Loyalty: The Firm Foundation for an Effective Fire Department

Many times during my career I have been accused of being just a bit too “touchy-feely” for many in my approach to preaching the gospel of fire department organizational effectiveness.  There are those who have said, “You gave too much of yourself to your subordinates.”  There are those who have said that I have cared more for my people than the organization itself.  To those of you who have leveled these criticisms, I would like to offer a heartfelt thank you. You have focused me on what I need to say. My response is simple. You can never care too greatly about your people. 

In the first place, thank you for reading my many and varied commentaries over the years.  Feedback is the only way that a writer can tell whether he or she is hitting the mark.  In the second place, let me thank you for taking the correct read from what I have been saying about leadership and management.  After many years of writing, I still strive to be relevant.  And I want to share my deepest, most important beliefs with you.

Yes I cared more for my people than the organization.  I always have.  Why?  Because I really do believe that people are the most important part of any organization.  In fact, they are the 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 caring, talented, and concerned leadership which can stand the test of stressful situations, or at least that’s what I have witnessed over the past 47 years since I graduated from the U.S. Air Force Fire School at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois on the day before Thanksgiving in 1966. I hope you can see why I get a bit sentimental at this time of the year.

Organizational effectiveness also demands loyalty by all members to a shared vision.  Many times during my training sessions, I have asked people to think about those traits which they believe that their favorite leaders have possessed.  I have often asked my learners why it was that people would follow Old Chief What’s His Name to the very bowels of hell?  In many cases the answer was simple.  People will say they just did not want to disappoint that leader, because he was always there for them.  He or she cared about me. That’s pretty touchy-feely, isn't it?

One of my favorite leaders comes from my days as an Air Force firefighter when I served in the Philippine Islands.  The year was 1968, and the man to whom I make reference had been a master sergeant since World War II.  Chief Master Sergeant Grant was the epitome of tough.  Really tough!  However, he was also eminently fair, it that he was tough on everyone, including he himself.  However, only he could be tough on the guys.  Heaven help the poor person who tried to get us.  Sergeant Grant would not allow anyone to mess with us.  More than that, our squadron commander, Colonel Moore, felt the same way about his fire department.

I can still remember the time when we royally flubbed up on a live-fire drill for visiting Filipino dignitaries.  It was one of the most dreadful training sessions of which it was my misfortune ever to have attended.  I can recall that higher levels of command in the region called for our heads on a platter, but Sergeant Grant would have none of it.  We were his guys and nobody was going to mess with us.

He assured Colonel Moore, our squadron commander, that we would all learn the error of our ways.  And learn we did.  We had pit fires coming out of our ears.  We fought pit fires during the day, during the evening, and even on Sundays.  We groused and grumbled but by the end of that two-week period of retraining we could sure put out some fire.  When next we had a demonstration for those dignitaries, we did very well indeed.  And boy, did Sergeant Grant tell the world about what a fine body of men the members of his fire department were.

I do not believe that at the time I truly appreciated the significance of what had transpired.  Now that I reflect upon it, the truth of the lesson is self evident indeed.  Somebody 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 Philippines was it.  He and our Squadron Commander, Colonel Moore, shared that trait.  As a matter of fact, I would go so far as to call it a belief.

They were both gruff, tough old-line 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 be the people to administer it.  Conversely, if you ran into a problem they would go to the extreme to take care of you. 

Let me now ask you to ponder a very important point at this time.  What commodity did we young airmen use to repay these rugged chieftains?  Loyalty is the answer my friends.  Loyalty to both our fire department and its leaders was quite strong.  And our loyalty to both Chief Master Sergeant Grant and Colonel Moore ran deep and wide.  Let me ask you a crucial question.  Can you say as much for your department?

One thing that five decades of experience gives a person 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 work our way through the early stages of the 21st Century, it is my sad duty to note that loyalty, as a concept and practice, seems to be on the wane. I see a world where the selfish, one-way street type of leader seems to have taken control.  This is not a good thing.

It seems to me that far too many fire chiefs and upper-level officers have lost sight of what and who really matters in their departments.  Add to this the dollar problems far too many of us are facing thanks to the boobs and bean-counters in the front office and you can see that we have the recipe for organizational chaos all around us.

People will labor mightily for people they believe care for them. And therein lies the secret to building loyalty.  As officers and chiefs 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 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.  Let me also stress that you must never cut the training budget for your troops, entertain layoffs, and then head off to the annual fire chief’s conference, golf clubs in hand.

What I am 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.  Hmm… That sounds like a rule to me: the "Golden Rule" my friends.

No matter how complex and technically oriented the world becomes there is one constant which remains: people.  Remember that your people will always use whatever technology is required to get a job done.  However, it is the people who feel appreciated that 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.

There are many people who have been loyal and supportive of all my labors throughout the years of my long and varied career.  Sadly a great number of them are no longer with us.  I have come to believe that I pay them the greatest thank you of all by passing along what they taught me as a young pup, college-educated, pain-in-the-butt, snot-nosed kid who was part of the new generation coming into take over their well-ordered world.  Please consider doing this as you move through life in your fire department. 

Loyalty cannot be bought.  Loyalty cannot be sold.  Loyalty cannot be demanded.  It must be earned each and every day of the week when you come to work with the people of your fire department.  Please remember that no fire chief was ever born with a white shirt and a gold bad.  It is my wife of four decades standing, who delivered babies at the local hospital for two of those decades, who assures me of that fact.  Take care of the troops and they will surely take care of you and your fire department. 

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