Fire Politics 7/2011
Increasing the Fire Department’s Influence
Seven Areas of Focus for the Fire Chief
By DENNIS COMPTON
PLEASE USE NEW BIO (FEB. 2011)
DENNIS COMPTON, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of several books, including his new Progressive Leadership Principles, Concepts and Tools. He has also authored the When in Doubt, Lead! series and Mental Aspects of Performance for Firefighters and Fire Officers. Compton was the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and as assistant fire chief in Phoenix, AZ, where he served for 27 years. Compton is past chairman of the Executive Board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) and past chairman of the Congressional Fire Services Institute’s National Advisory Committee. He is currently chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Board of Directors and a member of the Board of Directors of Safe Kids Worldwide.
It is imperative that fire chiefs build and maintain good working relationships with their elected officials.
It’s easy to find articles these days (electronic and hard copy) written about fire chiefs who are trying to sustain the capability of their fire departments to provide services to their communities. As I’ve said many times before, there is no silver bullet that can provide solutions to the many challenges fire chiefs face in this “new normal” world they’re functioning within. However, there are critical areas of focus that fire chiefs can address that can significantly strengthen chiefs and the fire departments they lead both politically and operationally.
The following seven areas of focus can provide a model for conducting a self-assessment that can serve as a roadmap to how the fire chief spends a significant part of his or her time and energy. The seven are not in any order of importance because each one impacts the leadership capability of the fire chief and the political and operational support provided to the fire department by policy makers and other key decision makers.
• City or county management teams – The fire chief must develop and maintain positive and productive relationships with principal managers who they directly report to in the chain of command. The lack of a good working relationship between the fire chief and those who have significant influence and power over them creates an atmosphere of hostility that can result in a lack of trust and respect between the chief and those other leaders. Remember, those are the same leaders that the fire chief must rely on for both personal and organizational support in a variety of ways. The fire department will always have issues that require the help of decision makers outside of the department.
• Elected officials – Almost every resource a fire chief gets to operate the fire department comes to the organization because a group of elected officials voted “yes” on a request and/or an issue. With that kind of political influence and power over the fire department being the reality, it is imperative that fire chiefs build and maintain good working relationships with their elected officials. This can be a challenging goal for many reasons. In fact, depending on the jurisdiction’s rules and regulations, the ability of the fire chief to interact with elected officials can be limited in some ways. It is important that these relationships be built primarily on a basis of professionalism and communications with the goal of making the fire department as successful as possible.
• Union leadership – Dysfunctional relationships between fire chiefs and union leaders can get in the way of addressing difficult challenges as much (or more) than any other issue. Fire departments that have developed the ability for management and the union to work together for the betterment of the organization and the safety of the community usually enjoy more success in a variety of arenas. The fire chief and union leadership should develop the capability to plan together, solve problems together, and create relationships inside and outside the fire department that benefit the organization as a whole.