Community and Department Needs First

This article is adapted from a popular response to a question on IAFC KnowledgeNet about the average tenure of fire chiefs. Members can read the full thread online.

I’m currently completing my 26th year as fire chief in a mid-size, full-time, union department in the Chicago metro area. I came from outside the organization at a time of great internal turmoil, ongoing litigation and poor labor-management relations. I’m glad to say those issues are long gone.

I've worked with four village presidents (i.e., mayors), six village managers (i.e., city managers), five police chiefs, three public-works directors and two finance directors during my tenure, not to mention surviving 12 labor contracts and four union presidents.

I've never had an employment contract, so the fact that they pay me every two weeks must mean I'm doing OK. I’ve watched fire chiefs in my neighboring departments come and go: some having been outside chiefs, others having risen through the ranks.

I’m asked from time to time about how I've survived the changing landscape of our community and not encountered the issues other neighboring chiefs have. While I have no magic solution, I can offer the following suggestions, in no particular order.

Never lie to your bosses and your employees. There are times they will definitely not like what you have to say but at least they know where you coming from. If you lie, you will have no trust and the downward spiral of your professional demise will begin.

Admit when you mess up (and you will). Take ownership of your mistakes, as well those mistakes of your department. It's easier to admit your mistakes than beg for forgiveness. If you're honest about admitting your mistakes, it goes a long way to earning the respect of others; particularly your employees and your employer.

Don't play politics. If you do, you will be burned. You're paid to manage the fire department - devote your efforts to doing what's needed. You're not paid to kiss the behinds of the elected officials, village manager, etc. Your paid to implement your community's policies, not make it. That's not to say you shouldn't advise your officials on the facts but it’s not your place to wheel and deal, etc.

Be willing to take a stand on issues that are important. Speak up about things that are important to the overall safety of the community, such as fire prevention codes, building codes (including residential sprinklers) and developments, as well as the needed resources for your department, including equipment, personnel and the budget to properly fund these items.

If you need it, make your case and don't tap-dance around it. Your job is to provide a level of expected service to your community. Either fight to meet that level of expected service within the constraints you’re given or educate the community as to why you can't.

Also, remember to be respectful. Make your points without being a jerk or looking like a whining child. If the powers to be say no, understand that they’re the bosses and if you made your points, be accepting of their decision and come back later to try again.

If it's really important, don't give up just because you lost one time. For example, I’ve lost nine FF/PM positions since the beginning of the recession. Unfortunately, the call volume didn't drop and instead has continued to rise. So every year in my budget presentation, I point out my needs for reinstating these positions. Every year I get turned down due to the lack of available resources. I thank the village board for their consideration, and they know I'll be back next year asking again. Eventually, I’ll get the positions back when the available resources improve—they know it and I know it.

Get to know the general operations of the community's other departments. Understand what their needs are too. Support them when asked or when you see an opportunity to help them (and don't screw over another department to just make your department look better).

Treat everyone—particularly your employees—fairly, firmly and consistently (like a good fire-prevention inspection). It again lets everyone know where you’re coming from and there are no surprises. (Remember, in a political environment, no one likes surprises).

If you have a union, accept that they’re entitled to their opinion but in the end, you’re still the one who sets the direction and tone of the department. Most union conflicts appear to come from poor communication about the rationale behind decisions, purchases, etc., or not remembering the last suggestion.

Love it or hate it, if you have a union in your department, it’s not going away. It's important to develop a respectful relationship with your union president. Again, you’ll never agree on all aspects of the department, but it doesn't need to be a constant battle either.

Don't get caught up with the emotions of your department. At a rough patch early in my tenure as a chief, my wife said to me, "Even the conductor has to turn his back to the audience for a portion of the performance in order to lead the orchestra."

You can be empathetic and still stay focused on what needs to be done in the best interest of the community. When you cease to lead, the organization becomes leaderless and it will quickly go up for grabs.

To sum it all up, I think fire chiefs can last as long as they want, as long as they keep the needs of the community and their departments first and foremost.

Unfortunately, there are occasionally circumstances (i.e., politics) that fire chiefs can't escape and that may result in their termination. But I do believe that if fire chiefs have served their communities appropriately and to the best of their abilities (see the eight suggestions given above), the better communities will recognize it and those fire chiefs won’t be unemployed for very long.

Just my two cents on this topic.

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