This month’s question could actually fill a textbook. However, the intent is to be narrow in scope-kind of a “down and dirty” advice column. Becoming a new firefighter is a blessing. Just keep your nose clean, and listen. Becoming a company officer is a challenge. Becoming a chief officer is a career-altering experience-like becoming a parent, except that that is a life-altering experience as opposed to a career-altering experience.
My advice is to lead by example. One of the biggest pitfalls a newly promoted chief can fall into is the “Don’t do as I do, do as I say” syndrome. How can you gain the respect of anyone if you act in a manner you would not tolerate in your crews? If there are rules, follow them. If your crews are required to wear an SCBA inside, wear your SCBA inside, and so on.
Also, as in the case of company officers, do your job. The city isn’t paying you to be liked. You are getting paid to supervise company officers. If you’re lucky enough to be able to do your job in a way that you are still liked, that’s a bonus.
-John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.
Question: What advice would you give a newly promoted chief officer?
Gary Seidel, chief, Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department
Response: Make sure your background is solid, and remember where you came from. Demonstrate and continue to develop your leadership qualities and traits through your manner of directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating. As a new part of the management team, think in terms of stewardship. Stewardship forces you to look at certain questions: What do you believe in? How do you do it? How does the rest of the fire service do it? You realize you need to ensure equity, transparency, due process, and just cause.
Ensure that you are continually evaluating your all-risk service delivery, which includes risk assessment, hazards analysis, vulnerabilities, and capability assessment, and that service delivery supports your mission and core values.
If as a company officer, you took hold of the issues I described in the last Roundtable, you have become certified and qualified. So now when you ask someone to do something, you have demonstrated your prowess in that arena, and you know the potential outcome. Therefore, you hopefully are ensuring a safe, efficient, and effective outcome. Define the path, build the culture, align the resources, and do the right things right. Do not forget where you came from.
John Salka, battalion chief, Fire Department of New York
Response: Remember that you no longer are a company officer. Your knowledge and experience up until now are probably based primarily on performing tasks and supervising tactics. You have now arrived at a point where you should be spending much more time and energy on strategic ideas. You must constantly remind yourself, particularly at fireground and emergency operations, that you are in command of the entire operation and should generally not have your hands on tools, hoselines, or power saws. There is a great tendency for newly promoted chiefs to dress and look like chiefs but to act and operate like company officers. That part of your career is OVER!
If you want to continue running in with the first-arriving companies, don’t take a promotion to chief. If you want to be an effective and successful chief officer, you must start looking at the big picture. You must start planning ahead. You must hope for the best and expect the worst. You have many more resources at your disposal than a company officer, and you must familiarize yourself with them and their capabilities.You need to summon help early, even when it may seem it is not yet needed, and you must listen to your company officers’ reports.
It will certainly take you years to become a completely familiar and experienced chief officer. You will learn and develop your new talents a little at a time at each of the operations or situations you command. Critique and review each of your operations, and solicit input from senior chiefs of your department. And remember that training, learning, and developing new skills are ongoing processes; they never end.
Thomas Dunne, deputy chief, Fire Department of New York
Response: Of all the skills you will be asked to develop as a chief, none is more important than the ability to safely command a fire or an emergency operation. Formal training can help prepare you for this, but there is a great deal to be gained by simply remembering where you came from.
As a firefighter, you learned how physically demanding the job is. As a chief, you must use this knowledge to properly care for your personnel. Always monitor their physical condition, provide relief as needed, and be realistic in your expectations of what can be readily accomplished.
In addition, remember how reassuring it felt when you worked for a chief who projected control of himself and command of the situation. Confidence is contagious. Developing a command presence is the key to attaining success as a chief. Just be yourself, and over time you will develop a style that works for you.
Finally, bear in mind that now the buck stops with you. The best path to take is not always obvious. However, the need to formulate or change a strategy is clearly your responsibility. After an operation, you must be able to look at yourself in the mirror and know that you weren’t afraid to make a decision when the situation called for one-even if that decision was made (as it often will be) under stressful and confusing circumstances.
Rick Lasky, chief, Lewisville (TX) Fire Department
Response: Here are some thoughts on how to stay out of trouble and avoid land mines. I’ve stepped on my share. Much of this advice was given to me by mentors. Focus on your values. Good, solid core values and reasonable and realistic vision and mission statements will help you create the foundation for success. You need to make decisions that will protect your family and your people first, before you decide what’s best for you in the way of a good time.
