FIRE CHIEF 1A

BY MICHAEL S. TERWILLIGER

When I wrote this, my Fire department was looking for a new fire chief to replace me because I had planned to retire at the end of 2005. As the then-current chief, I helped my governing board find the ideal candidate. One of the questions I posed to my board was: What qualities are you looking for in this new fire chief? Of course, they asked me what I would look for. I gave them some song and dance at the time. We finished the meeting, and as I started to drive home, I started to think about that question I had asked. Just what should my board look for in this new person? Naturally, as I have done with various topics in the past, using zero analysis or study, I came up with a list of traits, skills, and abilities I consider good fire chief attributes. These are things that others taught me throughout my career or that I learned as an incident commander on an overhead team and as a chief officer or fire chief later in my career. I warn you that this is not what you will find in an announcement for a position and may be offensive to some traditionalists or employee groups. Also, it is hard to determine if a candidate has these traits unless you ask solid questions when the time is right.

REMEMBER WHO YOU WORK FOR

In my case, it was an elected board of directors of a special district. It might be a city council, a city manager, or a government-appointed panel. Regardless, understand that these folks represent the public you serve and they have the final say on all issues. Too many times you will get an idea and think it is the only answer or it must be done as you have requested. A problem develops when the governing board does not see it that way, and unwise fire chiefs go to the mat on principle or whatever emotion drives them. One of two things will result. One, you will ultimately create an abyss, called a lack of trust, between you and your bosses that will hurt you down the road on future decisions. Two, you will learn firsthand what the term “at will” means; you may get a letter that says, “Thank you, but we do not need your services any more, effective June 1.” Remember, nine times out of 10, when you are a fire chief, you serve at will, which means there is no protection from dismissal that your rank- and-file staff enjoys.

HOW WOULD THIS LOOK IN THE HEADLINES?

A good friend of mine is an attorney and a volunteer fire chief, a combination that ranks right up there with a mortician who owns the ambulance service. Anyhow, he gives me lots of advice, most of it marginal, but there are some real jewels, such as the subhead above. If you are planning to do something, ask yourself, Would I mind reading about it on the front page of the paper? Things like “Fire chief gives obsolete computers to employees” or “Fire chief uses district vehicle while on vacation in Florida.” Now, one example is obvious and the other is not-either way, I hope you get my point. As you make the myriad decisions as fire chief, anytime you feel funny inside about what you plan to do or the question above is hard to answer or your solution is designed to hide information about the decision, and you feel like the country/western song, “I am going to hate myself in the morning,” don’t do it!

I would say, “Follow your instinct,” but the total moral decay of our society has dumbed down the ethical and moral instincts of far too many today, and I just can’t offer the instinct advice anymore. Before telling a staff member to spend district money as if it were his own, take a look and see how many toys that person has. Believe me, that’s a good way to go broke.

FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT

An old chief who hired me as an operator in 1974 and was an officer in World War II said, “It’s lonely at the top,” and it really does apply to this business. Although it’s okay to be social with staff, shoot the breeze with everyone, and even play a little golf with the troops, make sure you do not get too close. You may have to lower the boom on one of them the next day for some indiscretion. Such an indiscretion may have occurred because that person became too familiar with you. And speaking of moral decay, he then thinks you owe him something or he does not have to respect you.

Another maxim under this category is that many will mistake kindness for weakness, so always keep your left up. This is very apparent in departments with a strong union presence that spends an inordinate amount of time driving a wedge between rank-and-file and management to gain a foothold for future negotiations.

Finally, in spending time with your personnel, do it equitably; don’t spend more time with those you like. As a chief, you don’t have the luxury of liking or disliking staff while on the job.

LISTEN TO YOUR TROOPS

We always hear that you should be a good listener: God gave us two ears and one mouth, and all that. Fine, but really listen to everything-the good, the bad, and the ugly. As a chief, you must be able to do this because there is good stuff in there. Listening is easy.

Now comes the hard part. Often when you listen, they will tell you that your idea or direction is bad, and you will realize that too because you left your ego at the door. You then tell those involved, “By God, you’re right, and I’m going to fix this! Thanks for pointing it out!” If appropriate, make sure that everyone knows why the change was made and who helped you with that decision. That is why you listen, folks, so you can use your valuable employees to make yourself look good. And in the end, you provide the citizens you serve with a better product. I don’t advocate that every decision be made by consensus or that everyone has equal say. You are the chief-although you do listen to input, your staff knows you have the blue pencil to veto all plans. I admit that I think a committee of three works best when two don’t show up, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have coffee with the gang now and then and talk shop.

THE STANDARDS YOU DEMAND

One of the reasons I wanted to be a fire chief was my belief that I could kick it up a notch in many areas of this business-areas such as the staff appearance on duty and in the public eye, personnel efficiency on the emergency scene, staff behavior toward the citizens we serve regardless of what we are doing, safe operations in emergency and nonemergency situations, and so on. I hate it when firefighters don’t wear clean and presentable uniforms, won’t multitask on the fireground and do what needs to be done, are rude to the public regardless of what is going on, and …. You get the point.

If you have these issues or others, you can set the appropriate standards and enforce them. But don’t enforce a standard you don’t embrace as well. If you act like a jerk in public, your personnel will, too. If you ignore safety at incidents, so will your staff.

