Have you forgotten? A call to chiefs to remember who they serve
Show your firefighters that you haven’t forgotten them, their sacrifices or the love of the job
By Chris DelBello
Synonyms: unremembered, out of mind, past recollection, beyond/past recall, consigned to oblivion, left behind, neglected, overlooked, ignored, disregarded, unrecognized
Let me use the word “forgotten” in a few sentences for you:
- “Firefighters are very often forgotten.”
- “Citizens’ needs are often forgotten.”
- “Some chiefs have forgotten where they came from or have forgotten why they became firefighters in the first place.”
- “It’s unfortunate and concerning how the past sacrifices of firefighters and lessons learned at the cost of firefighters’ lives are so soon forgotten.”
In my 31 years of service, I have seen the reality of these sentences all too often and, recently, with alarming regularity. It’s like an epidemic with no cure.
As firefighters climb the ranks, it seems like part of the process includes forgetting what it’s like to be a line firefighter – the challenges of the job and what it takes to get the job done.
With this in mind, I’d like to offer a reminder to the chiefs who have forgotten why they started this career and what it is that firefighters working under their command really expect.
Service to others first and foremost
Service to our community is our primary mission. Without the proper budget and equipment, your firefighters can only do the best with what they have, often at great peril to our citizens.
Don’t forget that it is your job as the fire chief to fight for the budget needed to provide this service. You are literally the only person that can do this. It is your job to sell our needs to the number-crunchers, not reduce the budget from some other division.
Sacrifice – not at the cost of firefighter safety
Sacrifice should not occur at the cost of firefighter safety because you, as the fire chief, were not willing to fight for and provide the budget needed for equipment or training. Poor equipment and inadequate training get firefighters injured and killed.
If you think that today’s initial recruit certification process in any way prepares the new recruit for reality, you are sadly mistaken and out of touch with just how low the standards have become.
If you fear injuries to your firefighters, it’s likely because you have not trained them well enough nor provided them with the very best of every piece of equipment they need to do their job.
Don’t forget that training is the No. 1 priority of a good leader. And don’t forget that it is your job to secure a budget that includes realistic and useful training.
Further, do not let your members be the only people sacrificing. Real chiefs make change. Real change. Positive change. Effective change. And they do it for the members and citizens at the sacrifice of possibly losing the rank of chief as part of the good fight.
Putting it together: “Courage to serve and sacrifice”
So many have worn those words on their chest. Let me remind you, though, that it wasn’t for or about serving politicians. It wasn’t about finding ways to cut budgets and needed programs.
As a firefighter, you signed up because you had the courage to serve in a dangerous profession. To help people in danger. To bring calm to chaos.
In your position now, courage is shown in how hard you fight for your firefighters and provide them with the necessary programs to improve the department and morale.
Your members have that courage. Let them use that courage. Allow your members to do their jobs. Do not handcuff them or stifle them with weak and watered-down guidelines in an effort to protect them. Have the courage to get them the proper training so that they are educated. Then allow them to vent that roof, make the push and make the grab.
If you do not have the courage to fight for what your members need, you are not a chief, you are a politically appointed management tool.
Love of the job
Chiefs, do you remember that feeling – the love of the job? Do you remember station life? Can you recall the feeling after a good working fire where you and a crew made a big impact on the outcome? Do you remember the camaraderie that came with working long hours with the crew – the feeling of accomplishment after a job well done?
Some tips to keep in mind:
- Don’t forget to love this job so much that your members see it and it makes them love the job.
- Don’t forget everything about this job that made you love it.
- Don’t forget that department morale is your responsibility.
Where chiefs fail their members too many times
Too many times, I see that chiefs have forgotten that it’s not the chief who makes a department extraordinary. They forget that it’s the members who make the department what it is. The members are the ones who, too often, are pushing through bad management decisions, budget cuts, limited resources and continually failing equipment. They are the ones pushing to make the grabs, pushing themselves to be better, training on their own time and dime, purchasing superior personal equipment with their paychecks, only to have a chief send out a memorandum stating policy against such action. Really, chief, what’s the alternative?
Too many times, I see chiefs concerned only about padding their resume, another feather in their hat or medal on their chest. If it wasn’t impacting so many lives, it would be comical. Don’t get me wrong, a good resume is important, but not at the expense of firefighters and citizens’ safety.
Too many times, I see unnecessary programs initiated often at the expense of truly needed and appropriate programs within that same department.
Too many times, I see antiquated programs remain active long after they’ve failed or outlived their usefulness, even when this glaringly obvious point is reinforced with statistics and studies. Too many chiefs hate to say they were wrong. Please be humble enough to recognize and admit when you are wrong – and that sometimes means shutting down a bad program that you implemented. The senior members of your department will respect you a little more, if it’s not too late.
The problem with politically appointed chiefs
A politically appointed chief is the one who can unwittingly destroy everything good about your department. He is the one who comes into office, never makes any real improvements for the members. She is the one who denies that there are problems or sugarcoats them to the public, or worse, puts the responsibility on the backs of the members. He’s the one who does not put up much of a fight about the budget cuts. She’s the one who does not have the courage to stand up for her members. He’s the one who does not have a single original idea to bring to the department or, worse yet, tries to initiate a program that worked for his last department in your much-different department. And the worst thing of all, he takes the job knowing that there was no budget to work with in the first place or that the budget was getting cut.
Now, if I was offered a job, I would need to know what is expected of me. What is my operational budget? What is my payroll budget? What is my training budget? What is my equipment budget? What are my capital expenditures? And, of course, I would insist on and want to improve on every one of those budgets before agreeing to take such an important position.
You would think every chief taking a job would care about those things before accepting the position. That’s just not the case. Too many times, I see chiefs taking these jobs, and they are nothing more than an inexperienced politically appointed puppet for some mayor or city manager. They speak when only spoken to and say only what they’ve been told to say – and are usually way in over their heads.
This is becoming the accepted norm for chiefs! Why work so hard during your career to get a job that will be so unrewarding or even damage your future reputation?
To the aspiring chiefs …
If you aspire to be a fire chief, please take this advice:
- NEVER FORGET the ones who sacrifice!
- NEVER FORGET where you came from!
- NEVER FORGET the chiefs who you lost respect for, and at all costs, avoid being THAT CHIEF!
If you cannot take this advice, on behalf of all of the members and all of the departments that you could potentially set back years of progress, with as much respect as I can muster, I implore you to not accept a fire chief position. Stay at your current rank and do the best you can there. But don’t promote and infect the next generation of firefighters and destroy their morale, aspirations and vision of the fire service.
To the current chiefs …
If any of this feels like I’m talking to you, you may still have a chance to turn it around and earn some respect back. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take courage on your part. It may even take some sacrifice as well. The important thing is that you are showing the firefighters that you haven’t forgotten them, their sacrifices or the love of the job.
About the author
Chris DelBello is a 31-year veteran of the fire service. He currently holds the rank of senior captain with the Houston Fire Department, working in the Midtown District. He is also the district training officer, which encompasses all the stations in downtown and midtown. He holds a Training Officer II certification.