The New Battalion Chief: Establishing Personnel Expectations

BY STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI

Congratulations, you have just been pro-moted to battalion chief! One of the things you will learn very quickly is that your assigned personnel can be the best or the worst part of your job, depending on how they are performing.

When your personnel do things well and represent the department in the best possible way, you are like a proud parent. When your personnel go above and beyond the call of duty to take care of the customers, you are very proud to be their supervisor. When your personnel succeed at a promotional examination, you are proud to see them succeed and, hopefully, have played a part in their success through mentoring and guidance.

However, when your personnel have a bad day that results in your having to take disciplinary action, complete excessive paperwork, and take time away from your busy schedule to coach or counsel them—or, even worse, to apologize to a customer or to explain what happened to your supervisor and the action you will take to ensure the behavior is not repeated—it can cause you a great deal of stress and heartache.

Unless you tell the individuals you supervise what you expect of them, they will not know. Whenever I am assigned to a new supervisor, one of the first things I do is sit down with him and find out what he expects of me and what I need to do to be successful in his eyes. I also want to find out what his pet peeves are, what makes him tick, what he likes and dislikes, and anything else I can learn about him that will help me do my job better. I do this to ensure that I start off on the right foot and will continue on the right foot. Instead of thinking of this approach as sucking up, think of it as self-preservation to ensure your long-term success and survival.

The last thing my supervisor wants to hear from me is, “I didn’t know you didn’t like me to do that,” or “You never told me you didn’t want me to do that.” As a supervisor, those are also the last things I want to hear from my personnel. If I am hearing these types of comments, shame on me for not telling them what I expect of them the first time we began to work together. That is also a great time to find out what the workers expect of their supervisor. Expectation is a two-way street. Find out what your employees expect of you, and do your best to live up to those expectations. Hopefully, they will provide realistic, reasonable, and reachable expectations. Expecting you to let them watch television every afternoon, as opposed to training or performing company inspections, is probably not a reasonable expectation.

When a new captain is assigned to me for the first time, I pass out the “Personnel Expectations” sheet (see sidebar) to ensure we are both on the same page, so that he understands what I expect and where I am coming from. Also, it may initiate some dialogue. I provide this standard expectation sheet to all captains assigned to me on a regular basis.

I realize that this information may not be for everyone’s situation; that’s okay. Take the time to put something together than works for you and your department culture.

 

ASSESSING YOUR EXPECTATIONS

 

Some key points to remember when putting your expectations down on paper and discussing them with your personnel follow:

1 Ensure that the expectations are legal and that you are not asking anyone to do something illegal. You are probably thinking, why did he include that statement? Just as a reminder, for no other reason.
2 Ensure they are reasonable. I sometimes have to come down to reality to ensure that I am not expecting too much from the average person and that I am being reasonable.
3 Ensure that they are fair, and treat everyone consistently and as individuals. Easier said than done, I know. To help eliminate any chance of being accused of playing favorites and giving people special treatment, remember you need to be as fair and as consistent as you can be, taking into account what motivates each person.
4 Ensure they are ethical. If you do not know the definition of ethics by now, please look up the word and have a definition you can offer others. As a supervisor, it is paramount that you understand ethics and practice ethical behavior at all times. It is also important that you stress the importance of ethics to your personnel.
5 Ensure that they are within the culture of your department. Every department has a slightly different culture. By the time you make supervisor, you should have a pretty good idea of your department culture and what is acceptable and not acceptable.
6 Ensure that they are within the department guidelines, rules, regulations, policies, and procedures. If you are asking things of your personnel that are in violation of your department guidelines, you are setting them up for failure, and you are not acting within your department’s expectations.

 

 

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I encourage you to write out your personnel expectations and distribute them the first time you work with a subordinate. Going over your expectations on the first day will help prepare your subordinates for success and will also help you to answer questions, lay the cards on the table, and start your relationship off on the right foot.

