Musical Fire Chiefs

Many have been the stories of rudderless organizational ships within the world of current management literature.


Many have been the stories of rudderless organizational ships within the world of current management literature. Organizations crashing onto the rocks and shoals of non-management or mismanagement make for pretty heady reading. One would think that we all might have learned something from these classic disasters by now. Nah!

My friends it is once again time to call your attention to a fire department that just cannot decide what it wants to do or where it wants to go. There are those fire service organizational managers (I shall not use the word leaders) who see their people merely as numbers. Remember that managers manage things and leaders lead people. This is a critical distinction. I guess anything is possible when you depersonalize the personnel equation. Let me now offer you a case in point.

Have you heard about the fire department that changes their chiefs around as often as they change their organizational underwear? How many times have you seen or heard me write or speak of the importance of teamwork in creating a successful organization? Many have been my words regarding this critical topic. Teams do not just happen. They are created, nurtured and grown, much like prize roses.

However, there are those folks who seem to see themselves as being smarter than the rest of us when it comes to bucking the trends created by centuries of experience with all sorts of organizations. This experience has been developed within a plethora of varied industries and environments. How can anyone think that they are smarter than that?

Rather than seeking to create a solid array of teams to do the job in their city, one East Coast fire department has decided to go out of their way to keep their people off balance. As is my way, the name of this large municipal fire department will not be mentioned. It is the problem and not the name which is important.

Not more than a few months ago, the powers that be in this agency decided to shuffle the deck of their supervisory team. Chiefs who had spent the better part of a decade creating effective firefighting teams were each shuffled around, much as you might shuffle a deck of cards. Sadly, the stakes here are much higher than in a game of blackjack or five-card stud.

My personal experience in creating teams has convinced me of the need to bring people together in a world whose hallmark is security. There were times during my career when I was forced to labor within a pressure-filled, uncertain work environment. The stress and anxiety made going to work difficult. The results of our labors were not as good as they might otherwise have been.

My time spent within these scenarios was extremely unfulfilling. Frankly, it taught me a lesson; one that I worked hard to live out during my time as a chief officer. That lesson involved the criticality of teambuilding in a fire service environment. If nothing else, I vowed to take care of anyone who was entrusted to my care.

Nearly five years of my life were spent molding Battalion Five, Tour Three of the Newark Fire Department into a functional team. Many were the mechanisms used to do this. Most revolved around the daily care and nurturing of some really neat people.

Friends of mine still speak of my quarterly team-building battalion-level get-togethers. There was the Swing into Spring party. Then there was the Summertime Soiree. One of my favorites was the fall October-fest brunch. It was a little more difficult to bring the troops together for our winter event, but we did it. Each meeting was logged quite accurately as a multiple-company drill.

There are a few of the veterans who still have the tee shirts I gave out to my battalion and my second-alarm companies on more than one occasion. Needless to say, I never told headquarters of my team-building session. The boss would have gone nuts if he found out that I cared for my troops. His need to control everything was all-encompassing. That attitude made it very difficult for those of us in the field to take care of our troops. However, that did not stop us chiefs from doing what we could for the troops.

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