Does Your Department Need a Chief People Officer?

If we consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we recognize that physiological needs and safety needs form the foundation of his pyramid. In general, volunteer departments are limited in their ability to meet these two needs. In today’s society, money is the driving factor in satisfying physiological and safety needs. Money buys food, shelter, clothing, family security and many other essentials.

For this reason, volunteer departments should concentrate on the top three levels of the pyramid: belonging, esteem and self-actualization. All of these are addressed through elevating the morale of a department’s members.

From this realization arose the thought that perhaps there should be someone who monitors the morale of the department, a chief people officer. When we looked further into the concept, a coworker told us the military already has such a position: the Shirt.

The Shirt is a senior, noncommissioned officer who is open to hearing the issues soldiers faced. They’re called the Shirt with the idea that despite their many awards and senior insignia, they had no need to flash those to achieve goals. They commanded respect and people followed them because of it. If their uniforms had no insignia, they could still accomplish great things and you could come to them with any problem regardless of their rank.

I decided to research the topic more and reached out to a friend, Jonathan Carter. Nearly 30 years after graduating from high school together, he’s a command master chief in the U.S. Navy. He is a Shirt and he helped me understand how this role works to their advantage and how it relates to our work.

The volunteer fire service has many shared characteristics with the military:

  • Leaders often spend one or two years in a position, then promote or move to a different post.
  • Leaders are often chosen because of their prowess in battle or in training or their efficiency with logistics.
  • Junior leaders often have no experience in interpersonal leader/subordinate relations.

Chief Carter sent me material on the role and I found this quote summed up what we were looking for in our chief people officer:

The command master chief (CMC), (chief of the boat, command senior chief), is the enlisted advisor to the command on the formulation and implementation of policies pertinent to morale, welfare, job satisfaction, discipline, utilization and training of all enlisted personnel.

When looking at the descriptions of a CPO and a CMC, we found the attributes are similar:

  • Time-in-service – They have over 10 years in the department, are well-versed in how it works and have the trust of both leaders and followers.
  • Experience – They have spent lots of time dealing with issues that people in organizations face.
  • Approachability – Members feel they can talk to them about any matter that concerns them.
  • Impeccable ethics – Imagine the negative consequences to morale if the membership felt betrayed by the person in charge of morale.

So how could a CPO integrate into your department?

  • Act as a part of the leadership team – CPOs can serve as the main voice of the membership to leadership and advise how plans, policies or other issues or changes will affect department morale.
  • Have an open-door policy for all members – CPOs will welcome members coming to them with any issues they have.
  • Investigate matters brought to them before approaching leadership – If CPOs find an issue with morale, either with an individual or in a group, they must thoroughly investigate the matter before bringing it to leadership and they should have solutions as well.
  • Uphold the department policies – CPOs are not there to circumvent department rules or overrule a supervisor. They should uphold policies and the chain of command and should not be caught in a position where they are seen by the leadership and membership as a way to avoid discipline or duty.
  • Know when to act and when to allow venting – As those whose doors are open to department issues, CPOs will hear many negative things, but  with their interpersonal relationship experience, they need to determine when a member expects tangible action and when they’re just telling their story and are looking for it to be heard. Many CPOs can find success in this by simply asking, “If you were in my position, what would you do?”
  • Don’t be a part of discipline – For most matters, discipline is the role of the direct supervisor; CPOs should serve as an experienced voice and should guide members on their best possible actions.

Unlike the military, though, the CPO in the fire service doesn’t have to be a separate position. The chief, an experienced captain, the president or even a senior firefighter can serve in this role. The key is sustaining morale by ensuring at least one person has their finger on its pulse.


In putting this course together, we brought in some great subject-matter experts. This program will be a huge success and it will be directly related to the work of Harry Carter, John D’Alessandro, Pat Lynch, Chief Brad Pinsky, Tiger Schmittendorf and Chief Devon Wells. Their ideas and knowledge were immense, and I was glad to be as much their student as their project coordinator.


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