All The World’s a Stage, and The Fire Chiefs Merely Players

Robin Williams in a fire helmet

Article and artwork by Scott Ferguson

In this two-part series, Scott Ferguson looks at stress and its impact on the heads of fire departments, drawing on the results of several recent surveys sent out to fire chiefs around the nation. Read part one HERE.

Cast of Characters

When asked where the principle sources of stress come from, the surveyed chiefs identified their relationship with labor (61.5 percent), city council or district boards (39.6 percent), subordinate chiefs (30.8 percent), and city/county managers (27.5 percent). The only non-relational source to crack the top five was related to the long and unpredictable hours worked (53.8 percent).

…that is what I was not fully prepared for; I took the job with a full appreciation for how challenging it can be to be a labor leader. As such, I embraced the notion of setting boundaries, but including board members in key committees and most policy decisions. With that said, there were times when the lack of respect, political acumen, and general vision totally blew me away. I hate the word “entitlement;” is seems too general and often misplaced, but my quiet voice screamed it on more than one occasion. – Fire chief

A seasoned fire chief will soon learn which developers have a penchant for end-arounds, whose husband had an affair with an employee’s wife, who’s been sick, who’s currently sick and tired, and which council member is reliving their high school glory days. It may seem like a stretch, but I guarantee that every fire chief reading this has already assigned a name and face to at least two of these characters.

My greatest challenges associated with being “the” chief: dealing with political personalities, and (the) difficulty in trying to not get dragged into political issues where someone always goes home mad. – Fire chief

By nearly 30 percentage points, those surveyed identified their relationship with the department’s labor group as the source of their greatest stress and anxiety. Given what is often at stake and the pressure one can feel when the chips are down and the sand is shifting, I guess that no one should be surprised by that number.

Keeping with our theme, the most memorable movies and plays have strong protagonists, also known as heroes (James Bond, Rocky, Captain America, and John Wayne in all his movies), and antagonists, more commonly referred to as villains (Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Jaws [the Bond character and the shark], and the dude who shot Bambi). Of course, the problem is that it’s a matter of opinion on who should be wearing the white and the black hats.

Ask a room full of chiefs after a Sea Breeze and a cigar and you might expect to get some variation of this answer: they are unreasonable; they are uneducated; they do not know what it’s like to be chief; they are only concerned about their next boat payment. Somewhere buried within the diatribe you may find the phrase, “Back in my day…” Conversely, one can imagine that after a few Bud Lights or IPAs, the union hall would echo with claims that our chiefs have lost touch; their butts are too attached to their office chairs; and, they are weak and they have lost the courage to stand up to the city manager and council.

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The truth is each “side” more resembles the extras whose name would be buried deep in the credits and shown long after the audience has already discarded their soda cups and popcorn tubs in the trash on the way out the door. They are a regular cast of people that deal with regular problems, including those that generate a great deal of emotional opinions that can ultimately lead to some very real stress. The difference in this script is that both labor leaders and management have been cast to represent the interests of others; interests that – at times – may both be unreasonable and contrary to their own experience and belief systems. Thus, it should be expected that fire chiefs and labor presidents will spend their careers rising and falling to the occasion. The reality is, neither are masters of their universe.

As a previous union officer, I felt I had a good perspective on the issues facing the membership and the direction needed for the department. I had anticipated labor issues but not to the extent that I have seen. Labor issues have prevented me from moving the department forward in my envisioned direction and making substantive changes in the time I would have liked to.  – Fire chief

In his book, The True Measure of a Man, Richard E. Simmons III notes that these leaders are also frequently afraid. Men in particular have been conditioned to project an image of strength and competence to the outside world. “As a result, many men feel a huge pressure to maintain the image that they are bulletproof, that they can handle any problem, and any struggle, at any and all times.”[1] Absent any meaningful self-awareness, these unrealistic measuring sticks can lead to the kind of posturing that lessens the chances of a positive outcome, when the simplest answers can be found in cooperation, humility, and mutual understanding.  

Having a trusting relationship and mutual respect with the president is essential to labor harmony because you can have candid discussions without political posturing. The keys to a successful relationship: Understand that you need him as much as they need you. He has a job to do, so respect that. Don’t make him lose face with the membership. – Fire chief

Excuse Me, But That Was Not Identified Within the Brochure.

