Chiefs of staff: Assisting chiefs from Tulsa to DC
Two fire departments’ experiences incorporating the multi-faceted “air traffic controller” position into the ranks
By Michael Baker and Amy C. Mauro, Esq.
A new fire chief takes office and finds that his apparatus fleet is surviving on 20-year-old fire engines. Another outsider chief recruited to reform EMS in a high-profile jurisdiction arrives to find a city where EMS call volume has increased by nearly 40% in the last eight years, but his department’s response resources have remained stagnant during the same period, leading to a daily ambulance shortage.
These scenarios probably sound familiar to many fire and EMS leaders, but they really should not be as common as they are.
It would be easy to chalk this up to the long-standing reality that many departments are underfunded due to a lack of political attention or understanding of their complex (and expensive) needs. But this reality deserves attention and solutions.
Defining the chief of staff role
CEOs and leaders in both the private and public sector commonly employ chiefs of staff (CoS), but in the fire service, they are rare. Where they do exist, they are usually uniformed executive officers who do not have significant administrative management experience in large organizations. But this simple personnel decision – hiring a well-qualified and experienced CoS – can provide a fire chief with the focus and strategic support needed to drive change and improve performance and stability for the organization.
In the Harvard Business Review article “The Case for a Chief of Staff,” the author quotes a healthcare executive who describes the chief of staff role as:
Serving as an air traffic controller for the leader and the senior team; as an integrator connecting work streams that would otherwise remain siloed; as a communicator linking the leadership team and the broader organization; as an honest broker and truth teller when the leader needs a wide-ranging view without turf considerations; and as a confidant without an organizational agenda ... while a CEO’s other direct reports typically emphasize their own areas, a good CoS can consider the needs of the whole enterprise.”
This description is consistent with our view of the CoS position and its benefit to our respective organizations, even from our different vantage points – one the fire chief and the other a CoS. With this as our backdrop, let us each share our insights on this invaluable position.
The fire chief’s perspective: Michael Baker
Tulsa: A department in transition
I was appointed fire chief for the City of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June 2020. Beyond the expanding COVID-19 pandemic, I was faced with a department not only in transition, but also in crisis. The Oklahoma firefighters’ pension fund experienced a historic year of profit, which resulted in the retirement of 60 firefighters in a department of 725. Further, the department was facing an ongoing crisis with its fleet. Recovering from a 10-year pause on apparatus purchases was a monumental task facing the department. In short, my transition was overwhelmed not only with complexity but also daily tasks that were limiting the ability to implement strategy.
As a new chief, I was fortunate to be aided in duties by an administrative chief who assisted with labor relations, discipline and the general business of the fire department. Upon assessment of the position, however, it became clear that the TFD administrative chief position lacked stability and was, quite simply, an undesirable landing spot for department members. It was unfortunate, as the position possessed a great deal of potential toward becoming a true asset for a fire chief, especially one, like me, attempting to handle crisis, transition command, and set a vision for the future.
So, I set out to learn more about the options for enhancing and maximizing the position, and ultimately found guidance from the military. It was Chris Fussell’s book “One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams” that provided the vision for the Tulsa Fire Department chief of staff position. Fussell, who served as chief of staff to U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, shared how a chief of staff can not only ensure that the principal leader’s strategy is on target, but also ensure that there is someone focused on alignment among all organizational sections.
We ultimately made “One Mission” required reading for department staff officers planning their promotional path. However, simply setting a reading mandate does not pacify the perceived threat to promoted authority that comes with the unknown appointment. Change is difficult and change can be monumental in the fire service. Moving from an Administrative Chief to a Chief of Staff was not only a change in title, but also a change in the overall senior leadership team that required clear understanding to ensure success.
For the Tulsa Fire Department, the newly selected CoS completed the McChrystal Group’s Chief of Staff Academy for the fundamental training associated with the position. Additionally, the department’s senior command staff completed required training in the form of a facilitated discussion with the McChrystal Group team that centered on the adoption of the CoS into the team and how the position will aid the fire chief in achieving a vision for the department’s future.
Immediately, the TFD’s Chief of Staff found themselves working closely with the fire chief to ensure that task assignments were on target, major projects kept moving at a manageable pace, and that the overall strategic goals were communicated and reinforced. Labor relations is a key element of the CoS for the TFD as they are a member of the negotiations team and address grievance or other time-based actions. These tasks may appear to be common to any staff position. The difference offered by appointing a chief of staff is the practice of ensuring execution, aligning practices, and maintain the movement of information across the entirety of the department.
Let’s now consider the experience of a more established chief of staff in action.
The chief of staff perspective: Amy Mauro
DC Fire and EMS: A political balancing act in action
Washington, D.C., is a political town, not only nationally, but locally. As is the case in the federal government, politically appointed chiefs of staffs in D.C. local government agencies are an essential part of how mayors drive their agendas through the bureaucracy.
But in the DC Fire and EMS Department in 2015, the concept of a civilian chief of staff with a level of authority equal to an assistant fire chief – essentially an administrative second in command – was not a routine concept.
For newly appointed Chief Gregory M. Dean, a chief of staff would bring two strategic advantages to the department: the ability to keep the leadership team on track with his reform-minded agenda, and skill at translating the department’s budget and political needs to the city’s elected officials and residents.
Chief Dean came to the District as an outsider after retiring from 40 years of service with the Seattle Fire Department. He brought no personnel with him and spent months listening and learning the department before making any major changes.
