DON’T LET THE TAIL WAG THE DOG

BY RICHARD B. GASAWAY

Recently, I talked to a fel- low volunteer fire chief from another state who told me how overwhelmed he felt as fire chief. As the conversation progressed, I pressed him for the reasons he was feeling so inundated. He explained that he’s becoming so frustrated because no matter what problem someone has at the fire station, that person always calls him. It was affecting him physically and mentally, and affecting the personal relationships that are very important in his life.

I’ve known this chief for many years. He is very dedicated and has immense pride in his department. He carries a pager and has instructed his firefighters to page him when they need to. Nothing wrong with that, except when the tail starts to wag the dog.

Here’s what I mean. They’re paging the chief for everything! The engine’s low on oil. The ladder has a taillight out. The station’s out of toilet paper. Yikes! Some critics would say this chief is a micromanager and is obsessively controlling his members. On the contrary, I say he’s lost control of his department and the tail is wagging the dog. So what can be done about this?

First, and most fundamentally, try very hard to understand why the chief is being saddled with making such routine decisions. Where are the rest of the officers? Why aren’t the other officers dealing with some of these problems? Why are the firefighters turning to the chief to deal with such mundane issues? In the department in the above example, there are about 40 members, a couple of deputy chiefs, and a couple of captains and lieutenants. There are other officers who can make decisions. So why don’t they? Why is everything getting funneled to the chief?

There are a variety of explanations for this. In this department, it turns out that there is a lack of understanding among the officers and firefighters regarding the role everyone plays in making the team a success. Although my associate runs a progressive department, I learned that he didn’t provide job descriptions for his officers.

Some volunteer fire chiefs think this is something that only big city or paid fire departments need. Wrong! If an officer doesn’t have his job responsibilities outlined in writing, how will he know what to do? Chances are, he won’t. So, if we don’t have job descriptions, we need to get some. Don’t worry, we don’t have to write them from scratch. There are plenty of them available on the Internet or through the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities’ (MnSCU) Fire/EMS/Safety Center (Web site: www.firecenter.mnscu.edu.).

Whether you use someone else’s job descriptions or develop your own, make sure you customize them for your particular department’s needs. It’s also a good idea to involve the officers in developing the description for their jobs. This may be a real eye-opening experience when you discover that what you think their job is and what they think their job is do not align. This may be particularly true in departments that elect their officers without regard to qualifications.

So you get job descriptions for your officers. All you have to do now is put them into the officers’ mailboxes and the problem is solved. Right? Well, not quite. If the officers have not worked under a job description before, then it would be appropriate to provide them with some training on what the duties and responsibilities outlined entail (and what they do not) and how to fulfill them. Also, explain to the officers why you are implementing job descriptions; it’s important to keep this presentation positive. You want everyone to understand that everyone has a specific job to do and what that job involves.

There’s nothing new about this. Go to McDonald’s. Someone flips the burgers, someone else cooks the fries, and someone else works the cash register. And when it all comes together, everyone does what they are supposed to do, and the manager’s job is easier. That’s all we’re trying to accomplish here. Everyone knows their job. The training includes a review of the job description, line by line if needed, so that what is written is understood.

But the training does not stop there. Every member of the department needs to be trained in the duties and responsibilities of every officer. This is important. All too often, if a firefighter doesn’t know how to solve a problem, the fire chief gets a call. And there you are, getting calls at home … during dinner … because there’s no toilet paper in the fire station.

So, the job descriptions are in place. Everyone’s been trained. Is the problem solved now? Not necessarily. Your problems may be just starting. (Hey, no one said that fire chiefing was easy.) Now you have to be willing to let go. You have to be willing to let your officers do their jobs; make decisions; and, most importantly and probably the toughest, make mistakes. The buzzword for this is empowerment. In its simplest terms, it means giving officers the power to make decisions and be accountable for their actions (and their inactions).

You can’t expect that your officers are going to be instantly comfortable with their new power and authority. You may find that you’re completely comfortable with letting go of some of your power and authority. Expect some mistakes. Don’t vent your anger at officers who are trying to do their best. When their performance falls short of your expectations, be a coach, not a critic. In coaching, discuss performance inadequacies and help your officers overcome them and become successful.

When a firefighter calls or pages you with a problem that’s someone else’s responsibility to solve, politely refer him to the appropriate officer. In time, you should find yourself being less involved in the routine business and having more time to focus on the bigger picture. You will get back to where the dog wags the tail … as it should be.

RICHARD B. GASAWAY, a 24-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Roseville (MN) Fire Department. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and is an International Association of Fire Chiefs accredited chief fire officer. Gasaway has a master’s degree in business administration.

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