So, you’ve put in your time, got your degree, listened to the advice of good people, read all you can get your hands on, and are now ready to search for a soft landing; somewhere where the birds sing, the air is fresh, and the employees all get along famously in their effort to better serve the community. Naturally, the first question is, “How do I get started?”

Well, there are a number of thriving companies that do a wonderful job representing their clients in an effort to hire a fire chief. Every month or so, I get a professionally-crafted flyer announcing a recruitment. The promotional material generally features a nice photo on the front cover showing some regional landmark or a well-cropped action shot of that agency’s first responders at work. There is space set aside that identifies key features of the community and size of the fire department. Naturally, room is also afforded to mark the position’s minimum qualifications, education, and any specialized training or certifications that are considered highly desirable. And, a short paragraph is usually dedicated to sharing the vision and goals that the organization feels need special attention.

What I have never found written or implied anywhere within a recruitment brochure is a backstory, plot, or a list of heroes and villains that come with the job. There are no James Earl Jones-like narrators to guide a potential suitor through the twists and turns that set the scene. There are no lists that hint if the theater more closely resembles a comedy, drama, soap-opera, or a full-on, zombie-walking horror show. And, there are no Web sites that provide a summary review and Rotten Tomato rating to determine if this job has been “Certified Fresh.”

We would all like to believe that our career scripts consist primarily of harmless firehouse banter with periodic injections from our favorite action movies. In reality, local government and fire departments too often more closely resemble sitcoms like Parks and Recreation and Rescue Me. As evidenced by the over 28-million Bing hits[2], most chiefs have learned the hard way that Johnny Knoxville is not the only Jackass running around our sets performing stunts with little regard for the immediate consequences.

The Critics

The results of a 2014 questionnaire directed at a core of city managers and department heads within the Los Angeles County (CA) metro area indicates that most of these leaders have a healthy respect for the time, dedication, and professionalism that region’s fire chiefs provide to the community.

The fire department, as all other departments, plays an active role in the annual budget process. Over the past five years, due to the fiscal downturn, the fire department has been tasked and accomplished several budget reductions. With one of the largest department budgets, the fire department recognizes the need to be a team player and part of the solution when balancing challenging budgets. – Assistant city manager

Not all staff members have come to the same conclusion. Some, through personal experience, presumption, or envy, have little understanding–and even less sympathy–for our first responders.

I have found firefighters are firefighters, throughout the ranks. They want to know what’s for dinner, and who’s up next for overtime. Fire ranks have no clue where the paycheck is coming from. You’ll get an answer of taxes and fees. But they are not in tune with planning, budgets, or revenue streams. – City manager

Firefighters are inherently trusted, sight unseen. They are looked to during times of duress/trouble/emergency. Board members and department heads know their value, but often will be making comments at the water cooler, referring to them as “the spoiled children” or “the Chosen” or “Golden.” Don’t take this lightly; it is a sign of partial envy and potential hidden agendas. – City manager

Entitlement, entitlement, entitlement…did I say entitlement? – City manager

There are times when our harshest critics are also our largest advocates. In its purest sense, all government employees, in particular public safety, are subject to the will, vote, criticisms, and lavish praise of the audience we have sworn to serve, our local citizens. Depending on the state of the economy, demographic, and political leanings of the local news, they are often the source of our widest smiles and our deepest frowns. The weight and enormity of that realization can be daunting.

My mom was in a local shoe store the other day, near where one of the wildfires had devastated a local community. The owner told her, “I’m sure OUR fire chief wouldn’t let OUR town burn.      – Fire chief

Signs and Symptoms

When queried whether they had experienced any signs or symptoms that they felt could be directly attributed to their positions as chief, 32 percent acknowledged that they had been depressed. A much higher percentage was attributed to a number of other indicators often directly associated with depression:

  • Anxiety and irritability – 66 percent
  • Difficulty sleeping – 64 percent
  • Excessive fatigue – 60 percent
  • Diminished interest/pleasure in usual activities – 55 percent
  • Moodiness – 42 percent
  • Forgetfulness – 40 percent
  • Excessive/inappropriate guilt – 24 percent
  • Unplanned weight loss/loss of appetite – 14 percent

I don’t know if I’ve ever been truly depressed. I can tell you that I have gone through a few periods in my career when I just did not get much joy out of life. Most food tasted like saltine crackers and I seem to gravitate towards music that brought me down. I kept it to myself because I felt that I was still effective in doing my job, and I did not want some kind of stigma attached to my ability to lead. – Fire chief

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To a lesser degree, the chiefs also noted having sustained a number of physiological illnesses, social disorders, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sadly, five (6 percent) confessed that they had feelings of death or self-harm.