I was familiar with the department’s history, but from an outside perspective, as I had worked on public safety policy issues in the DC Council and in the City Administrator’s office. I had helped Mayor Muriel Bowser recruit Dean to the District, and she and Dean shared the same vision for the direction of the department.
As chief of staff, I had no agenda other than Dean’s agenda. I did not have a department pension to protect and nowhere else to be promoted within the agency. And as a life-long District native with almost 20 years in District government, I knew what the mayor and District residents expected and needed from their fire and EMS department.
These characteristics allowed me to be a trusted confidante, sounding board and strategic thought partner to Chief Dean. With our shared commitment to the big picture, plus the organizational skills and attention to detail that I brought to the table, I helped conform Dean’s daily agenda, meetings and communications to his overall goals. I learned Dean’s style and approach and discussed everything with him before taking on most tasks.
During my first days on the job, Dean issued a special order informing the department that I would occupy the civilian rank equivalent to an assistant chief. He was intentional about including me in operational conversations, despite my lack of firefighting or EMS experience. Doing so allowed me to understand the full scope of the department’s operations and related needs, to provide community and civilian perspectives to the issues under discussion, and to help unify all the department’s resources behind Dean’s objectives.
This combination of factors communicated to the department and its leadership team that I spoke for Chief Dean, giving me the authority and wherewithal that a civilian woman may not otherwise have in a paramilitary, male-dominated organization.
Following Dean’s direction, I used this authority to “listen, think, connect dots, and drive actions.” In other words, I planned, managed and followed up on regular retreats and strategy sessions among the department’s leadership team, while also keeping communication flowing between team members and throughout the department. While Dean fulfilled his time-consuming responsibilities of being the public face and internal operational leader of the department, I followed up on the detailed expectations he had of his bureau and division chiefs, formalizing them into the department’s annual performance plan, as well as department policies, all of which came through my office before publication.
I also soon became a confidante of others throughout the organization who may not have been as candid with their uniformed chain of command. I, in turn, brought these perspectives to Dean, who was able to use them to inform his decision-making. Without having the hesitancy to challenge command that often comes with wearing a uniform, I could have the tough conversations with Dean that were necessary to change the department’s culture.
I used the same skills to support Dean’s external relationships with the community and the political establishment. Dean arrived in the District after decades of negative media stories and litigation surrounding the department’s EMS services. Political winds had not always been favorable to the department’s trajectory, and Dean would have to manage them to be a successful chief.
I helped Dean navigate the political labyrinth in the District, both at city hall and within the bureaucracy. He was a natural leader able to gain the trust of all of those whom he met. Once introductions were made, I acted as a resource and communicator with those stakeholders, being responsive and transparent so Dean could preserve the trust he built while also spending his time managing the department.
Politics thrives on relationships, but policy and budget results depend on strong advocacy and communication. The fire service can be viewed as insular and too rooted in tradition by civilian government leaders. I helped the department paint a picture of how historic budget disinvestment was leading to bad outcomes for DC EMS patients. Dean was able to get the support of the mayor and the full Council for the department’s 2016 contract with American Medical Response (AMR) for BLS ambulance transports – a dramatic change in the District’s EMS system and the largest financial investment in the department in recent memory.
Dean’s ability to stay focused on the big picture while using data to win policymakers’ support led to immediate improvements in the department’s operations. These attributes also laid the groundwork for innovations that have followed. This would not have been possible without a strong, unified leadership team providing the follow through needed to achieve the results that the District has seen since then, including after Dean’s retirement in 2020.
What’s next for executive leadership?
The fire service must ensure a strong organizational strategy to remain effective amid the complexity inherent in public safety. Leaders must have the capacity to ensure strategic alignment, communicate consistently, and create space to think about what’s next.
These examples provide a proven option and path to success by focusing on building strong leadership teams with the capacity to effectively tell the story of the work of our employees, the impact they have saving lives every day, and the resources they need to effectively do their jobs. A strong chief of staff can help a strong fire chief bind together all the elements needed for success for today and tomorrow.
About the Authors
Michael Baker is the fire chief for the City of Tulsa, Oklahoma, leading a department of 725 members and 30 fire station locations. A 26-year veteran of the Tulsa Fire Department, Chief Baker held previous roles as chief of EMS, public information officer and fire captain. Baker holds a master’s degree in security studies (homeland security) from the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security, and a bachelor’s degree in university studies (political science, sociology and emergency management) from Oklahoma State University. Chief Baker was selected as a 2016 EMS 10 award recipient for EMS Innovation by the Journal of Emergency Medical Services.
Amy C. Mauro, Esq., is an attorney and transformative leader who has worked on critical policy issues and strategic organizational change for over two decades in Washington, D.C., and federal agencies and in the three branches of government. She is a results-oriented manager and problem-solver known for her depth of knowledge on policy, legal, operations and budget issues. She has executive public safety and criminal justice experience from her time as general counsel at the Office of Risk Management, and her years in the Office of the City Administrator, U.S. Attorney’s Office and D.C. Council. In 2015, she was appointed as chief of staff for DC Fire and EMS. Since, then Mauro has worked with two fire chiefs and their leadership teams to drive strategic budget investment, cultural and organizational change, and fire and EMS service improvements. Mauro also supervises the media and community relations, labor, general counsel, budget, data analysis and EEO offices.