Now, if you are responsible for multiple fire stations and multiple captains, there is a good chance it may take you a couple of weeks to meet with all of them. That’s okay; they have probably been performing their jobs well long before you got there and will probably be performing their jobs well long after you are gone. The key is not to wait too long, say more than a month. When I was assigned to a new battalion a couple of years ago, I was supervising eight fire stations and 11 captains. There was no way I was going to meet with all of them on one day, one week, or even two weeks. I think it took me almost a month to meet with all of them because of the other challenges of my position, including the immediate and planned need items. Here is the key: If you wait too long (say a few months), then you run the risk of someone’s telling you, “You never told us we couldn’t do that.”

Since I had to hit multiple stations on multiple occasions, I felt the best way to do it was to e-mail the expectations in advance and ask the captains to review them with their crew; make notes for questions to ask me for clarification; and, more importantly, use it as a starting point to let me know what they expected of me. This would help to ensure they had time to review them in advance and that there would be a two-way dialogue, which I hoped would help achieve more buy-in. Additionally, since I know everyone’s schedules are quite busy, I asked them to pick a time when I could come by for lunch. Coming by at lunch would hopefully guarantee me some time to sit down for a meal first and then discuss our respective expectations. I wasn’t trying to bribe them, but I felt it might be a good way to start off on the right foot.

Do not set expectations for captains only. Whether you are a company officer or a chief officer, there is a good chance you are responsible for supervising at least one person. Take the time to develop your set of expectations and discuss them on the first day you are assigned to work with your newly assigned personnel. Setting your expectations and discussing them the first day you work with a probationary firefighter, for example, will pay dividends in the long run. Because I discuss my expectations with my captains on the first day, I rarely find myself asking a captain, “Why did you do that when you know I expected differently?”

 

Sample “Personnel Expectations” Sheet

 

First of all, I am very enthusiastic about working with you and your crew! The purpose of this is to ensure that we are on the same page. Whether on the fireground or at the fire station, it is paramount that we safely and competently perform and accomplish the duties expected of us. So you know where I am coming from, here are my two most important goals for each shift as well as my general expectations:

1. To allow each of us to go home safely at the end of our shift.

2. To impart knowledge that will assist you in your daily operations and with your fire service career. My job is to provide you with the necessary information to enable you some day to take my position or be the best fire captain you can be. We all have an obligation to assist our team in getting the job done and, even more importantly, pass our knowledge and experience on to our newest firefighters so that they can one day do the same to other firefighters.

I expect you and your crew to…

  • Teach me new things and reinforce previously learned items based on your knowledge and experience, especially if you have worked in this area for a while.
  • Do your job.
  • Treat your customers with respect and courtesy.
  • Treat your personnel and coworkers with respect and courtesy.
  • Be familiar with all aspects of your apparatus.
  • Know how to operate and use every piece of equipment on the apparatus.
  • Be considerate of local neighbors when performing your apparatus and equipment checkout.
  • Ensure that our apparatus looks professional and functions at all times. Cleaning the windows, tires, hand tools, power tools, and other equipment should be performed as needed. These items are not “busy work.” They are typically things that just need to be done on a regular basis to ensure we look professional and that our equipment and apparatus work when we need it to work.
  • I expect you to know your first-in district streets, target hazards, and other unique and related items that may be of importance. I also expect you to be familiar with your second-due district streets and target hazards. I don’t expect you to know every single street in your second-due district, but I think you should know every street in your first-due district after at least a year at the station.
  • Ask me questions whenever you are not sure about your assignment or duties.
  • Advise me of any special needs you may have. I am flexible if you give me proper and adequate notice.
  • Perform the required daily and weekly station, apparatus, and equipment maintenance and checkouts. Take ownership in your station, your equipment, and your personnel. Leave the station, apparatus, and equipment in excellent condition for the oncoming crew.
  • Supervise and manage your crew; they are your responsibility. Take care of discipline at the lowest level, and do not let discipline issues get out of hand.
  • Lead by example.
  • Let me know as soon as possible of any deficiencies that require immediate attention from the shop or that may inhibit your ability to deliver quality service to our customers.
  • Put up or take down the flags if this has not been done (some stations have lighted flag poles; thus, this is not an issue). Also, when taking down the flags, please fold them in the proper and respectful way.
  • Accurately complete your T-card (accountability system listing names and ranks of the personnel assigned to that company) or other accountability system in the morning during your apparatus and equipment checkout.
  • Be familiar with and knowledgeable about the Fire Department Rules and Regulations, Standard Operating Guidelines, Policy Manual, Training Manuals, and Automatic Aid/Mutual Aid binders. They are there for a reason, and they will guide us in our everyday activities.
  • Always “keep me in the loop.” I hate surprises.
  • Do not complain when given assignments or tasks, especially in the case of station move-ups. Just because a station is not a core station (a must-cover station when resources start to get drawn down) doesn’t mean we cannot move up a unit to cover the first-due area. If we have two apparatus at one station and a station that will be vacant for a significant time, or if there is a large response area uncovered, I will make appropriate move-ups to reduce response times.
  • Make decisions appropriate to your level. Don’t expect me to make all of your decisions. If your paramedic goes to the hospital, plan on picking your paramedic up yourself. Do not ask for concurrence; just have the dispatcher notify me so I am aware of your being out of your area. If there is a better method for picking up your paramedic, I will let you know. Most of the time, I feel it is more appropriate to have you get your crew back together as soon as possible.
  • Use the headline test when making decisions:
    –Is it the right thing for our personnel?
    –Is it the right thing for our department?
    –Is it the right thing for our customers?
    –Would you like to read about it in tomorrow’s newspaper?

