Directives on My Watch, Part 1

By Frank Frievalt

Organizational Matters

Everyone must know, without question, who they answer to and who they answer for, especially YOU. There are three good reasons for this directive. First, under stress, and certainly distress, we revert to what we know best, and what we know best is what we do most frequently. If we fail to practice sound organizational discipline on a daily basis in the firehouse, then we’ll likely fail on the fireground, especially when things get stressful.

Second, working through a chain of command reinforces an important message: you trust, support, and will hold those in leadership positions accountable for their behavior and the behavior of their direct reports. When you go around one of your supervisors, it undermines their authority and gives personnel permission to take the same path back to you.

Third, knowing to who you answer will clarify your mission and help set your priorities. Working for two (or more) supervisors is bad for all involved whether in the station or on the fireground. If the organization needs to use some of its people in dual roles (e.g., training/operations, prevention/operations, and so on), then all involved need to clearly know when who is working for whom.

You may delegate authority, but you are never relieved of responsibility for the outcomes of that delegation. Delegation is a skill that requires good judgment; it is not an entitlement to dump unpleasant tasks on your subordinates. Delegation is required for you to keep at least part of your attention above the details of the work so you can see the big picture (administratively and operationally). Effective delegation requires you to provide four things, which follow:

  1. A clear description of what “right” looks like when the task is complete.
  2. The authority to make task related decisions.
  3. Resources to do the job.
  4. Time.

“Time” includes one or more of the following: substituting the delegated task for other standing duties until completed, specific prioritization above other tasks, or a due date that realistically allows time for the task to be completed within existing workflow. If you cannot provide these four items, then you’re not ready to delegate the task—you’re dumping.

I’ve “dumped” things on people more than I’d like to admit—and will probably continue do so in the future—but it’s not the best way. Your people, like mine, will pull it off sometimes even when we delegate poorly, but only for a while; it has to be the exception, or we set up them and the organization for failure. More importantly, we lose the trust of our people when we dump more than we properly delegate.

Distinguish organizational problems from people problems. This door swings both ways. There is a “kumbaya” mentality to blame policies/administration/equipment and so on for problems that everyone knows are based on people and their behavior(s) in the false hope of avoiding conflict (these things always get worse until resolved). Also, there is a “theory X” management mentality to blame people for failures of policies/administration/equipment and so on that everyone knows are based on poor policy/administration/equipment and so on. Mistaking one for the other—intentionally or otherwise—creates compounding problems. A quick way to determine a “people” problem is to see if the behavior is consistent across supervisors and situations. If it is yes, it’s probably a lack of skill issue (i.e., organizational problem). If it is no, it’s probably a lack of will issue (i.e., a people problem). An old Chinese proverb says that the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name; this is a great place to start.

Orders are to be followed unless they are illegal, immoral, or suicidal. Many will argue, and rightfully so, that this is a gross oversimplification. Each of these terms has had volumes written about them. However, the nature of our business is organizing chaos within a small window of opportunity to improve outcomes, and this requires the issuance of and compliance with orders between officers and subordinates. This is not tyranny; it is operational necessity, and it promotes the safety of responders, the public, and the preservation of property. Debriefings, formal critiques, and the after-action report are the place to deliberate. If we’ve earned the trust and respect of our people before we have to issue orders, if we’ve developed Auftragstaktik (mission-type tactics), our people will appreciate and anticipate our orders. If not, you and I are no longer effective incident commanders; we will have become a dangerous distraction during an emergency.

Whenever protection of life and property are the objectives in planning or policy discussions, build solutions that will work in the field and then figure out how to support them administratively. For this, I use the filter, “Will this work six months from now, at 0200, on a long weekend, with a new captain/driver/firefighter?” It is far too easy at the staff level to neatly arrange a series of ideas into a “successful” operational policy/plan that does not survive first contact with an emergency. I’ve done it; we (staff) don’t do this intentionally, but every day we’re off the line our past experience begins to separate from the current situation. We’re tempted to think we know best in all situations. Get the people closest to the work involved in the discussion. Sure, it will be a slow process and they’ll bring up issues that are indeed irrelevant because they lack planning/policy experience. But I believe the time is worth addressing the problems they see as the people having to execute the ideas. Grab some popcorn and watch “A Bridge Too Far” based on Operation Market Garden from World War II. It is a sobering example. Let’s not be those guys.

Behind closed doors, I expect us to share our honest and unvarnished opinions in respectful discussion. When the decision is made and we leave the room, we will mutually support one another. The breeding ground for genuine mutual respect and support, or the lack thereof, is the staff (chief, chief officers, and company officers) meeting. If the members of this group are afraid to openly share their positions on issues in the meeting, then they’ll find ways to do so outside the meeting. We all find ways to feel like we’re being heard (I know I do). The difference between how I did that as a firefighter/driver/captain/chief officer and how I do it now has been tempered with experience and assumption of responsibility.

Chief fire officers will never, ever argue in front of subordinates or the public. This one’s pretty simple: don’t argue in front of the kids; it disrespects your partner(s) and suggests that people can shop for answers until they hear the one they like. Not only is this destructive during your watch, it sets an (ugly) example of how officers operate and sets the future up for failure as well. At the officer level, we must debate/disagree behind closed doors and provide unified leadership elsewhere.

Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Jim.henderson.


Frank L. Frievalt is the assistant fire chief for the Mammoth Lakes (CA) Fire Protection District. He has 35 years experience in city, county, state, and federal fire services from the ranks of firefighter to assistant chief. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in fire and emergency management, and is currently working on a Ph.D. in political science.

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