Loyalty: The Cornerstone Of An Effective Fire Department

In recent months, we have been accused of being just a bit too "touchy-feely" in our approach to delivering the gospel of organizational effectiveness. There are those who have said, "You give too much of yourself to your subordinates." To those of you who have leveled these criticisms, we would like to offer a heartfelt thank you.

In the first place, we thank you for reading this column. Feedback is the only way that a writer can tell if he or she is hitting the bull's-eye. In the second place, we thank you for taking the correct read from what we have been saying about leadership and management. After many years of writing, we still strive to be relevant. And we want to share what we really believe with you.

Yes, we really do believe that people are the most important part of any organization. A fire department is no different from any other group in that it takes talented, knowledgeable and dedicated people to accomplish the mission. It also takes leadership that can stand the test of stressful situations, or at least that's what we've seen over the past three decades since we graduated from the U.S. Air Force Fire School in Illinois.

It also demands loyalty to a shared vision. Many times during our training sessions, we have asked people to ponder the traits their favorite leader possessed. Why was it that you'd follow Old Chief What's His Name to the very bowels of hell? In many cases the answer is simple. People will say they just did not want to disappoint that leader, because he was always there for them. That's pretty touchy-feely, huh?

One of our favorite leaders comes from our days as an Air Force firefighter in the Philippine Islands. This was back in 1968, and this man had been a master sergeant since World War II. Chief Master Sergeant Grant was the epitome of tough.

We can still remember when we flubbed a live-fire drill for visiting Filipino dignitaries. Higher levels of command called for our heads but Sergeant Grant said nobody was going to mess with his boys. He assured the squadron commander that we would learn the error of our ways. And learn we did. We had pit fires coming out of our ears. We groused and grumbled but by the end of that two-week period we could sure put out some fire. When next we had a demonstration, we did swell. And boy, did Sergeant Grant talk about what a fine body of men we were.

At the time, we did not appreciate the significance of what had transpired. Someone wanted to hurt his boys, and Sergeant Grant would have none of that. If tough love ever came into my life, our time in the Philip-pines was it. He and our Squadron Commander, Colonel Moore, shared that trait. They were gruff, tough warriors of a breed rarely seen anymore. If anything bad were to befall their troops, they took it personally. And if justice was required, they would administer it.

What commodity did we young airmen use to repay these rugged chieftains? Loyalty is the answer. Loyalty to our fire department was quite strong. And loyalty to both Grant and Moore ran deep. Can you say as much for your department?

One thing that three decades of experience gives you is perspective. When you have seen things go well, it qualifies you to speak about what you see when things are bad. And as we enter the final stages of the 20th century, it is our sad duty to note that loyalty, as a concept and practice, seems to be on the wane.

It seems that far too many fire chiefs and upper-level officers have lost sight of who really matters in their departments. Add to this the dollar problems far too many of us are facing, and you have the recipe for organizational chaos.

People will labor mightily for people they believe care for them. And therein lies the secret to building loyalty. As chief, you must take an active part in your organization. You must move among the members and learn who they are and what they want out of life. Far too many chiefs, both career and volunteer, build tall towers. They then ascend those towers and hide from their followers. And when you try to pay a call on the lofty heights of headquarters, you are frequently met with a cauldron of boiling oil. And that does real wonders for building loyalty among the troops.

A great way to display loyalty is to share in the hardships of your people. On a cold night, don't leave the fire early and turn command over to a subordinate. There's a time and place to delegate, and cold, dark nights are not the time to begin. And if cuts are to be made in the annual budget, be sure that everyone shares. Don't cut the training budget for your troops and then head off to the annual fire chief's conference, golf clubs in hand.

What we are really saying here is that you must treat your troops as you, yourself, would like to be treated. Now isn't that a simple premise for building loyalty in your people? But it really is just that simple.

No matter how complex and technically oriented the world becomes, one constant remains: people will use whatever technology is required to get a job done. And people who feel appreciated will give a much better account of themselves when the chips are down. You will have a fire department where loyalty and hard work are the norm a fire department in which people do a dirty and dangerous job with smiles on their faces.

Some people who have been loyal and supportive of our labors are no longer with us. We thank them by passing along what they taught to a new generation. Please consider doing this as you move through life in your department.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an acting deputy chief of the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and commander of the Training Division. He also is a past chief of the Adelphia, NJ, Fire Company.