By Steve Pegram
Since joining the fire service in the late 1980s, I have been extremely blessed to be a member of several fire service organizations. Some firefighters spend their entire careers in one community while others, as I do, tend to move around a bit looking for new and challenging opportunities. Regardless of which approach you use in your career, there are some key items that will make your transition to a chief officer more successful. I have used them as a training officer, an operations chief, and a fire chief in separate organizations and have also mentored new officers in them.
So you’re the new chief or are new to your job assignment! Whether a battalion chief in a new district, the new emergency medical services chief, or the new training officer, now what? Often your promotion or reassignment is for a reason; it may be because of a retirement or a vacancy in a job and you were next on the list. In many volunteer fire departments, your peers may have elected you. Regardless, as you transition to this new position, you are being watched. Your success will depend on your ability to walk in with your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut for the most part.
A quick search of the Internet will yield dozens of articles about new chiefs were let go from the chief position after only a few months. In these cases, officials and fire service personnel will often comment, “We wanted to take the department in a different direction” or “Chief Smith didn’t fit the culture of the department.” For this reason, especially if you are completely new to an organization, I implore you to take your time, have a plan, and implement it slowly and efficiently to help make your transition a success.
The number one recommendation I make to new chiefs is to conduct the one-on-one interviews. Whether you are the chief of a metro-sized department or of a 50-member volunteer department, you can implement the steps in this process during your first 90 days as chief. In larger departments you may be interviewing just your command staff. In a division, like training, you may be talking to your instructors and a few company officers. In smaller departments, especially where there has been prior conflict and strife, you may talk to everyone.
The rules for conducting the one-on-one interview are easy. First, no names. As I tell each person when I sit down to meet with them, “I will be able to figure out in time who they are talking about; names or ranks are not necessary.” We do not need the interview to become a personal attack on any one individual; we are trying to determine what the people who work there think works and doesn’t work in the organization. No names really does work; it puts people at ease. As soon as you do the first few interviews, the word will get out on the bay floor that no names are used, and the members will be more at ease with the process. As the interviews proceed and you work and observe the organization at the same time, the names that were not mentioned will appear to you.
Once the “no names” rule has been established, I tell the subject I have only three questions. The first is, “What do you dislike about your job/department?” This allows them to vent all the stuff they have been holding inside or complaining about on the bay floor. Once you have given the employees the time to vent, they can never say that they weren’t asked their opinion. This may seem like a detrimental process, allowing your employees to complain about the organization, but the information you gather here is critical to your and the organization’s success.
The second question is even more revealing and more important. Employees typically will hesitate to complain about their departments. Although we all have pet peeves, this process may take some prodding on your part. In other cases, you will not be able to keep up. Every department has that guy or gal who thinks everything is done wrong and that the world would be a better place if he or she were in charge. I listen, maybe ask a few follow-up questions, and try to look engaged. After the interview, put down some notes. I prefer not to write things down during the interview because it can make people feel uneasy: “What is he writing down?” Is he going to ‘quote me to someone else’?” Keep a list of the highlights of what people dislike. Identify common trends; this will help you develop your initial plan of action as well as create simple successes for you as a leader. If 90 percent of your employees complain about how the duty crew schedule is created, that’s a clue. Work to correct that problem quickly and efficiently, and you will have validated the first step in the process. You fixed the issue they raised, and you will gain respect for doing it: “The new chief listens.”
The second question is the most fun for me: “What do you “love” about the department/organization?” After venting for a few minutes, some people will be thinking negatively. Suddenly, you shifted the focus, and they will often give you way more “likes” than dislikes about the organization. Why is this so important? These are the things you shouldn’t mess with initially. If they love their shift or their captain, don’t move shifts or transfer people. If they “love” the way their daily schedule is laid out, don’t mess with it. Chiefs who change the traditions and things firefighters like are chiefs who typically struggle for acceptance and may find themselves reading the classifieds in the back of the fire magazines for a new job.
“What do you want to know about me?” is the third question. They have questions, especially if you are an outsider. They may already have searched the Web for comments you made and things you have been involved in. If you are coming from another fire department, they probably talked to the people there as well. You may be surprised at the questions you will get. Some may be the standard “What do you plan to do” and “What’s your feeling on policy X.” But you may also get some interesting questions, and they may even ask for some advice on their career. Here is where the mentoring process begins; you will begin to identify current and future leaders of the organization.
The one-on-one interviews work. I have used it successfully several times, and some of my peers have done so as well. Take the time to listen to your people; they will either make you look really good or really bad.
STEVE PEGRAM has been chief of Goshen Township (OH) Fire and EMS since 2009. He began his fire service career in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, while in high school. He attended college in New Jersey and served as the fire inspector for Princeton, New Jersey, and the fire chief in Pennington, New Jersey. In 1997, he moved to Mason, Ohio, where he was the deputy fire chief. From 2000 to 2007, he was the training officer and shift commander for the Loveland Symmes (OH) Fire Department. From 2007 to 2009, he was the deputy chief for Xenia, Ohio. He is the first vice president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. He has an associate degree in fire science, a bachelor’s degree in organizational management, and is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration. He is a Center for Public Safety Excellence designated Chief Fire Officer.