader. Are frontline personnel genuinely happy to be part of a thriving, interesting team? Is there even really a team, or is it in name only? If morale is an issue, ask why. Is there internal dry rot?
Because the brotherhood protects its own—even its chiefs—appearances may not look bad from the outside, but what’s life like back at the station? Are there bad moods? Is there sniping or complaining at toxic levels? Few want to leave (because the work itself is fun!) even if it’s not a happy or comfortable place. Still fewer want to be whistle-blowers or shake things up. But having a paternalistic, egotistical chief is like finding out your childhood buddies were enduring abuse growing up but everything happened inside the walls of the family home and nothing was evident from the outside.
This makes it crucial to hire chiefs with “the right stuff.” It’s a major decision for any municipality, large or small. Part of the trick is that those doing the hiring may not ask all the right questions. Naturally, there’s a host of necessary qualifications a new chief has to have, along with experience and areas of training. All should be considered, but the job of hiring must also include gaining a clear idea of that intangible quality of adept leadership.
Sometimes, there’s someone waiting in the wings (often for years, even decades), watching the chief and wishing for the chance to do the job differently. It’s like parenting and saying to yourself that you’ll do (or not do) the things your parents did once you have your own kids. You’d think someone so close to the job for so long would know the drill and would want to do better, but sadly that isn’t what always happens. Sometimes, the result is even poorer leadership. So, hiring committees need to dig deep. A thoughtful hiring process will determine whether the new chief will do the hard work of building the skill of good leadership. To succeed, an inner fire is needed that doesn’t require tending by others, since often there isn’t much accountability when you’ve got the four crossed bugles on your collar.
Does your chief make it a point to learn something new every day? The best ones have an unending appetite for learning. They go to conferences, watch webinars, and gain (and use) beneficial leadership skills and strategies. They find mentors and mentor others in return. They have darned good people skills and use them—all the time. The best chiefs recognize that their personnel are not there for them but rather they are there for their personnel. They have a way of making others eager to be part of the team. They know the best way to look good is for their people to look (and act and feel) good about their roles and actions on behalf of the department day in and day out. Tough-to-take leaders seem to forget this.
Some little kids who grow up and get to be fire chiefs seem to be in it more for the status and privilege or because they feel entitled after years of waiting. But these motivations seldom garner the respect of firefighters. So, what is an honorable measure of success? What constitutes a “good job” as a leader? Being that person who can generate respect is something that is earned every day, not because of a title but because of the actions of the person holding it. What was evident that night at training (and from talking to people in that department since) was just exactly that.
For those lucky enough to get the nod to take a position of leadership, I ask: What are you going to do with this almost-sacred duty? Two years down the line, or 10, will you be doing the job of leading in a way that generates respect among those you lead or not? Why or why not?
KATE DERNOCOEUR, retired firefighter/NREMT, serves as a medical examiner investigator as well as a SARTECH-II with Kent County’s SAR K9 unit in western Michigan. She retired from the Ada (MI) Fire Department in 2019 and was a paramedic for the Denver (CO) Paramedic Division (1979-1986). Her emergency services career began in 1974 with the Vail (CO) Mountain Rescue Group. A journalist and MFA (creative writing), she has written for EMS publications, including JEMS, since 1979, and was a frequent speaker at EMS conferences from 1984-2004. Her book Streetsense: Communication, Safety and Control was released in its 4th edition in 2020. She also coauthored Principles of Emergency Medical Dispatch with Dr. Jeff Clawson, MD (first edition, 1988), among other books. Her blog, “Generally Write,” is at www.katedernocoeur.com.