Stepping Up: Who Needs a Chief?

By Ron Hiraki

Recently I was talking to a couple of firefighters who worked in a fire department training division. There were several work groups, each led by a lieutenant, who in turn reported to a captain, who in turn reported to a training chief. The firefighters were talking about typical work situations and problems. Some of the items were positive and some were negative. When the conversation turned to some of the problems, there was some criticism of the administration and one of the firefighters said, “I don’t know why we even need that training chief…the lieutenants and the captain take care of everything that matters. I don’t see what the chief does! I don’t know why we even need a training chief.”

There are some good lessons for both firefighters and chiefs in the question “Who needs a chief?”

The fire service follows a chain of command with uniforms, insignia, and a defined structure. The chain-of-command has obvious benefits in operating at emergency incidents with the incident command system and maintaining a span of control. Not recognizing, knowing, or understanding what other people do can affect operations at an emergency incident. It can also be detrimental to everyday non-emergency interactions.

The training division firefighter’s comment could be a compliment to the lieutenant and the captain. If the firefighter believes that he is getting everything he needs to do the job, it means that the lieutenant and the captain are doing a lot of good things such as:

  • Providing good direction and support.
  • Communicating information and issues up and down.
  • Providing approvals and resources.

It seems that, in this situation, the lieutenant and captain are doing this. Another important sign is that there are no complaints from the training chief–it implies the training chief believes that the actions of the lieutenants and the captain are appropriate. Sometimes it’s not easy being a lieutenant or a captain, stuck between the firefighters and the chiefs. In this case, the lieutenants and the captain seem to be doing a good job because the firefighters are happy and the training chief is happy…or at least not complaining.

The work or the role of the training chief may be transparent to the firefighter, and this is generally a good thing. However, the firefighter should know, recognize, and appreciate the role of the training chief. This may require a little work. Perhaps the firefighter needs to open his eyes and mind and study what the training chief does. Perhaps the lieutenants and the captains need to talk more about the training chief’s role as they are working with the firefighters. Perhaps the training chief needs to be a bit more “visible” and interact a little with the firefighters.

Naturally, it is expected that people who have a direct link in the chain-of-command have a regular and open line of communication and interaction. When they don’t, there’s a problem. But all of us should remember to be aware of what the other people we work with do. It is not necessary that you learn “how to do their job” or that you agree with all of their actions. Just that you may benefit from a little effort to know and understand what they are doing.

At an emergency incident, you may be working in a completely different division or group. You might be part of the fire attack team on Floor 5 while other people are working as part of the ventilation group. You must be aware of what they are doing, and vice versa so that your actions complement each other. You can actually talk to these people and work together.

In the case of the firefighter wondering if there was a need for the training chief, the firefighter and the training chief should consider the following.

Firefighters Should Consider These Issues

  • Many firefighters wish to be empowered to make decisions at the lowest level. If firefighters are doing good work and making good decisions, they will earn the chief’s confidence. If you have earned the chief’s confidence, the chief is probably staying out of your way.
  • Ask the lieutenant and captain about the chief’s involvement. You’ll not only learn what the chief does, but will learn a little about the job of lieutenant, captain, and chief, in case you are interested in seeking a promotion.
  • Find an opportunity to talk with the chief. Most chiefs won’t bite!

Chiefs Should Consider These Issues

  • Don’t hide behind the chain of command and do all of your communicating through the captains and lieutenants.
  • Unless there is a very specific reason, don’t be a micro-manager. Firefighters, lieutenants, and captains will feel like they are being watched or nagged. They may never develop their skills or experience, and resign themselves to waiting for the chief’s direction.

    In one small fire department, the lieutenants on one shift had marginal size-up and decision making skills. The reason? As soon as they were responding, the lieutenants would wait for the battalion chief to call them on the mobile phone and tell them what to think about and even what to do.
  • Allow the lieutenants and captains to communicate and lead.

    In many assessment centers or interviews, the fire department frequently wants to see lieutenants, captains, and chiefs share information from the top down, and bottom up, in a neutral and professional manner. Share this expectation. Allow lieutenants and captains to practice this and develop their leadership skills.
  • Make time to “walk the factory floor” occasionally and talk directly with the firefighters, lieutenants, and captains.
  • Without being an “infomercial” or egotist, try to share with people what you are working on. It’s a great way to get other ideas, input, and to do research.

Who needs a chief? It’s okay to ask the question, but don’t just let the question fester. Make an effort to find your own answer. Obviously, I’m a little biased because I used to be a chief. If you’re a chief and you hear this question, don’t let it fester. Make an effort to share what’s going on and what you do with the firefighters, lieutenants, and captains. Stepping up in these situations will keep people talking, getting to know each other, and discussing problems, concerns, ideas, or a vision.

Ron HirakiRon Hiraki began his career as a firefighter in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, working in a variety of operational and administrative positions leading to his final assignment as assistant chief of employee development. Completing his career as an assistant chief for a small combination fire department, Hiraki has nearly 30 years of fire service experience in urban and suburban settings. He holds a Master of Science degree in human resources development, and is a consultant to number of public safety agencies for their selection and performance evaluation programs.


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