Musical Fire Chiefs

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.

Apparently this particular fire department which I am highlighting this week has lost touch with their troops, as well as with reality. What a shame. Perhaps the leader of that organization simply decided that it was easier to give in to the powers that run their municipality than to fight for the troops. This is sad. Not really uncommon in the world, but always sad.

Not only has this department transferred all of their chiefs around again, but they have continued the practice of keeping the officers and firefighters on different work schedules. You cannot mean that Harry, how can they do that? Quite simply because they can, I guess. There is no logical reason to explain it. My research can find no other example of such an outlandish operational structure.

This little bit of management brilliance has wreaked havoc on those teams which had been so carefully nurtured over the years by generations of chief officers. How can anyone be expected to develop loyalty towards a musical chairs style of management such as this? How is a team supposed to keep changing their responses to fit the needs of their changing supervisors?

My friends, this is not just an issue of teamwork. It is a safety issue. It has been my experience that there are a number of ways to perform any task. However during an emergency it is best if everyone is operating according to the same set of goals and objectives. The danger of "free-lancing" is well known to us all.

During my time as a chief officer, I worked to inculcate my values, as well as my approach to firefighting into the team with which I had been blessed. My task was to make sure that the team was aware of how I expected them to work. Whether it was at a fire, a motor vehicle accident, or on the drill ground, I worked to make sure that my guys knew what I wanted. Think of the time that is saved when your troops know what you want and then proceed to do it while you are still responding.

Many times when teaching my firefighting strategy and tactic course I speak of those occasions when I did not have to issue orders to my battalion at a fire. People knew what was expected of them and began deploying their resources according to those expectations while I was still responding. Their due diligence allowed me to practice management-by-exception upon my arrival. I was able to watch for things that were out of the ordinary.

My favorite firefighting operation was one where there were no orders to give. Think of how much safer an operation like this is than one where people are operating chaotically according to what they think their "musical chairs" officers want.

This is an issue where the management of this fire department is really missing the boat. Say all you want about standard operating procedures, each officer puts a certain spin on the rules and regulations. I believe it was Patton who spoke of the fact that regulations were provided for the guidance of the commander in the performance of their assigned tasks.

Working with different officers on a rotating basis is just plain unsafe. Think of the danger that a pause for direct orders during a fireground operation, or a hazardous materials incident for that matter, can cause. In the case of this department, the officers are working with one group or another on a rotating basis. The members of the department must pause for a moment to reflect upon who is in charge on a give day. It is within that moment when disaster can strike.

One captain might operate according to an apples-are-apples plan, while another might suggest that oranges are more appropriate in a similar situation. While the troops and the officers are sorting out this fruit salad, someone could be killed or injured. A team needs to drill together on a continual basis so that they can deploy smoothly during an unfolding emergency. Continuity is a valuable commodity.

There is one thing for certain. The leaders of this agency will never deem it appropriate to take advice from yours truly. My point in writing this week's commentary is to share my views on the need for team integrity with you in the hopes that you will never do anything to your people like this department has done to their members.

It would be prudent for you to create a set of standard operating procedures (general operating guidelines if you will). Seek the input of every level of your organization. Work to create buy-in with those people who will have to rise up on a dark and stormy night to get the job done. Endeavor to get everyone working from the same script and let them have a hand in crafting the document.

Once you have these procedures reduced to writing and in place, drill on them. Find the weak points and correct them. Let everyone have an opportunity to succeed. Make sure that everyone is thinking and acting according to the departmental game plan.

Periodically gather feedback from your folks on how to improve them. Create a procedure for conducting periodic reviews. Actively solicit input from your team. Do all of this with an eye to creating a series of interlocking teams to get the job done during times of emergency travail.

I can only imagine what the final destination of the 'musical chairs' fire department I have outlined in this commentary will be. It would be especially scary to see their departmental train pass by you and I on the tracks to the future and see no one at the controls of their leadership locomotive.

I can see the outline of their organizational horse of success racing toward the barn door of organizational disaster. However no one seems to have an interest in closing that door. What a shame.

The therapy for extreme examples of organizational dysfunction such as this cannot be found within the system. Things are as bad as they are because of the internal players. Someone must be brought in from the outside to assess the situation and recommend cures. Sadly, those at the helm of the liner are usually the last to see the iceberg of organizational collapse.

What will it take to bring a halt to the game of supervisory musical chairs being played in this particular fire department? It is my fervent hope that it does not take a tragedy to bring this organization to its senses. Please do not do this to your people. Be a servant to the troops. Listen and learn. The dividends will be great.