When asked if their experiences as a firefighter or junior officer had any impact on their ability to manage stress, 40 percent noted that it had better prepared them for the increased responsibilities; 21 percent admitted that the stress was compounded by their previous memories; and 41 percent shared that there was no apparent impact. That said, more than half admitted that the job has had a negative impact on their family, citing a lack of balance between their work and home lives. Overall, 59 percent disclosed that they were not nearly as prepared for the job as they had hoped. Here is the biggest stinker: while the sources of stress seem to have increased and the symptoms have grown, the chiefs are reporting that their traditional support system had withered, either sometimes (23.7 percent) or altogether (59.1 percent).

Why Is No One Talking About This?

Consider how we began this discussion: how do you start a conversation without appearing weak or incapable of handling your business? No one wants to second-guess their place in the fire service, or the value placed on their career. No one wants to consider if they fit within a culture whose shield is defined by courage, honor, and respect. No one wants to admit that they may not fully identify with what is advertised on the brochure, in the movies, or the image etched in the minds of those who probably don’t know any better. No one wants to question what the future has for them. No one wants find the words to explain the unexplainable. No one wants to face a reality that the once stable job has become the primary source of our instability. No one wants to be second-guessed. No one wants to see an awkward smile of support masking disdain or pity. No one wants to face their family and have to explain why…so we act until we can no longer play the role.

What are you going to say? People simply expect us to cowboy-up. – Fire chief

Dr. Ed Sherman has a degree in Psychology, Clinical Psychology, and 40 years of public safety experience as a law enforcement officer, firefighter, and paramedic. “Unfortunately, research on fire service behavioral health, including that pertaining to chief fire officers, has not been pursued to the same extent as the work that has been invested in studying some other professions such as law enforcement. Although the realization that firefighting is a highly demanding and stressful occupation has existed for a long time, and some outstanding work has indeed been done in seeking solutions to mitigate issues and concerns, much still remains to be done.”

Build Resiliency

“God give me strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – Serenity Prayer

Not all our public safety stories have happy endings. However, it should be made very clear that daylighting a discussion like this does not mean that every senior officer has a candy dish full of Xanax on the corner of their desk, nor does it imply that they are incapable of doing a fine job as a fire chief. It simply means that there should be some more conversation. Although many of our chiefs were technically prepared for the rigors of the job, the unpredictable hours and polarizing cast of characters have added a layer of challenges that were not outlined in their college texts. It also suggests the resulting stress is likely having a tough impact at work and at home.

If you think this revelation is a little too heavy for prime time, imagine what it’s been like for those who have wondered if they were the only chiefs feeling this way. Some may argue the validity of these findings, and that’s ok. At the least they are talking about it, and perhaps the data and comments will provide some solace in knowing that they are not alone.

Generically speaking, finding confidential alternatives for dealing with these feelings are easy to come by. Just Google, “How do you deal depression and anxiety.” You may find some comfort there, but not much in the way of context. For that, Dr. Sherman offers this advice: “If a member of the fire service, including chief fire officers, needs such assistance either for themselves or a family member, they should definitely reach out for such help and take advantage of the services and assistance available. One caveat is that the service provider should be ‘culturally competent’ in providing counseling to members of the fire service. In other words, they should have training and experience working with members of the public safety professions and preferably in working with firefighters specifically.”

Taking it a step further, the following is another layer of guidance that comes directly from those chiefs surveyed. There is nothing fancy here; just meat and potatoes advice from those that have worked the job.