Remember where you came from. It helps to have a leader who knows what it’s like to work shifts, sleep in a firehouse, and find the fireground without the use of a compass and a flashlight-or, in the case of volunteers, one who knows what it’s like to get up in the middle of the night knowing that you have to go to your regular job soon. Take time to understand what’s going on in your people’s lives. Read smoke, read people!
Trust your people. People lose faith when you micromanage. Trust them; show them you have confidence in them.
Let go of the past-focus on the future. Learn from the past; don’t live in it.
Always keep your personnel’s best interests at heart.
In and out of the firehouse, provide the safest operation you can.
Don’t let tradition hinder change, but remember that there is a whole lot of tradition in the fire service that is great and should be carried on.
Be a good leader first and a buddy second. It takes a strong person to make tough decisions and to stand up for what is right. Don’t confuse what you think is right for what is really right.
Surround yourself with good people. Find good people, and bring them into your camp. Find people who have the same core values and the same foundation as you. Establish a good mentoring program-start filling your “people staging area” now as you prepare your current leaders to move up to the next alarm (you owe it to them).
Keep it all simple. Try not to make things so complicated that no one can figure it out. Sometimes the best way to get something done is right in front of your nose.
Lead by example in your day-to-day activities and your personal life. Set a good example.
Give credit where credit is due. Even when it’s your idea and it goes well, tell your superiors it came from the troops. Don’t think that you’re the reason your department is successful. Realize that your firefighters are the ones making it happen; they are out doing the work.
Focus on what’s going right and accomplishments. Sometimes you need to remind your people of how good and special they are.
Consider the type of chief you would want to work for. Remember what it was like to work for a bad boss. Stay current, stay in touch, constantly reevaluate how you’re doing, and look for ways to improve. Remember what “open door” really means.
When you can’t figure out why the troops feel a certain way, why they are saying what they are saying, or why they do not seem to understand what you’re trying to do, especially with the budget, remember you were there once and probably were yelling the loudest.
Christopher J. Weir, EFO, division chief, City of Port Orange, Florida
Response: You must make the transition from being a company supervisor to a fire service manager-from being in charge of one specific fire company in one fire station to managing the supervisors and their assigned personnel in your assigned battalion/district, or, in some cases, the operations and budgets for administrative Monday-to-Friday bureaus like Training, Fire Prevention, EMS, and Support Services. It’s time to focus on managing the system to its maximum potential and leave supervision to the line officers.
At the very least, you should have been mentored to reduce the “nervous edge” or “promotional shock” so that the transition can be smoother and quicker. Although you can acquire from experienced chief officers the tools and shared experiences, challenges, and snafus, it will be up to you to find your balance and comfort zones, which will be learned in time.
Veteran chief officers: You must assist the new chief officers in their transition by being available for continued mentoring in management objectives and by giving guidance when requested, providing emotional and peer support, respecting confidentiality, providing positive or corrective feedback when indicated, and encouraging their participation in officer development programs.
The National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program as well as management and leadership courses help to set a solid foundation for successful chief officers. Commanding and responding to fires is the easy part. The challenges are becoming a fire service manager behind the scenes, shift assignments and everyday operations, fiscal management, employee issues, labor/management issues, policy formulations, public speaking, and personnel management.
Craig H. Shelley, EFO, CFO, MIFireE, fire protection advisor, Advanced Fire Training Center
Response: Realize the magnitude of the responsibilities associated with your position. All officers, but especially chief officers, are responsible for the safety of their firefighting staff. Many times, the front-line forces are busy fighting fire and are not able to see the big picture. You, as the chief officer, must evaluate when arriving on the scene the strategies and tactics being employed and the structure for signs of collapse.
Sometimes, you will arrive and notice something the line officer did not. You will use this new information to determine safety issues affecting your personnel. I know of cases where the chief, on arrival, ordered the building evacuated, and the building collapsed shortly thereafter. You cannot have tunnel vision. You need to see the big picture and evaluate conditions.
On the administration/personnel side of the equation, you need to be a mentor to your officers. Prepare the workforce to assume command when you are not present. Develop leaders on and off the fireground.
Remember where you came from. Great chiefs are not appointed when they first join the department; they rise from within.
Lieutenant Jeffrey Schwering, Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services
Response: Not every decision you make will make every firefighter happy. Know all you can about your new battalion, division, or department. Learn about the firefighters under your command-their strengths and weaknesses. Continue your education; never stop learning. These skills will prove useful in gaining the respect of your firefighters. Never forget where you came from.
Always treat your firefighters as adults. Meet with your company officers; let them know up front what you expect from them and their companies. Keep an open-door policy to encourage discussion and suggestions from your firefighters, but never hesitate to say no when necessary. When discipline is necessary, do what needs to be done in a fair, consistent, and timely manner; ensure that the reason for discipline is completely understood by all parties involved.
