The Goofy Times

Bobby Halton
editor’s opinion By BOBBY HALTON
Bobby Halton

As firefighters, we have experienced or will experience several changes of command as our careers unfold. It is always an interesting time. It is difficult to tell early on in a new administration’s tenure how it is going to turn out. We had a term for that odd time frame in between the unease and newness of the incoming administration and the exit and familiarity of the old administration: We called it the “goofy time.” During the goofy time, all kinds of interesting things happened—some of it good, some of it bad, and some of it just downright weird.

It has been said anecdotally that the average career span of a fire chief these days is about four years, give or take a few years. That is because, in most municipalities, a new mayor or a new city manager generally has a friend, a campaign worker, or someone within the fire department in whom they confide. New mayors and new city managers want to build teams that reflect their “vision of the future.” It seems these folks never heard the great American philosopher Yogi Berra’s point: “It’s hard to predict, especially the future.” Often, this confidant becomes the new fire chief, or this confidant helps in the selection of the new fire chief.

While visiting in Connecticut recently with two old fire chief friends, we were commenting on the different trends in hiring fire chiefs where municipalities look for specific characteristics in hiring. These hiring fads come and go with the changing social focus of the day, but the effects linger.

One of my favorite stories about the goofy times involved a friend of mine who was recently selected internally to be chief of department and was moving some boxes into his new office at fire headquarters. Standing on the corner watching him, quietly smoking a cigarette, was an older firefighter with probably 25-plus years on the job. As my buddy walked by, he commented, “Good morning,” to the veteran firefighter. The old firefighter nodded his head in agreement and acknowledged. My friend took the opportunity to be one of those bosses who manages by walking around and wants to be known as someone who listens, so he casually asked, “How are things going?” The old firefighter took a slow draw on his cigarette, blew the smoke up into the air, looked my friend in the eye, and said, “You know, I was standing on this corner when the last guy moved in, and I’ll be standing on this corner when the next guy moves in.”

My friend got it. The message was that bosses come and go—some are good, some are bad, some last for a very long time, and some last for a very short time. Whether they are “good” or “bad” is not so much a matter of longevity but of impact. Impact can be very different for different people in the fire department. One chief can be tremendously positive for, say, the fire marshal’s office and not so positive for, say, operations or vice versa. A fire chief might be tremendously popular for you and might be my worst nightmare. And, not all bosses who are good or effective survive political change; some are, quite frankly, the victims of political change.

Ambitious young future chiefs would do well to watch the children’s movie “The Lion King.” In that movie, the young lion cub’s dad is like a good fire chief—effective, well-loved, doing all the right things. Through no fault of his own, he has a brother, Scar. Scar ultimately causes the downfall of the young lion cub’s dad by putting him in a situation where he sacrifices himself to save his son. We have seen many good fire chiefs lay down their careers to save their people, their dignity, or their honor. We all also can remember a Scar or two.

The fire service is like the rest of the world, whether it be business, social, or otherwise. Somewhere in some fire service, some organizations are going through a goofy time, a change of leadership. The manner that brought about this change often has little or no impact as to how the change works itself out. Even if the new fire chief turns out to be the old fire chief’s brother Scar, sometimes it’s just what the organization needed. As Winston Churchill said, “People tend to get the kind of government they deserve,” and maybe we often get the kind of leadership we need. As firefighters, we are always optimistic skeptics.

We firefighters are hopelessly committed to a better future, to winning against all odds, to besting any obstacle placed in our way. You cannot be a solid, mission-oriented firefighter without unquenchable optimism. Firefighting, by definition, is tilting at windmills. We will never win every fire, we will never save every victim, but every day, we start out the shift believing we can and knowing that we will try to the best of our abilities.

As firefighters, we know that there is a huge difference between the mission and the institutions in which we live and work. In the back of our minds, we are always a little leery—and this is a good thing—about the politics surrounding the institutions and the folks who get involved in those politics. It doesn’t make them good or bad, evil or virtuous; all life is politics at some level, and the life of the fire chief is politics at a pretty high level.

Whether you are a fire chief or a firefighter, you can do a lot to make the goofy times less uncertain and less stressful. Should you find yourself someday exiting a fire chief’s position, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, do so with dignity. As firefighters, we should remember to respect the rank and give grace when we can, remembering that the goofy times affect us all.

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