How fire chiefs can head off ‘stickergate’ problems

Rick Markley, Editor-in-Chief

A fire chief in Kansas finds himself the target of anger and frustration over, of all things, stickers. Sedgwick County certainly isn’t the first fire department to wrestle with a "stickergate" controversy. I’m guessing most departments have had at least one.

That helmet and apparatus decals could set off a department-wide dust up is not surprising. Firefighters have a powerful relationship to their symbols; they can be a source of strength and comfort.

For those who missed the story, the Sedgwick County chief ordered several stickers removed from department rigs. The 10-year-old stickers are a memorial to one of three firefighters who died in the line of duty. The chief reasoned that honoring only one fallen firefighter was disrespectful to the families of the other two.

You can’t fault his logic; it’s not fair to ignore the others. It’s the path he took to get there that got him in trouble.

Let’s be clear, this is not about chucking editorial grenades at the chief from the safety of the sidelines. Making decisions for an entire fire department, even the administrative ones, is difficult. And even the best human will make wrong decisions.

This issue is, however, a great opportunity to examine how we address important, but non-emergency, issues and ways to avoid turning small problems into larger ones. And it is important to examine this as issues like this one crop up often.

Again, raise your hand if you’ve not had a stickergate-like controversy in your department.

Getting in front of a problem

The Sedgwick County problem has several solutions, many were offered by those leaving comments on the original news story. My favorite is to replace the stickers with ones that honor all three fallen firefighters.

But it’s not my department.

And in a similar situation, the chief would be wise to present the problem to firefighters and set up a committee to develop a list of options to solve that problem. Those are the people most invested in memory of those firefighters that the stickers symbolize.

It also is wise to have that solution in place before taking action; in this case, ordering the old stickers removed. If the issue, be it stickers on a rig or a helmet, is not an immediate threat to firefighter safety or the ability of the department to carry out its mission, let it be until a solution is found.

Choose your analogy: maybe it’s the old saying, “let sleeping dogs lie,” or looking at modern cancer researchers' advice to leave non-aggressive prostate cancer in men untreated. In any case, there are times when the best action is a delayed action or no action at all.

And before fire service leaders can get to this point, they need to solicit outside views on administrative problems. They need a broad perspective of the issues at hand and potential ramifications.

Killing group think

We’ve all been guilty of having an idea and falling madly in love with it to the point of not seeing its glaring flaws. In these cases, it takes an outsider to point out the warts.

And before a fire chief can get to this point, they need to have created a culture where honest feedback is rewarded. President Kennedy famously found himself on the wrong side of this when group think among his advisors allowed bad decisions surrounding the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba to move forward. He corrected that problem when the Cuban missile crisis arose.

In order to succeed, a chief must know that everyone on the staff is willing to bring the best ideas forward, especially when they go against the chief’s own beloved idea.

This can only happen in a culture where openness is expected and rewarded, not punished. And it can only happen in a culture where ideas are weighed on their merit and not on the personal relationships with their originators.

The irony in Sedgwick County is that the sticker issue kicked off when they were installing fire department recruiting stickers on the rigs. The bad publicity and hit to morale is not what a department needs when trying to attract the best and brightest.

Fortunately, stickergate-like problems do not put firefighters' lives and health at risk, nor do they put the community at risk. These are solvable problems, and with the proper groundwork, many are preventable.

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