Directives on My Watch

By Frank L. Frievalt

Shortly after I was promoted to division chief, my battalion chiefs asked me a simple question: “What are your expectations?” These were people I had been hired with nearly 20 years prior; they were excellent employees and knew me as well as my own family did. I was stumped. Wouldn’t they already know my expectations after all these years? After we discussed things a bit more, it became clear that they were asking for something more significant than expectations. They were fully confident in their general decision-making ability (you better be as a battalion chief). What they were really asking for was guidance on how to apply my intent upon their discretion. What a great question. It took some time to clearly and concisely articulate a standing statement of intent that could actually be helpful across the wide range of discretion they would apply in the fire service mission. Years later I would discover this was a key principle from the 19th century in Prussian military leadership training, Auftragstaktik (it’s well worth your time to look it up). One of the prerequisites is to have leaders and their direct reports know each other well beyond mere rank structure–potentially a very good fit for the fire service.

A few weeks after presenting my intentions, someone dubbed them as “Directives on My Watch,” and the phrase stuck. Many contemporary “mission,” “values,” and “vision” statements are expectations about what we wish we would do, or, more accurately, what we wish other people would do. The directives that follow are, for better or worse, a statement on how I actually do approach things, not how I might wish to. My battalion chiefs knew me far too well, thankfully, to be tempted to put some grand statement out there that did not align with my past behavior. There will be those that disagree with my directives, and for sound reasons. But the goal here was not a dissertation on possible best leadership practices; it was a request from my battalion chiefs about their specific leader’s intent. For this reason, it needed to be a forthright assessment of myself if it was to be a legitimate statement of my intent. The point in sharing all this is that you need to work at articulating your own leader’s intent–you may not simply borrow someone else’s. For every leader’s “success” there is also a “cost.” Crafting a collage of leadership success stories or personalities without also counting their cost creates a false choice. My belief is that public service leadership is more about mission-driven servitude and sacrifice and less about position and power.

Legitimate leadership is a relationship that emerges in organizations when people allow someone else to have authority over them, not because they have to, but because they want to. Margaret Thatcher had it right: “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, then you aren’t.” If we do our jobs well enough, people in the organization will grant us the legitimate authority essential for true and effective leadership to emerge. If you’re fortunate enough to get that opportunity, respect it, fulfill it, and provide direction consistent with your true intent.

So, in support of that, here are the directives I want adhered to “on my watch.” They represent the core of what is most essential in our role as fire officers:

Directives On My Watch

I. In Organizational Matters:

  • Everyone must know, without question, who they answer to, and who they answer for, especially you.
  • You may delegate authority, but you are never relieved of responsibility for the outcomes of that delegation.
  • Distinguish organizational problems from people problems.
  • Orders are to be followed unless they are illegal, immoral, or suicidal.
  • Whenever protection of life and property are the objectives in planning or policy discussions, first build solutions that will work in the field, then figure out how to support them administratively.
  • 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.
  • Chief fire officers will never, ever, argue in front of subordinates or the public.

II. In Operational Matters:

  • The window to improve outcomes closes quickly; be decisive.
  • If you cannot improve an outcome, don’t commit resources.
  • Never trade lives for property.
  • Focus early to make good command decisions; if your first three command decisions are good enough, you can recover from anything that follows; if they are bad enough you’ll never catch up.
  • Be able to define your intended incident “box” for 15 minutes and 60 minutes into the incident.
  • Strive to be competent; your command confidence, or insecurity, will spread through the incident without your permission.

III. In Personnel Matters:

  • Reward good performance in ways meaningful to those performing.
  • Investigate, investigate, investigate; you never get it all initially.
  • Look people in the eyes when delivering corrective or punitive discipline; if you don’t have the confidence to do this, you probably have some responsibility for their poor performance.
  • Articulate your expectations early, be consistent, never threaten, and never flinch.
  • Help people redeem themselves from their mistakes; do this with respect, sincerity, and resolve.
  • No matter how difficult, do the right thing, and do it swiftly.
  • If a disciplinary issue is beyond your authority, I expect you to put a “bow” on it before you pass it up the chain of command.
  • You have my standing support and authority to place anyone under your command on immediate administrative leave for good cause; we’ll sort out the details later.
  • Genuinely know and care for your people, this is the basis of loyalty and trust.

IV. In Matters of Public Trust:

  • Behave, and demand behavior, that is above reproach.
  • If you’re wondering if it’s not ok–it’s not.
  • People expect extraordinary performance from us, especially in matters of discretion and stewardship; deliver.

Frank L. Frievalt is the assistant fire chief for the Mammoth Lakes (CA) Fire Protection District. He has 35 years 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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