By Bruce Byrnes
Spend a little time with a crew of firefighters, and you’ll get a pretty good feel for that company’s culture and values. In a well-run organization, the company’s culture and values are the same or very closely aligned with those of the department. However, all too often, that isn’t the case. Why is this?
Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to this question. In fact, there are countless possibilities, and many are influenced by local conditions. For instance, perhaps the chief officers don’t have sufficient oversight of daily operations, maybe the competency of the chief officers isn’t what it should be, perhaps the process for distributing department policies is insufficient, or maybe the chief officers have a laissez-faire management style and simply don’t care. All these possibilities have two things in common: They tackle the question in a top-down manner and place the blame squarely on upper management. This type of approach is typical in the fire service, and the rationale behind it makes sense because of our paramilitary structure and traditions. But is this the only way, or even the best way, to approach the question?
Let’s modify the scenario a bit and reexamine the question. Instead of comparing the company’s culture and values with those of the department’s, let’s compare one company to another. If the companies are closely aligned (and reflect the department’s vision), then upper management, the chain of command, department policies and procedures, and so on are probably working pretty well. As the saying goes, “Everyone is singing from the same page of music.” But what if they are different? You can surely point the finger at upper management, and rightfully so. But does this tell the whole story? If neither company is aligned with the department’s vision, upper management has failed across the board. On the other hand, if the department vision aligns with one company but not the other, some additional considerations come into play. Once again, upper management should be held responsible for the inconsistency, but at what level in the hierarchy does the problem exist? It’s at the company level.
The culture and values of the company are formed by the personnel who work in it. If there is good upper management, a strong chain of command, and rigorous enforcement of policies, the company officer is simply the conduit between the department vision and the implementation of that vision at the company level. The company will form its own culture and values, but they will be in line with those of the department or the company will suffer the consequences. If there is poor upper management, a weak chain of command, or little enforcement of policies, the burden of implementing the vision becomes exponentially more difficult for the company officer; the expectation of implementation may still be present, but the necessary support structure is not. Worse yet, if there is no department vision, the company officer must develop the company’s culture and values or the members will do so on their own. With or without upper management support, the company officer makes or breaks the environment in which the company operates.
So far, we’ve been looking at culture and values, but the company officer shapes much more at the company level. The quality of service delivery, physical and emotional safety, preparedness, and training are all driven by how the company officer approaches them. If the company officer has a hands-on, proactive approach and is the de facto as well as the formal leader of the company, things will likely go as the officer intends. If the company officer is not the de facto leader or has a lackadaisical attitude toward the company, the members will determine most, if not all, of the company norms. This is obviously not good.
The Company Officer Is the Key
All this leads to one simple fact: As a company officer, it’s all about you. As the company officer goes, so goes the department. Chief officers, administrators, politicians, and boards may provide direction, oversight, and support to a fire department; but, ultimately, a fire company delivers the department’s services. The company interfaces with the public daily and thus has the greatest influence on the department’s reputation. The company officer’s skill and demeanor have a crucial impact on the quality of services the crew renders and, by extension, is an important contributor to the department’s reputation. Some company officers take this significant responsibility for granted. They must recognize the critical position they hold in their department and always conduct themselves in a manner that reflects well on the department and supports the department’s vision, standards, and goals.
As the management representative at the company level, company officers need to take the lead in overseeing all aspects of their company. They must have a clear and thorough understanding of the organizational expectations for the company and implement them effectively. When each company officer is doing this effectively, culture, service delivery, and all the other elements that make up the company environment will be consistent across the board. That’s not to say companies must be carbon copies of each other.
There’s nothing wrong with companies taking on their own identity. In fact, it’s a good thing, since it empowers individuals and small groups to “make it their own.” This creates a sense of ownership that is healthy for the group. Problems develop when these identities become too diverse, when companies act as if they were separate from, instead of an integral part of, a larger organization. The solution is to establish boundaries that define the outer limits of company flexibility. These boundaries should be clearly spelled out in written department policies.
Pinball Machine Analogy
Our department uses the analogy of a pinball machine; the boundaries are referred to as “bumpers.” Company officers are free to be as creative as they wish inside the bumpers. They take shots at different targets inside the bumpers to score as many points as possible (e.g., come up with a new drill or an innovative public service technique). We keep the good ones and discard the bad ones. The companies compete to achieve the high score in a friendly, cooperative manner. This creates a dynamic, fun environment for the firefighters while everyone is still playing the same game. If company officers go outside the bumpers, they lose valuable points. If they go outside the bumpers too much, they won’t be playing the game anymore!
The pinball machine analogy requires effective top-down management to set and enforce the bumpers within which the companies operate. If upper management isn’t effective, the bumpers will be missing or not enforced, and the result is typically anarchy. The companies do their own thing, and so culture, quality, service, and delivery will vary widely within a department. The companies compete in unhealthy ways (badmouthing, undermining, for example) or ignore each other completely. Rumors, backbiting, and innuendos abound. Companies (and officers) get reputations, usually bad and often well-deserved. However, sometimes bad reputations are undeserved and are the result of undermining by or jealousy of other companies.