Here’s the test. How many chiefs have you seen arrive at an emergency to see how it’s going walking around in the white shirt and baseball cap while everyone else is wearing 75 pounds of personal protective equipment? I use that example because I had a habit of doing just that. I am an idiot sometimes, I’ll admit. I rest my case.

BALANCE

Ah, welcome to the world of the ultimate middleman. As a chief, you are wedged between the needs of firefighters you supervise and the needs of the governing board to which you must answer. There is no way around it. You’ll get pressure from the unions, the fire service journals, and senior staff to increase staffing for safety, add more stations to reduce response times, buy new fire engines, or whatever the issue is. On the other side, you are expected to operate under the fiscal constraints of your organization and jurisdictional authority.

Both sides may have very compelling arguments, but you are in the spotlight now and must make a rational decision based on numerous factors. There are no specific answers to this dilemma. Generally, you have to strike a balance between both sides, always keeping in mind whom you work for. Before everyone jumps to conclusions, let’s look at this rationally for a moment.

We all agree you need to give your staff the tools to do the job. Therein lies the rub. Just what are the tools? Some will tell you that you must have four-person engine companies, five-person trucks, and 30 firefighters on the fireground to operate safely. That is rubbish. You can operate on a fireground with one firefighter safely. As I have said in past articles, all fires are inherently safe until we mess with them. Do not blur the lines between safety and proficiency. You must give your staff the tools to do the job safely within the fiscal constraints of your organization-it’s that simple. Don’t expect your three-station department to fight fires like the Fire Department of New York-it’s not going to happen. You are responsible to develop and maintain SOGs/SOPs that reflect what you have available, not what you would like to have available.

The other part of this equation is you must keep your governing board abreast of changes in this business, budget accordingly and responsibly, and educate board members on what it takes to run a fire department effectively and responsibly. In the end, you must also understand that you can’t threaten the voting public or ram some statistical analysis from a consulting firm down their throats about the need to meet some lofty staffing standard unless the timing is right. There are ways to drum up money to increase staffing, but threats and malicious behavior are not good options. I suppose your union could strike, but I think most firefighters now have so many toys they can’t afford that option anymore. Always remember for whom you work, and it isn’t your staff.

KNOW YOUR STUFF

I currently come from a small fire department. At one time I was a division chief who oversaw around 41 fire stations when on duty. I realize neither was big as big fire departments go, but this is my turn to talk up small fire department stuff. Why? Well, so many of the goofy incident management systems I hear about instead of the incident command system or minimum fireground personnel numbers or staffing guidelines we should all follow come from great big fire departments. All swell if you have lots of fire engines and firefighters to put out a house fire. I heard once that if you give any idiot enough money, he could put out a fire. So true! The real trick is doing it with two fire engines and mutual aid, with which most fire departments in the United States are operating.

If you are a chief, you must know what it means to be a firefighter. You must have come up through the ranks; you must have pulled ceilings, slept in the dirt, ate lousy food, drank cold coffee, and looked at dead bodies. None of this stuff comes with a bachelor’s or a master’s degree or a Ph.D. You must know this for two reasons. One, firefighting is an odd job that everyone thinks they know about, but only firefighters really do. Consequently, firefighters are suspicious of those who have not slayed the dragon and simply will not see you as a leader unless you are extraordinarily gifted at BS, and not the college kind either. Two, if you want to separate the wheat from the chaff when balancing firefighters’ needs and those of the governing body, you have to first understand the difference between wheat and chaff. I have watched fire chiefs with college educations as long as my arm trust their “operations” guys, and guess what? In many cases, the operations side of the department reflects the wants and needs of the operations guy, not the chief. Which one serves “at will”? You! If you want to be a good chief in a small- to moderate-sized fire department, ride backward for some time before you get the chief’s sedan. If you want to be real good, get that education I poo- pooed while you are riding Big Red.

UNDERSTAND PERSONNEL ISSUES

This is short and sweet. It is about labor issues, and I will paraphrase from one excellent risk management leader, Gordon Graham. If you are dealing with a labor issue, take some time to make the decision. Run it by your attorney, but take your time. You see, we fire chiefs are inherently sudden decision makers because of the nature of the job and the small window of time in which we must decide. This gets us in trouble when we are dealing with personnel issues; we jump to conclusions, which is just not good practice. A chief will deal with personnel issues every day in some fashion. Just take some time to do it right. It will save you and your outfit many hours of grief.

• • •

So there you have it. I did not highlight education, budget experience, human resources, honesty, integrity, leadership, and all the other stuff. You have all read the flyer that says, “We are looking for a motivated, honest, self-starter ….” I will attest you will need to have those traits, too, but it is meaningless in my mind if you don’t have the skills, traits, and knowledge I listed above. Do you want a self-starter who is a nut? If you are interested in being a chief, I’ll let you in on a little secret: Budgeting is simple, really simple, so just relax. There, you have it. Get busy, study, wear nice uniforms, do something to let the brass know you are a cut above, become a fire chief, and go forth and conquer. Just remember for whom you work.

MICHAEL S. TERWILLIGER retired as chief of the Truckee (CA) Fire District in 2005. He began his career in 1972 with the California Department of Forestry, where he served for 24 years in the following assignments: division chief of operations (South) in the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Ranger Unit and operation section chief and planning section chief on a Type I team from 1988 to 1996. He is a certified fire behavior analyst. Terwilliger was incident commander for Sierra Front Wildfire Cooperators Team, which operates along the eastern California/Nevada border. He also instructed operations section chiefs, division group supervisors, and strike team leaders.

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