As a new chief, you have all the responsibility that goes with the position, the good and the bad. Have confidence in yourself and in your firefighters. Strive to do the right thing for yourself, your firefighters, and the public.
Bobby Shelton, FF/EMT-I, Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department
Response: Do not forget where you came from. Being chief is not a birthright; don’t treat it as such. Going up the ladder, you started on a back step like everyone else. Don’t forget it. Taking that “back-step” mentality with you to your new position will go a long way in helping you gain the admiration of those you lead.
The golden rule says to treat others as you would have them treat you. Do that. Ranting and raving and yelling are not acceptable ways to gain respect. People will respect the rank, but it is more important to respect the person holding the rank. The best leaders never have to raise their voices to get things done. They treat people fairly and equally without exception. Apply this advice, and the respect will be automatic.
Be humble. Humility is a strength. The humble person knows what he doesn’t know. So surround yourself with people who know. Ask questions. Take the advice of someone more knowledgeable, and don’t be jealous because you didn’t know. The smart chief uses the strengths of his subordinates; they make the chief look good.
Be quick about giving praise and showing gratitude for a job well done in large and small things. What good is a chief with no one to lead, and what good are firefighters without someone to lead them? We need each other to accomplish our common goals. A simple and sincere thank-you or pat on the back on a regular basis is a great morale builder. When you think about it, displaying good manners is something we were all taught as children. Does that change when you get bugles on your collar?
These things, if applied, will give you more than some extra collar hardware. You will gain self-respect and the respect of those you lead.
Jeff A. Welch, chief (ret.), Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho
Response: Do the right thing! We all entered the fire service for the same reason. A chief retiring after many years of service shared that he was glad to retire, quoting many reasons, the “politicians” probably the primary reason. After many elections and every new politician having his thoughts or agenda about how the fire district/department should be “run,” he said enough is enough. It seems that all too often those in the “big chair” often forgot (or never knew) where they came from. To keep the position they recently acquired or have been taking up for the past years, they find the easier path is to go with the flow of the political winds. After all, they are the decision makers.
You should not be able to make chief until you are eligible or able to retire. When I first heard this, I thought “Bah!” But, there is something to be said for the fact that it is hard to tell the politicians the miscalculation of their intentions when you are trying to make it a few more years to retirement.
There are many great chiefs out there! We thank them for sharing their knowledge and wisdom. Maybe the others who have forgotten about crawling down the hallway at two in the morning should rededicate themselves to doing the right thing.
Mark Walsh, firefighter, Cranston (RI) Fire Department
Response: First of all, be a leader. Don’t get stuck in the daily and weekly routines of paperwork and meetings. Develop your managerial skills; they are essential to a fire department’s daily operations and long-term success. However, be sure to take care of your department members-learn how to lead them effectively. Go out and take a leadership seminar or college course.
Many times, subordinates loathe a chief because of politics or the creation and implementation of new procedures or rules. If you understand the basic tenets of leadership, such as how to be a transformational leader, you may find that you are much more successful in leading the fire department.
Even without the college course and a true theoretical understanding of leadership, you can still do things that go a long way. The simple act of going out to the stations on a semi-regular basis can have a tremendous impact on the crews. At first, they may not embrace the idea and may even resent it (the chief is drinking coffee alone), but the fact is that you are taking an active interest in your department’s firefighters. Little things go a long way. Try to take a positive, continued interest in the firefighters and listen to their ideas.
Paul J. Urbano, captain, Anchorage (AK) Fire Department
Response: With all due respect, I offer the following from a company officer’s perspective.
• Have a plan (vision), and share it. Where is our department heading?
• Reach out. Your close confidants may provide you with vital support, but don’t forget about visiting with the rest of us in the station and on drills.
• Don’t micromanage. Tell me what you want done; give parameters when necessary, and let me get it done.
• Keep us informed: Web site, newsletter, operations memos, and-probably most importantly-coffee at our kitchen table.
• Solicit input. Ask those doing the work and using the equipment what they want on the new apparatus or turnouts. Empower us to excel. Tap into our abilities.
• Expect conflict. Do you want the truth or a “yes” man?
• Be a teacher/coach/mentor. We need to learn from your experiences.
• Hold me accountable for my actions and those of my company.
• Set me up for success (not failure), and you’ll keep me involved.
• Have high expectations of me, but please tell me what those expectations are.
• Remain a student of the fire service, and encourage me to do the same.
• Consider adopting the servant-leadership style. Take care of us, and we’ll take care of you by doing the job well.
