HOW WHITE IS YOUR HELMET?

I wrote this editorial almost 10 years ago:

“Are you a fire chief with the fire under control or a portfolio under your arm? Is your salty turnout coat as easily within reach as your briefcase?

“How white is your helmet? When was the last time you responded to a fire? Are you a leader of firefighters or a vassal to those who beat the political drums?

“In recent history, the fire service has, out of necessity, refashioned its image of the successful fire chief-one that emphasizes the chief as an extension of city hall rather than an extension of the crew making the long, hot hallway. This change has its advantages for the chief required to swim in shark-infested waters. But there are drawbacks, too-most notably, the deemphasis on firefighting tradition at a time when the fire service can least afford it.

“I am reminded of an inspiring incident that occurred not too long ago in which a 60-year-old assistant chief of a major New Jersey fire department himself led one of his firefighters in the high-angle rescue of a victim trapped in a rocky waterfall some 80 feet below grade. This is not to suggest that every fire chief should grab the attack hoseline and lead the charge, but somewhere between that and the view that chiefs ‘don’t do fires’ anymore lies an appropriate level of field leadership. There is a wisdom in maintaining a grasp of what’s happening on the fire line as a basis for making certain administrative decisions. The true chief leads his troops in the battle; after all, great generals are born on the battlefield, not in the officer’s club.

“But many chiefs nowadays are far removed from the sounds of the fire scene. Now it’s IEMS, diversity training, and TQM above all else. Now your value to the organization is measured in large degree by your ability to toe the fiscal bottom line more so than the lines you draw in the melting fireground asphalt. In some corners, the mark of the chief on the ball is how much time is spent in on-the-road fire activities.

“With estimated figures indicating a decline in the number of fires nationwide and shrinking budgets leading to the premature departures of the most experienced personnel among the ranks, the fire service is crying out for the type of leadership that can be supplied only by a chief who answers his field radio as well as his office intercom. With the graying of the fire service comes a loss of tradition, a tradition founded on the principles of rescue and fire extinguishment, not on spreadsheets. A management guru several years ago advanced the theory of ‘management by walking around.’ Are you walking around the fireground and fire stations in your turnout coat or mostly walking around a municipal center in a striped dress shirt and power tie? Which holds more significance to the rank and file?

“Granted, the modern fire chief must be multitalented. You must exhibit backroom savoir faire, budgeting acumen, and administrative prowess. You must be both politician and businessman. You must lead the ‘organizational culture change,’ if that’s what it takes. But you must be first and foremost a firefighter, for if you are not, what separates the fire chief from the bean counter? If the fire chief does not lead, does not inspire, does not preserve the traditions on which great firefighting is based, and does not impart the firefighting wisdom of the ages, then where is the fire service headed? Are you fiddling in city hall while your city burns?”

Now tell me, please, what has changed? More important, what should we do to change it?

How white is your helmet?

How white is your helmet?

Jack A. Bennett

Training & Emergency Management Resource

San Carlos, California

Congratulations! “How White Is Your Helmet?” (Editor`s Opinion, September 1995) regarding the fire chief`s involvement in the emergency business of the department was to the point. I hope that a few fire chiefs will read it, look at themselves in the mirror, and make some positive changes.

Several other fire department officers have also stated to me that this Editor`s Opinion was one of the best. Thanks to Bill Manning for all of his efforts in the magazine and particularly for having the guts to speak out about a subject that is very true in today`s fire service.