The power of the white shirt: Our members depend on our leadership

Reflecting on lessons learned from my time as a battalion chief


By Chief Kathy Clay

This month, I celebrated my tenth year wearing a white shirt as Battalion Chief Fire Marshal for Jackson Hole Fire/EMS. I came into the job clueless as I look back now. Someone above me trusted that I could figure out all the things I needed to know and that I would be compelled to keep those underneath me safe from the many risks we would all face together over the years.

That first day, proud and shiny, decked out in my white, cleanly pressed chief's shirt, I finished up a quick breakfast and grabbed the spent coffee grounds from the coffee pot. As I pulled the grounds out of the pot and banged them against the compost container, a few grounds splattered onto my shirt. I looked down, horrified, and realized at that moment why chiefs are given a white shirt.

"Someone above me trusted that I could figure out all the things I needed to know and that I would be compelled to keep those underneath me safe from the many risks we would all face together over the years," writes Clay. (Photo/IAFC)

Quickly, the coffee grounds were wiped away, leaving no significant stains. This is why they gave us a white shirt, I thought. Now we are responsible for so many; we must be extremely careful. This white shirt is our reminder.  

Each day, every day.   

To date, as an incident commander on many scenes, I have had only one injury from countless incidents. A firefighter twisted a knee. The injury happened during my career event; a semi-tank trailer of LPG downloading into an underground tank broke a hose, and the gas, covering a great expanse of property, found an ignition source, and we had a fire. From the time of dispatch to our department flowing water, there were 24 long minutes of direct fire impingement against that LPG trailer. Everyone coming to the scene expected injuries and fatalities. 

My first assignment was setting up a medical group. I have a life-long mantra, "It's not a bad thing to have good luck." Everyone walked away from the event unharmed, excluding one twisted knee.

I was also reminded that day about the importance of always knowing who your boss is. As the first arriving engine approached the scene, firefighters on the ground waved the unit to a hydrant. Eric, the driver that day, a sage and experienced firefighter, remembered where he had been ordered to arrive; it was not that hydrant. He remembered who his boss was. The fact that he followed his boss' orders saved minutes and may very well have prevented a BLEVE. Never forget who your boss is for whatever you are doing.

Today, I look forward to retirement not so far from now. I have earned it, and I am proud of my career. When the day comes that I wear my white shirt for its last go-round, I will finish the most challenging, amazing, rewarding, stressful, and incredible career I could ever imagine. There is no better career than that of serving in the fire service. For all of you who trusted I would figure it out, thank you. Thank you for this fantastic opportunity.
 

About the author

Chief Kathy Clay is the battalion chief fire marshal of Jackson Hole (Wyoming) Fire/EMS. She holds an IAFC and Missouri Valley Division membership and sits on the Wyoming Governor’s Council on Fire Prevention. Chief Clay represents the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) on the Vision 20/20 Steering Committee as a former IAWF Executive Board Member, is a member of the IAFC Fire & Life Safety Section, UL FSRI Public Safety Education Advisory Group, and is the fire investigator for Teton County (Wyoming) and a member of the International Association of Arson Investigators. She plans a May 2022 retirement.

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