• Provide more positive feedback than negative; don’t chew me out in front of my subordinates.
• Fight (take risks) for us, even if it puts you in a bind with your bosses.
Robert Green, first assistant chief, Victor (NY) Fire Department
Response: Know yourself and your limitations. Your actions as a chief set the level of expectations for the company. Do your homework, and dot every “I” and cross every “T.” Dress for the part. Presence is everything. Paid or volunteer, you represent an entity of society that is held to a higher standard than the rest. Live the standard. You are a role model for everyone from children to our peers.
Make a decision. Set goals that are obtainable and measurable. Good, bad, or indifferent, set forth on one path or another. Give the company a sense of direction and purpose.
Know your brothers and sisters. Ask about home, the new baby, school, or something personal to them to keep in touch while still maintaining management status. Firefighters will feel good knowing a busy person could take the time to care. Many other important traits make a good chief; these are special to me.
Lance C. Peeples, instructor, St. Louis County (MO) Fire Academy
Response: Lead by example. Listen.
Ron Terriaco, captain, Concord Twp. Fire Department, Lake County, Ohio
Response: Don’t forget where you came from. We see too many firefighters who have progressed through the ranks so fast only to forget what the smoke smells like. To remember what the smoke smells like, stay in touch with your firefighters from the probies to assistant chiefs. Stop by the firehouse and have a cup of coffee. Go on some EMS runs to see what’s going on. A lot has changed since you rode the squad, and maybe that SOG you wrote and thought would work isn’t working, and you can see why. No matter how small the fires may be, respond to watch and reload some hose on the trucks with the firefighters. Getting dirty will not hurt you. If you want followership, you must provide something to follow. Have a vision of yourself as chief to follow. Have a mission to believe in. When the firefighters see this in you, you will receive the respect for which you are looking.
To the new fire chief who was the big union leader in the past: You become the worst person when you forget what you bargained for in the contract. Ask yourself, What did I want when I was the union leader? (Answer: To have the fire administration work with you/the union.) You are now the fire administration, so work with the union.
Jeff Simpson, battalion chief of operations, Hanover (VA) Fire and EMS
Response: Concentrate on the people you have in your organization. We do a good job of providing satisfaction at many levels to the people we serve outside the organization. Balance this focus to include your most important resource.
We spend enormous amounts of time developing strong tactical capabilities but far less on developing our employees’ people skills. Look at the promotional process for your station’s leaders. Ask yourself what has been done to prepare your next generation of officers to interact and manage the wide range of challenges that come with dealing with the transition from buddy to boss. Have you prepared them to be empathetic and good listeners, to develop good communications skills, and to recognize the habits successful leaders in your organization should have? What about those on the list who won’t be promoted this time around? Do you have a plan to mentor them, to refine their skills, and to strengthen areas in which they need improvement so that they will be prepared for the next promotional process? Doing this will have an impact where it counts, on your biggest asset.
Ron Hiraki, assistant chief,Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One
Response: Think like a gymnastics champion: work hard, be flexible, and maintain your balance. You will constantly be under scrutiny. People will give you many suggestions and expect you to make changes. There will be little recognition. There will be setbacks, and you will encounter some pain. Meanwhile, stay focused, and have a vision to help people and the fire department be successful.
Balance the needs of people and the fire department. Be careful not to “straddle the fence.” You will end up disappointing both groups. You are expected to make the right decisions based on priorities. Saying no to some time off is not popular but maintains your response reliability.
Someone won’t like the changes you implement. Look for and make changes that are necessary, not because you want to “make your mark.” Ask people to consider all of the changes you made within the “big picture” and not be upset with you for the one change they didn’t like.
I often hear people say they would like to see me spend time with them in their workplace. I make an effort to visit, even at the expense of missing some family time or having to work extra hours. I then have to laugh when some people say I’m out “checking on them.”
When you can, take time to ask for giving input, helping, and listening. Do what you know to be right, not popular. Strive for the gold medal.
John O’Neal, chief, City of Manassas Park, Virginia
Response: Lead by example, and practice two parts listening with one part talking. Your primary responsibility is to protect and keep safe those under your command and the public.
• Never stop learning your craft and job. Instill this attitude in those under you.
• Share your knowledge with those aspiring to higher positions or desiring to be the best they can be.
• Promote and practice safety daily-while responding, on the fireground, when training, and in the station’s daily activities.
• Support those people doing the hands-on response work, and they will support you.
• Treat all individuals fairly and consistently.
• Support the department.
• Your subordinates are always watching your words and deeds. Your remarks and comments are never off the record. You truly need to lead by example. ■