Chief Concerns

May 9, 2011
Fire Chief Finishing School, Part 1 – Getting Ready to Move Up

Jan. 2, 1996, was a very special and important day in my career. After 24 years of dedicated fire-rescue service, from rookie to battalion chief, I was selected to be the next fire chief for the City of Dothan, AL. When I won the opportunity to pin all five trumpets on my collar, Dothan was a community of about 65,000 people and boasted a great fire department that consisted of six fire rescue stations employing 144 members. The city was growing; attracting new businesses and expanding its position in the global marketplace with companies like Sony and Michelin. The city manager was ready to go in a different direction. He would say repeatedly to me, “Let’s raise the bar and provide better government.”

As I moved my family, the emotions of pride, career attainment and high adventure were soon replaced by stark reality and apprehension of being responsible for running a fire department. Was I ready for this new responsibility? Had I completely prepared myself to meet the challenges of “better government” that our city manager, Jerry Gwaltney, placed on me? Could I lead our great department into the 21st Century?

This column is the first in a three-part series on preparing to be the chief executive fire officer in a diverse and growing community. Each column will examine four preparation steps that must be considered as one wears the white coat and white helmet. In fact, this series will be great guidance for anyone preparing to move into the next higher level in a department, regardless of rank.

1. Be Nosy

The first item that must be considered is to be nosy when you first get to your new department or when you take on a new assignment. As you are getting oriented to the new job, develop a check list (reduce the list to writing for future reference) of critical items and issues that must be addressed for your agency to be successful. This may sound a crazy or too basic to you, but if you are accountable, do not cut corners. If it is a critical item, check it to see whether your department measures up. Dr Edwards Deming (the “Total Quality” guru) wrote, “Only the items that get measured are the items that get made in an organization or business.” It’s human nature and sound logic to focus on the important stuff first, but if the issue is a mission-critical one, you must check on it initially and on an ongoing basis to ensure compliance before the issue or item grows into a serious problem.

In the spirit of education and not placing blame, when I was appointed chief, I was amazed to learn that we did not independently test our aerial ladders. We did not conduct annual service tests on our pumping engines. We did not have breathing-air samples tested and certified. Hose was not tested. I’m sure you get the idea. These are basic items that make us a functional fire-rescue department. Rather than waiting for an unmanageable disaster to happen, we worked on fixing these items within the first few months of my arrival. Not only were we a better department for the effort to meet minimum standards, but the fire chief’s office gained credibility by tending to the critical details from both the members and city hall.

The second part of being nosy is to follow up on the various checks on an ongoing basis. Some items, such as aerial ladders, hose and pumps, must be checked annually. Other items require attention on different cycles, such as checking fire station smoke detection equipment monthly. Sounds simple, but you have to get out of your office and do it. It was President Ronald Reagan who coined the phrase, “Trust, but verify.” Add this to your personal vocabulary and use it often.

2. Be a Good Communicator

The next trait to know if you are prepared to command a fire-rescue department is to be a good communicator during all situations – emergencies and non-emergencies – and the ability to communicate to a very wide range of people both inside and outside the agency. After serving with several departments as chief, I developed a PowerPoint presentation that I show to all command officers within the first week of starting a new job. The presentation is designed to review my goals, objectives, personal philosophy and rules that we will use to run the department.

This is always a very interesting, valuable and challenging day at the office. After this half-day session, I can figure out who is with me and who will need to be convinced or persuaded to be a partner on the newly forming team. In retrospect, I guess I should not have been surprised when some members retired soon after this meeting. (To obtain a copy of my program, please email Columbia Southern University at [email protected]; they have graciously agreed to mail this program out to Firehouse® readers.)

The same presentation is shared with company officers the following week (after a little “soak time” with the executive team), letting the chiefs absorb it and question the material. If there is need for adjustment to the material being presented due to local issues (collective bargaining agreement as an example), this is the perfect time and place for an update. I have personally delivered this presentation to all officers at three departments and at one place, Assistant Fire Chief of Operations Lawrence Schultz asked to make the “rounds” with the information. Of course, I was delighted to have his support in my first week and I gladly let him present the program. On each platoon, he was accompanied by the shift commander and battalion chiefs to deliver the message to all officers. Truth be told, the material likely had more impact coming from the assistant chief, who grew up in the system, rather than the new outsider.

3. Be Patient

The third preparation step I recommend is to be patient. Most of the members at the Dothan Fire Department are Heaven-bound for letting me learn how to be a patient chief. The four-plus years spent there was invaluable for me to truly learn how to be a fire chief. I wanted to change everything and I wanted it to change overnight! When Mr. Gwaltney asked for better government, he didn’t say for me to be slow and methodical, but that was the lesson I learned at great personal expense. Nicknames like “Tornado” and “Speedy” popped up everywhere and I took them as terms of endearment instead of what they were meant to be – great and indirect advice.

After about six months, one of the battalion chiefs helped me through my learning deficiency by telling me a World War I story. The savvy battalion chief talked about “The Great War,” discussing the various general officers and their use of “horses.” He went on to say that if the general ordered the horses to work beyond their physical limits, the units that the general commanded had higher-than-average soldier losses. The reason was simple: the horses were used to move a lot of the field artillery. If the horses were not handled properly, the protection of the “big guns” was not available to cover for the fighting forces. As the A Shift commander put the finishing touches on the story, it clicked that he was describing my missteps and giving me great advice. I did finally get the message that not everyone works at the pace of the new fire chief working 60 hours or more to prove himself.

Take the time to evaluate your staff, first hand and personally, as part of the “take-your-time process.” I received many reports from many people about the skills, knowledge and abilities of the top staff. I have found that if I file the information away and take the time to evaluate at least the second and third layer of the organization, new stars are born and a few fall.

4. Be Prepared

The next item is making sure you are prepared for the role of fire chief through training and education. When I entered the fire department as a career firefighter in 1971, most fire chiefs didn’t have a college degree. In fact, some had not completed high school. How the times have changed, for the better, “raising the bar of government.” The minimum acceptable level of admittance to the top job is a bachelor’s degree or even a higher level of post-secondary education. It has been interesting to watch our service become more professional with each passing year. Having a solid educational base, training and experience are the keys to being ready when the “coach” (city manager or mayor) calls your number to play.

About a year ago, I was invited by retired Fire Chief Alan Brunacini to assist with a newly developed educational experience that he refers to as the “Fire Chief’s Leadership Retreat.” It is the only program I am aware of that is a “finishing school” for those interested in taking on more organizational responsibility. Chief Brunacini has developed a curriculum and a collection of fire service leaders willing to share the secrets and pitfalls of being a senior leader in today’s fire-rescue service. Chief Brunacini has joined forces with the Columbia Southern University of Orange Beach, AL, to present a three-day learning experience. The participants are treated to some of the best and brightest in the business discussing a wide range of contemporary fire service topics and in-depth discussions of a wide array of case studies. Upon completion, the class members obtain continuing educational units and can go on to obtain undergraduate course-work hours.

Chief Brunacini and the university’s president, Robert Mayes, will bring this training to life at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore, MD, next month, just as they did at Firehouse World in San Diego, CA, in February. (Visit for more information.) This program is open to all who may find leadership skills useful whether they are in a volunteer, career or combination department.

Next: Early preparation pays off

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