I’ve experienced this firsthand. A company officer had a poor reputation outside his company even though the firefighters in his company enjoyed working for him and he performed well in his position. When a firefighter was transferred to that officer’s company, the firefighter considered quitting, but he stuck out the transfer. In a short time, he found the officer was completely different from the way he was portrayed in the rumor mill. The firefighter and officer ended up working extremely well together. Had the firefighter acted on the rumors, it would have been a lost opportunity for the department and the individuals involved. The firefighter would not have gained the valuable training and mentoring the officer provided. The officer would not have been able to improve the department and his company through enhancing the firefighters’ capabilities. To make matters even worse in this case, instead of controlling the rumors, some of the other company officers contributed to them.
This brings us to teamwork—more specifically, company officer teamwork. Much is written about the importance of teams in the fire service. Two-in/two-out, unified command, and “always stay with your crew” are practices to live by (literally). We also put teams together in situations other than emergency scenes. For example, teams are used extensively in training and to get work done in and around the station. Interestingly, these teams are all task focused. We seldom think about organizational or management teams, especially at the company level. This is a shortcoming we need to address. In many departments, teamwork at the company officer level is sporadic or nonexistent. This is a critical problem since teamwork among company officers is essential to a healthy, productive, and customer-service-oriented environment.
The company officer is clearly an essential part of a fire company, guiding and mentoring the team through the myriad tasks they perform. However, if we look at the company officer only as a member of a service delivery team, we are missing an important aspect of the unique position company officers hold: They are members of management as well as of labor. Thus, it makes sense that company officers should be part of a mid-level management team as well as a labor team. If company officers are not working as a team, they are shortchanging their company, the department, and the public they serve. It’s important for them to work as a team in a well-managed environment where upper management clearly defines direction and expectations. It’s imperative they work together as a team in suboptimal environments that are not well-managed. Let’s look at both environments to see why this is true.
In a well-managed environment, the company officer’s job is much easier. The well-defined boundaries and strong management support allow the officer to focus on service delivery and human resource management. The system takes care of organization, expectation setting, and disciplinary action. Firefighters like this environment because they don’t experience significant variations among companies. Company officers like this environment because they can spend more time working with their firefighters. The system is providing the consistency that allows the companies to be more productive.
Company officer teams in this type of environment can work at a much more refined level since the system is providing a foundational structure. Instead of having to concentrate on keeping things together and putting out fires (pun intended), they can explore more interesting goals such as innovative training techniques or increasing efficiency, taking a divide-and-conquer approach to get more accomplished than they would be able to do individually. If the department is meeting their personal needs and encouraging them to work together, there is less competition among them and thus less need to promote themselves at the expense of others. Obviously, human nature being what it is, there will always be some element of competition among peers, but a healthy, supportive, team-focused environment lessens the intensity and turns negative energy into positive relationships.
In the suboptimal environment, the company officer and, by extension, the company are largely on their own. In this case, firefighters can, and very often do, experience wide variations in companies. This environment is a breeding ground for discontent, low morale, unhealthy intercompany rivalries, and poor service delivery. If company officers in this environment don’t work as a team, bad things are going to happen. Without organizational support or direction, it’s going to come down to the company officers getting together to form a management team. In the worst situations, this may be the only management team in the department! This environment requires highly motivated and self-driven individuals willing to put their ambitions aside for the good of their company and the organization. Rather than working at a refined level, this team will have to concentrate on setting and policing their own boundaries, a very difficult task.
No matter what type of environment a fire department has, teamwork among company officers is key to making the department as successful as it can be. As previously stated, the fire company is the mechanism through which we deliver services to our customers. No matter how good the equipment, apparatus, stations, chiefs, and inspectors are within a department, if the company is performing poorly, the service delivery will be poor. And we need to remember that we exist solely for service delivery! Company officers must recognize that simple fact and work together to make sure their customers receive the same level of quality service throughout the service area at all times, regardless of which company is delivering the service.
Ideally, these mid-level management teams should be made up of company officers and the chief officer to which they report. The chief officer should function primarily as a facilitator, intervening only when the team goes outside its bounds. Larger organizations may have more than one of these teams that the senior chief officers oversee. The teams should meet as frequently as necessary. The meetings should cover strategy as well as problem solving. Members should be free to discuss or debate topics in an honest and a frank manner. Confidentiality is critical to developing an environment in which team members can speak their minds and know that what they say will not get back to the troops until (and only if) it is proper to do so.
The importance of company officers and their teams should be further discussed and debated. The purpose of this article was to get you thinking about this topic and spur future discussions. The bottom line for now is that the success or failure of a fire department depends on its ability to deliver the services the community expects and that the fire company is the means through which these services are delivered. Company officers are in a unique position of being first-level managers who are also part of the service delivery team. As such, they have a significant impact on the quality of the services delivered. By constantly monitoring and improving their skills and working as a team, company officers can deliver high-quality, consistent services to their customers. Company officers, it’s all about you!
Bruce Byrnes is the deputy chief of the Flint Hill Fire Department in Fort Mill, South Carolina. He is a 36-year veteran of the fire service, a part-time instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy, and a second-year EFO student.