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The One Thing!

My Journey and My Most Important Advice

I have had the opportunity to spend over 40 years of my life connected with fire and emergency services, starting as a volunteer firefighter, moving into the career side, promoting up through the ranks to become Fire Chief. 

I have been fortunate to serve in five different organizations as Chief of Department spanning 27 years, leading small and large municipal organizations and a fire district. During that span, I have had the opportunity to lead two organizations to become Internationally Accredited and created several strategic plans for the agencies I worked for, which oversee the building of new stations, purchasing of equipment, and hiring staff. I was also blessed to have had opportunities to participate in various activities at the national level with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the Center for Public Safety Excellence, due to those that have mentored me throughout my career and provided opportunities to participate. When Chief Metro asked what advice you would offer the new Fire Chief from your own experience, they sent me on a several-day journey of self-reflection on all the lessons that I had learned from the successes and failures that I have experienced. 

You may remember the 1991 movie City Slickers, the Jack Palance character, Curly, gives a secret to Mitch (Billy Crystal). Holding up his index finger, Curly explains that you need to figure out your one thing and stick to it. Of course, the secret is both to have "one thing" and also know how to determine what it should be. If I were going to share one piece of advice for a Fire Chief, that one thing for me would be the need to focus on your organization's culture. 

As a Fire Chief, you can have the best strategic planning effort, be well funded, have substantial community support, and if the culture of the organization is built upon resisting change. An Us versus Them mentality is unstructured and not focused on the organization's entire mission; then, the department will never attain the level of success that it should. Organizational culture can impact every aspect of a department from the way you negotiate contracts, the hiring process, who ultimately gets hired, the interactions that occur daily within the organization, the political dynamic with the elected official and city hall, and the performance of the department.  

As a case in point, I recently visited a firehouse while traveling out of state. I had made prior arrangements to stop by, as I knew many firefighters in the department. I was immediately struck by the lack of professional dress and the lackadaisical attitude of the crews. Their equipment was spread out on the ramp for my mid-afternoon visit. Every crew member was attired differently, from uniforms to T-shirts, from day pants to sweatpants, to ball caps turned backward. One crew member even had slippers on! What does this picture tell you? A lot! A walk through the station was equally impressive. The entire facility looked like a college dorm. So, were these crews ready to respond and perform at their highest levels? I think not. But the visit was reflective not just of what was occurring in this station but throughout the department.  

As a Fire Chief, you may hire hundreds of new firefighters throughout your career. At the same time, we select people with the appropriate skills that reflect a positive attitude, high expectations for themselves, and a strong work ethic. Unfortunately, we often find within a year or two, the negative patterning, role modeling, and conditioned behavior found in the firehouse in organizations with a caustic culture, that those same positive, eager employees turn into disgruntled want to do the minimum just to get by, performers. While we can blame the result on the station house, the real blame starts with us as Fire Chief. I went back and looked at all of the strategic plans that I have had developed and taken to the governing body for approval, all had well-defined organizational value statements, well-structured plans on equipment and station renewal, new facilities, staffing plans, but one element was missing. There was no focus on creating the type of organizational culture the embraces change, can adapt quickly, promotes inclusiveness in the workforce, outlines how the organization will enculturate their core values into the daily operation of the organization, and most importantly, what is expected of each and every employee from the chief to the newest recruit in respect to living up to those values.  

Your culture is the DNA that sets the boundaries, guidelines, and expectation for everyone in the organization and establishes the foundation from which you can engage, motivate, and establish those shared beliefs and values that will ultimately create a healthier work environment and improve the performance of the employees and the organization. We are in a time where organizational culture is vital to our organizations' future success and the sustainability and viability of our departments into the future.  

The 21st Century will be when dramatic shifts will occur that will disrupt organizations in ways never experienced before. The Coronavirus Pandemic has already begun to realign business operations, the educational instructional process, local government, and has impacted almost every aspect of how we live, work, and recreate. While some of these changes may be short term, many will have longer-term impacts and will force changes as yet unforeseen.  

The future impacts of developing technologies, data utilization, and a rapidly changing make-up of the workforce will further compound the effects on organizations as we know them today. Highlighting an even greater need for leadership to understand that to build high performing teams in the future, those that can maintain organizational viability and sustainability over time requires a focus on building a culture that can do that. It will not happen on its own and should receive as much attention as the departments' other strategic elements. Understanding organizational strategy and culture are intertwined. One can lay out a detailed plan(s) for a strategy and execution, but if they don't understand the power and dynamics that culture can have, those plans often get derailed. As someone once said, culture eats strategy for breakfast, and organizations must develop an organizational culture whose DNA is adept and acceptable to rapid changes, adaptable and open to trying new approaches and is an inclusive workplace if we don't know our viability and sustainability in the future will be very difficult.  


Chief Randy R. Bruegman (Anaheim Fire & Rescue, Ret.) served as fire chief for over 25 years. He is a writer and lecturer and past IAFC President and Chairman of the Board (2002-2003).


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