Human Relations: Managing within the context of a fire organization
• September 2018 • Chief Robert Benoit – 2nd Vice President, IAFC-SW Division – Fire Chief Lafayette Fire Department
The basic principles for managing one’s personal and family life, a private corporation (small or large) and both for-profit and nonprofit businesses are similar to those needed to manage a fire department. These management processes provide an orderly structure to achieving goals and objectives through delegated authority under competent leadership.
Within the context of a fire organization, effective management is a learned behavior that demands continuous training, requires team spirit and provides a strong disciplinary influence.
The NFPA Fire Protection Handbook, Section 10, Chapter 1, states
Almost all fire departments were administered by clearly defined organizational structures long before system techniques were applied to industry and business. A system of task allocation to engine and ladder crews was developed whereby each person on the apparatus performed certain functions in sequence so the team operated as a coordinated unit, without duplication of effort.
Most fire departments are structured around this traditional model, and with it, leaders have a firm foundation to build on; continuous training, team spirit and influence are some of their construction tools.
On June 15, my department held its 101st recruit academy graduation, with 17 graduates who started their training in January. The academies are six months long, with the objective of making sure each recruit has the foundation needed to perform in an effective manner during the working test period, which totals 18 months of probationary status. At the end of the working test period, they’re confirmed as permanent firefighters.
This is where the real training begins, and it will continue throughout their careers.
Effective leaders in the fire service are no different than those they manage. Management principles must start at the top and flow downward through the chain of command. Lower-level officers often find it difficult to practice leadership styles different from their superiors if we are not practicing what we preach.
Common sense is not without its merits. However, it’s just one tool mangers use, along with consistent education and training, to help members understand that decisions made at the member level may resolve an issue temporarily but that some decisions need to be made from a wider perspective, such as seen by the department leadership, to have lasting effects.
If you are going to wear the jersey, become a team player. A spirit of cooperation is a powerful tool, meaning sometimes you will have to change your focus and direction for the betterment of the organization. Staff meetings are critical, can be very efficient and should be inclusive. All aspects of the department, both supervisors and members, should be able to sit at the table and present ideas to management on a regular basis.
The fire and emergency service is a very complex field that is constantly evolving, often very rapidly. Individual skills can make or break an organization and can best be managed when the leaders feel the pulse, which can only happen in a huddle (that is, staff meetings).
When employees are given the opportunity to provide input, self-ownership takes over and the stronger players have a way of getting the weaker players to buy into their goals and objectives. As a manager and part of the team, you have the authority to make things happen. Never let power keep you on the sidelines.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines influence as
“Power exerted over others. To affect, modify or act upon by physical, mental or moral power, especially in some gentle, subtle and gradual way.”
A lot can be said about influence depending on who is in charge. I like the phrase “gentle, subtle and gradual way” because it takes the sting out of having to use force to achieve goals and objectives in running an efficient fire service organization. The truism “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar” goes a long way in making people feel appreciated.
Managers are held to a higher standard and are always being watched, filmed, recorded and scrutinized. Managers can get in trouble for off-duty actions, sometimes forgetting we’re always on the radar. Fire service leaders who excel do so because they’re on top of their games. More often than not, we forget that we’re human; it’s not the big things hurting us, but the illegal, unethical or immoral acts that destroy us because we don’t think things through.
Education = Knowledge = Success = Power
As an administrator, you have the authority to manage the performance within your organization. It takes a long time to build character and excel to the level of leadership in the fire service. It only takes a split second to crash and burn. As a leader, you owe it to yourself, your family and the entire fire service to finish strong, making a colossal impact on the organization you represent.
Chief Benoit is a member of the IAFC Human Relations Committee and currently sits on the executive board of the IAFC-Southwestern Division