4 ways for fire chiefs to not get steamrolled by details

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By Dennis Rubin

The top official of any agency is the responsibility party for everything that happens in the organization. During World War II President Harry S. Truman put it best: “The buck stops here.”

Truman was taking responsibility for the escalation of the war effort and placing the lives of many of America’s military members in harms way. The president took personal accountability for the decisions that were being made on the battlefield based on his position and authority to engage our nation in combat against a foreign enemy — that’s true leadership.

Make no mistake, the senior official of any organization must take the same approach and be held accountable for the actions (sometimes inactions) of the troops. If the big boss is going to be held accountable for everything occurring within their department, she must pay attention all of the time to all of the details.

That’s a huge responsibility for a fire chief and it is not fair. However, the community expects the top firefighter will lead and the rest of the outfit will follow.

13 Career Crushers

  • Revenge
  • Discrimination, harassment and hazing
  • Inattention to details of the organization
  • Troubled personal life
  • Actions not in align with departmental goals and values
  • Declining health
  • Ignoring technology
  • Illegal activity
  • Irreconcilable differences with the boss
  • Lying
  • Political suicide
  • Political ambition
  • Incompetence

How in the world can the person in charge make sure that just about everything goes right? That is the $64,000 question and it requires paying attention all of the time.

Two steps

First, hire or allow only the best candidates to become members of the organization. Over the years, I have harped on never lowering hiring or membership selection standards.

If you hire or allow folks who are not capable to do the job for a wide range of reasons (idiots, thugs and military misfits as a few examples), expect poor organizational performance and trouble to head the boss’ way.

Next, spend the time necessary to develop clear, well-written and properly researched policies. Your career will depend on having effective, efficient and up-to-date policies that are memorialized in writing for all to see, understand and ultimately follow.

With the rapid pace of change, there should be a standing committee, co-chaired by a ranking member and a respected labor representative, who reviews and updates the department’s standard operating procedures and guidelines.

Having up-to-date policies takes a lot of organizational discipline and work effort. However, policy development and maintenance is a required part of overseeing the effective management of any public safety agency.

Train on policy

Policy development and maintenance is mission critical, therefore initial and on-going training on all SOPs /SOGs is required. When a new member is accepted into the organization (career or volunteer), the recruit training process must include an effective measure of policy-related training.

In general terms, most departments effectively provide this type of initial policy training. Many agencies fall down on conducting on-going (perpetual) policy refresher training.

In fact, some outfits only review the SOP manual after a disastrous incident such as personnel issue or response failure occurs. The message is that policies are only used to punish the firefighters.

This is the wrong signal to send out to the frontline forces. The focus must be on doing the job at hand (or personal behavior) right the first time and every time.

Good oversight

If the boss is to be successful at paying attention, there has to be good, high-quality supervision and plenty of it for everyone. One of the policies should be the use of “self-discipline as the very best discipline.”

The hope is that everyone knows his or her job, does that job and behaves professionally both on and off duty. Human nature dictates that sometimes we all need a little external guidance to stay on task or demonstrate good behavior.

This is when sound, comprehensive supervision pays huge dividends to the department. Having the right measure of supervision at the correct place and time will avoid the “what were they thinking when they did that” question.

The last suggestion is to get out of your office. See and be seen in as many places in your organization as possible.

Be seen

The experts call this management by walking around. The notion is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Sometimes supervisors and managers only tell you what you want to hear by filtering the message that reaches the chief.

It is good to remove all of those barriers on a regular bases. Experience had shown that when a high-ranking member shows up, good things happen more often — like following all policies closely.

Be prepared to be described as a micro manager by some. Ironically, this criticism will most likely come from the individuals who need the very closest supervision as it is more of a smoke screen than constructive criticism.

Once it is established that the ranking members are taking an interest in the workers and the work, those types comment most likely will be short lived. I am certain that there thousands of cases where the senior officers would have paid a dear price to be present before an embarrassing or dangerous action occurred during their watch.

One of the best approaches to outstanding leadership is to simply pay attention to all of the details — big and small.

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