Fire Commentary: Fall from Grace

By John K. Murphy, Esq.

We’ve all read with some interest about the firing of General Stanley McChrystal as the commander of the Afghanistan operation by the President this week. Reading the Rolling Stone article made me wonder why McChrystal’s aides said disparaging remarks about senior-level staff in the Administration, including their Commander in Chief. It also made we wonder if the fire service, a paramilitary organization, has the same problems and how can we fix or manage those comments so you, the Fire Chief, don’t fall from grace.

I use the term “fixing” the problem, which is what we do for other people. We “fix” their problems. Within our organization, we need to prevent those issues and not attempt to “fix” them after the stories break. My father always said you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube after you squeeze it, nor can you recall the bullet after you pull the trigger.

What we have here is a trigger-pulling event that spotlights the failure of command to communicate adequately among McChrystal’s staff members how they should support the mission, show some restraint, and how to act around the press, especially when press members are embedded with your senior staff.

Embedding reporters in our staff does not happen very often. Now and then, to get favorable press, we allow reporters to ride along with the firefighters. Do you know what the firefighters say to the reporter? Do you understand what your firefighters say to the reporter reflects either positively or negatively on your department? Do you realize that based on those interactions with the press or any other individual, you, too, could fall from grace just like the General?

McChrystal was the President’s choice to lead the Afghanistan effort. So my question, “What happened to McChrystal?” became apparent in reading the article. Two items became very obvious. First, there was long-standing discord between the Commander in Chief and the General; second, there was the attitude among his staff that they were invincible and untouchable. They called themselves “Team America” in a spirit of enthusiastic fervor, but did “Team America” reflect the position of the President’s senior staff? Do you see where I am going with this?

We want strong team players on our “fire department” team—a team with the characteristics of leadership, strong character, honesty, the ability to make a decision, and decisiveness. What we do not need is the backbiting commentary and distain for those who placed us in the position of leadership and responsibility. Strong teams bond very tightly, and banter among this group is sometimes critical of the nonfire service leadership. Is that OK?

The military, like the fire service, is rich in historical tradition. We are heavy with tradition, and we continue to trumpet the tradition of our service. Currently we are in a “war” of sorts dealing with civilian oversight that is reducing our ranks, closing fire stations, and other reductions in our service, yet we have a screaming “tradition” in our dealings with the elected leaders. Politics is a “war” we are not used to fighting. Engaging in “politics” is a slippery slope for many in the fire service; we would rather fight the fire than fight the politicians. We are not very savvy or well prepared in this area; when we do “fight” and lose, then heads roll. Fire chiefs are terminated, their contracts are not renewed, or they just leave the service–frustrated.

Politics and reality do not always mesh, as we are finding out. The reality of the fire service is not well communicated to our elected leadership, which changes every so often in many communities. It seems the fire service lives and dies with the change in civilian leadership. Fire chiefs and their staffs are like the General and his staff. They are a constant factor in the face of changing political environments. The point here is that the fire chief and staff need to adapt to the ever changing landscape of politics. Just because you do not agree with the politics does not mean you go off and do your “own thing.” What it means is that we need to find another way to accomplish our mission that satisfies both parties and protects the public.

City managers and mayors are akin to the President’s position in that they hire the fire chief and can very easily terminate the fire chief as well. Elected or appointed officials generally have, as we do, a thick skin. It appears to be a requirement that all individuals in a public position have this trait or develop it over time. When it hits the fan, the press is generally our worst critic, and many disparaging remarks are made about our staff or services. Responding to this with an emotional bent is like pouring gasoline on the fire when it comes to the press. It just makes them more eager to turn over the rocks in your department to see what crawls out. If you have internal discord, believe me the media will find something to damage or destroy your career.