Be a student of the game. It is one thing to take a chief’s position knowing that planning, budgets, and meetings will soon take up the lion’s share of your time; it’s another to understand the tension that exists between healthy progress and our industry’s general resistance to change. Managing a fire department is much like playing a game of chess. Each employs long-term strategies, and the pieces have specific purposes, specialties, and limitations. The difference is that our game pieces bite if they do not like where they are going.

Chiefs must appreciate that sometimes people only see what is directly in front of them. It’s your responsibility to listen, adapt, communicate, and then start again. Understand that good leadership is partially dependent on a chief’s ability to build organizational resiliency to defend against the extremes. Know that some days will suck, but that power and opportunity can come from handling the tough times with grace.

Leadership, leadership, leadership! Be a student of leadership, read and devour books, and material about great leaders. The operational stuff isn’t where the wheels fall off, the getting along in house, personality stuff that is the bulk of problems and issues. If you can get the support of the floor and they feel like you are “backing their play,” anything is possible.         – Fire chief

Embrace the gifts. There can be a misconception that the chief must be the subject matter expert in everything job related…and a little more. This is not true. Psychologists can debate the issue all they want, but there is not a single person reading this that does not instinctively understand that, to some degree, people are a composite of how they are wired (nature) and their experiences (nurture). Some are naturally skilled mechanics, just as others are good with words, music, or socializing.

From a leadership perspective, the challenge becomes how people maximize these gifts to build a better team. Unfortunately, society has a habit of picking at each other’s shortcomings. Thus, most tend to spend an inordinate amount of time concentrating on those areas that don’t always come naturally, rather than the beauty that radiates when all the specialized parts are interconnected and operating as a team. Putting it another way: imagine an orchestra full of tuba players, a football team with only offensive linemen, or making a movie with only character actors and no writers, producers, set designers, or key grips (whatever those are).

First understand yourself and what you have to offer; then build a strong team; then deal with it. – Fire Chief

Within these settings, a fire chief first must understand that they are the conductors, coaches, and movie directors. Chiefs will find peace and patience by first embracing their own personal strengths and limitations, and then going about building a team that is more than a sum of its parts. “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” – Babe Ruth

Dream big, dream right. For some, defining success may be the most important consideration a fire chief needs to understand. Historically speaking, people in this country like to celebrate winners. We use competition as a measuring stick to compare our dominance as a country and the greatness of our sports teams. Ties can leave a fan feeling empty – this may be why soccer has been slow to be fully embraced in America. Combine this with our fast-food, Facebook, 280-character need for immediate gratification, and you can see that we like to get things done so that we can celebrate, drink beer, and blow off some steam.

One stressful challenge a chief may face is that his or her organization may be in a long-term rebuilding phase. It may require exploding some old, unhealthy practices, getting rid of a little dead wood, and onboarding a few new people on the bus. It may also be that the pieces are already solid, but the economy has decimated the organization and it will take five to 10 years and fresh perspectives to fully rebuild.

Much of the job stress can be reduced by having: 1) the right deputy fire chief; 2) the right administrative assistant. Otherwise, the stress and pressure increases exponentially. Make sure ALL staff officers are competent and committed, and empower them and delegate responsibilities that should not be on a fire chief’s desk. – Fire chief

Even five years is a long time; it only took four years to build the Golden Gate Bridge during the Great Depression. Remember, we are an impatient crowd…and we like our beer. Consider that if reconstruction takes too long or goes in a direction different than the firefighters may like, a fire chief may need to strap in tight. The comparisons between other, healthier organizations and their own will not stop simply because the job is hard and the resources are thin. Many of these challenges are unique to the identity of each organization and therefore should not be taken personally. However, chiefs will be subject to firehouse chatter, social media snipes, and sometimes even a choreographed attempt to get them fired.

Take the time to slow down and connect with those in your organization. It has truly helped keep me balanced and engaged. Remember, it’s not you personally they are after, it is the position.   – Fire chief

Fortunately, there is some advice that can be offered that can decrease the stress and build cohesion. A chief must work with all the stakeholders to develop a plan that breaks the process into little chunks. The plan should include a vision of where the department is going, as well as goals and measurements that help members tangibly identify their progress. It should also be realistic, sincere, and transparent. As a team, those involved should be willing to regularly go on the road to council, the chamber, and community neighborhood groups so that they better understand how they should be defining success. This can also drive the kind of financial support necessary to fill the gaps.