    If you can answer a firm yes to all of the above items, then by all means, go for it.
  • Ensure the following responsibilities are up to date and completed on time:
    –Training records.
    –Month-end supply order and paperwork.
    –Prefire plans.
    –Company inspections.
    –Hydrant maintenance.
    –Brush inspections.
    –Apparatus maintenance.
    –Probationary reports and training.
    –Personnel at your station are intimately knowledgeable about their first-due area and assigned apparatus. Regularly test your personnel on their street knowledge.
    –Other routine assignments and tasks.
  • Listen to the radio during the day so that you are aware of what the other resources in our department are doing at all times. Knowing that our normal second-due engine is on an EMS call or out of service because it is at the shop (or our truck and rescue is unavailable because of a Special Operations training session) can make a major difference in our responses (because we might have to go into their area), as well as in our strategy and tactics.
  • Tactfully and respectfully advise me of something that I may be missing or not completing. I take care of you, and you take care of me. We’re all human (myself included), and we can forget or miss things on occasion. I will also try to do the same for you.
  • Last but not least, I do not expect you to know everything! Every one of us should strive to continue learning at least one new thing every day of our lives (myself included)! The day we think we know it all is the day we’re opening up ourselves to failure and to letting Murphy’s Law take over.

 

Although this might seem like I am expecting a lot of you, please understand where I am coming from. My goal is to set us up for success with our department and the customers we serve. Although we all have a great deal of knowledge and experience to gain, I want to at least allow you to see where I am coming from and what I expect of you.

Your goal should be to be a low-maintenance captain with a low-maintenance crew. My goal is to be a low-maintenance battalion chief for my boss. I don’t think I’m asking too much of you or that I have too high expectations for someone in your position. I am challenging you to be the best that you can be for the department and the customers for whom we provide services. I don’t think that is asking too much of you or asking you to do anything that is out of line.

Why am I doing this? Because the customers we serve deserve the best, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that they get the best level of service we can provide. Short and sweet—just do your job, be responsible and accountable for your actions (or nonactions), and have fun! This is the greatest job in the world, and we need to make the best of it.

Thanks for taking the time to listen. Your assistance and effort in meeting these goals and expectations are appreciated. If at any time you have any questions or concerns, or if I can be of assistance to you in any way, please feel free to contact me. I look forward to working with you and getting to know you better.

Finally, please remember that I am here to serve and support you!

STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI is an 18-year veteran of the fire service and a battalion chief for the Santa Clara County (CA) Fire Department. He is an adjunct faculty member in the Chabot College Fire Technology Program in Hayward, California, where he has been teaching fire technology and EMS classes since 1993. He previously served almost five years at Chabot as the fire technology coordinator and seven years as the EMT program director and primary instructor. He is a past president of the Northern California Training Officers Association and was named the 2008 Ed Bent California Fire Instructor of the year. He is a state-certified chief officer and master instructor and has an associate degree in fire technology, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and a master’s degree in emergency services administration. He is in his last year of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and has received Chief Fire Officer Designation through the Commission on Professional Credentialing.

 

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