McChrystal’s attitude, like the fire chief’s, is all about the job. He’s the guy you want in your corner, and he has your back. You could view him as a “working General,” very similar to our “working fire chiefs.” He was in the muck and mire of the war just as the fire chiefs are in the muck and mire of an alarm or rescue. The “working fire chiefs” are still with us in many areas of the country, but their numbers are declining as they are turning their attention to another emerging issue called politics.” This affects volunteer fire chiefs as well. We are all asked to do more with less.

If you are a student of history, you know that there is and has been civilian oversight of the military. It was based on the notion that it would prevent the military from taking over the country or doing things in the theater of war that could lead our country into a worse situation. The most famous termination of a military general, before McChrystal, is President Harry Truman’s termination of General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. MacArthur wanted to take the fight directly to the Chinese, and the President said no. MacArthur, a “can-do type of guy,” went to the press with his ideas and directly challenged the President on the expansion of the war–a career-ending decision, but one that MacArthur thought was the right move for this country at the time.

So, what hurt McChrystal has a direct correlation to what can hurt you and our service:

  • First, you have a boss. It is the mayor, the city administrator, and other elected officials. You need to work within the rank structure. I know from personal experience that “bucking the system” is personally rewarding, but this is a double-edged sword. Even the “top dog” has a boss, and “bucking the system” may get you “bucked out” of the system.
  • Second, McChrystal was hurt by his own staff’s talking to this reporter. There is no such thing as “off the record” with the media. You are always on record, especially when the juicy stuff comes out. 
  • Third, in modern warfare, there are no “front lines” like we saw in World War I, World War II, and Korea. It is guerrilla warfare where it is impossible to tell the enemy combatants. That war dynamic changed in Vietnam, and we now see it in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are also seeing it in our fire service world, and we do not need the “enemy within” to destroy our service. The “enemy” is all around us. We need to realize that fact and adapt to this new type of conflict. 
  •  Fourth, there was a permissive attitude within the General’s staff. These staff members were high-ranking officers with significant individual accomplishments. Like us, when we complain about the politicians or even our own leadership, it is usually behind closed doors or at the tavern. Here, loose talk to the reporter was documented and reported. That’s what reporters do. You are probably a member of that team in some respect–tight, competent, and opinionated. We like those traits in staff, but when the disagreements or backbiting spill out into the public arena, it’s hard to put the toothpaste back into the tube. Don’t misunderstand me. I welcome healthy disagreement; however, when we walk out of the room, there is one message and one leader. 
  • Fifth, the staff and the General became comfortable with an embedded reporter. I like reporters and the media, but I keep them at arm’s length, knowing that I am always “on the record.” It is the reporter’s job to “get the news,” whatever it looks like. You need to utilize the power of the media for the good job that you and your department do, and the sage advice is to develop a relationship through your public information officer or other resource to develop this relationship. When a problem arises, you increase your chances of having a better article in the press than if you had antagonized the media.

Finally, the General wanted to fight the war without civilian oversight (like most Generals are wont to do) and got his staff onboard with that concept. You don’t get to be a General or ranking officer in the military without a heightened sense of “all things political.” His political expertise in getting the job done, however, was undermined by his staff. The General, needing a place to vent his frustrations, talked to his senior staff while blowing off steam, like most of us. The staff, in turn, thinking they were promoting the General’s position, discussed those issues and their own frustrations with the reporter, who reported it.

Sometimes the enemy is from within. My advice is to work within your rank structure; become more politically savvy, work within the system, adapt to the current circumstances and make change from within. If you have frustrations, find another outlet to vent those frustrations.

John K. Murphy has been a career member of the fire service for 32 years. He retired as a deputy fire chief with Eastside (WA) Fire & Rescue in Issaquah, Washington, and the fire chief of the City of Sammamish (WA). He is an attorney whose focus is on employment practices liability, policy, internal investigations, and firefighter health and safety. He is an expert witness and consultant on risk management for private and public entities. He lectures and writes on fire service topics related to company officer operations, organizational liability, and personnel issues.


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