Know what the job is “really about.” It is 99-percent people skills, analytical ability, persuasiveness, and command presence–not much about the actual doing of the job… – Fire chief

For the plan to fully develop, it may take more time than allowed within a single chief’s tenure. This requires that all the stakeholders define “success” through the achievement of smaller victories. It also requires the plan be revisited on a frequent basis and that each milestone is celebrated with that cold beer…and a cigar.

 “A society grows great when old men (women) plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” – Greek Proverb

Find balance. An entire book could be written on this notion, but one survey response said it best, “Family is there before you become a chief officer…if you want them to be there when you retire, don’t allow the job to get in the way of nurturing and caring for them.” This was the advice most often given and probably the most often ignored. It makes sense if you consider that people are conditioned to think that the biggest investments lead to the grandest rewards. The problem comes in being clear about what you should be investing in.

In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People[3[, Stephen Covey reminds readers that unless we “begin with the end in mind,” sometimes people find themselves achieving victories that are empty, and that some successes come at the expense of things that were far more valuable. I’m reminded every time I see my grandkids grow up through Facebook that my legacy as a person should start with who I am as a Christian, husband, father, grandfather, son, friend, and then fire chief.

Make sure your spouse/family is your support system and give them the priority they deserve. Don’t take things personally – the union, city manager, etc. have a job to do as well, just like you do, so be respectful and professional but also do your job. It isn’t always easy. – Fire chief

Advice grab bag. The following are short but equally important considerations:

1. You ain’t as young as you used to be. Exercise, see your doctor, and take your vitamins. It can help enhance your mood.

2. Phone a friend. Find someone whom you trust to ask advice or simply go on a tangent without fear of judgment. You will know that you found the right person if he or she does you the honor of returning the favor.

3. Remember that you are only human. It’s easy to say that we all grow through our mistakes, but it can be painful. Out think it. Practice stepping away from the situation in your mind to better understand what is going on and what the short- and long-term impacts might be, then take action. It’s good to find the edge of the playing field; it gives you more room to play.

4. The job is not for everybody. No fewer than 10 chiefs indicated that, if given the chance, they would not have taken the job, implying that they found more happiness at lower ranks. Cool. Those considering the position should look at all the angles and ask as many questions of those that have had previous experience. Then make a decision and never look back.

5. Take your own advice. What would you tell a friend if he or she were in a similar situation?  

It may be true that in the grand scheme of things, the career of a fire chief is only one of many roles buried within a thousand scripts that make up a community. But when all is said and done, we must acknowledge that those stories reflect a life worth living; that all firefighters have been blessed with an opportunity to make a difference on a scale few will ever experience. If we can keep things in perspective, if we can get help when we need it, and we can find some measure of balance, a fire chief will be able to look back and say, “It’s been one hell of a ride.”

Please don’t worry so much, because in the end, none of us have very long on this Earth. Life is fleeting, and if you’re ever distressed, cast your eyes to the summer sky, when the stars are strung across the velvety night. And when a shooting star streaks through the blackness turning night into day, make a wish, think of me. Make your life spectacular. I know I did.’ – Robin Williams, from the movie Jack (1996)

REFERENCES

[1] Richard E. Simmons III, The True Measure of a Man, 2.

[2]  Search for hits on firefighters fired for harassment, Retrieved on August 14, 2018 from BING: https://www.bing.com/search?q=firefighters+fired+for+harassment&FORM=SBRS01

[3]  Covey, Stephen R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Retrieved from Wikipedia on August 21, 2018: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_7_Habits_of_Highly_Effective_People

 

Scott FergusonScott Ferguson is the fire chief of Murrieta, California. He has been a member of the fire service for 35 years and a chief for more than 10 years. He earned his fire science diploma from Bates Vocational Technical Institute in Tacoma, Washington and his AAS in business administration from Clark Community College. He also received his bachelor of science degree in liberal studies from Eastern Oregon University and his master’s degree in Management Psychology from Wayland Baptist University in 2005. He has completed the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy, is an accredited Chief Fire Officer (CFO), and completed the Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education Program in 2012. He  is a past president of the Los Angeles Area Fire Chiefs Association and the Riverside County Fire Chief’s Associations. 

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