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Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic: Prioritizing Leadership

Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic: Prioritizing Leadership

Michael West, Fired Up Training Services, LLC

There is a virus infesting some fire departments in our Nation. It is not a computer virus but a leadership virus and one which threatens the future of many of these fine organizations. Think of our fire departments as ships moving through the treacherous seas of change. Change that is often imposed from the outside but also change that is driven from within as we gather new crew members with new ideas, technology, and new standards. Our goal in the fire service should always be improvement. The same old way just because is not good enough. Reach, push, train, improve, revise, invent. These are what your members are looking for from their leaders.

With change there is a chance that we can be set adrift by a lack of rudder. This is a dangerous situation. Without direction the winds of change push us in every possible direction. It takes a strong leader to set a course and move in that path. A great leader doesn’t just continue on the exact same path at all times. I read a statistic once that said a pilot on his way from Los Angeles to Honolulu on average is off the straight line course roughly 80% of the time. Why? The straight line is not always the smoothest or best line. Avoiding rough seas or storms may be best. Sometimes we must push right into the eye of the storm. A good leader decides based on circumstance and specifics. Not ego or indecision.

While having no rudder is a major issue the worst case is when the department has started taking on water. Like the Titanic perhaps the department has hit an iceberg. A major catastrophe or a long term lack of leadership leave the boat facing a watery grave. Budget cuts, layoffs, or scandals could be examples of these types of issues. Perhaps it is a series of small events that by them selves are nothing of concern but over time a lack of leadership allows them to grow and take down the ship. It is in times like this that the leadership of the department must step up. Are you the leader of such a ship? Are you strategically solving the hole in the side or are you rearranging the deck chairs as the string quartet plays and the vessel slowly sinks?

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How do you lead such an organization? Well first prioritize your needs and leadership initiatives. This system is vital whether you are the Chief, a captain, or an engine chauffer. The acronym STUF is a tool that our friend the late Gene Lopez developed to help fire officer prioritize their in basket.

Start with the SAFETY stuff. If the ship is going down we need to organize the rescue effort with the big ticket items. Call for help; get life jackets out, man the life boats. Think big ticket items. For the fire service it comes down to 3 big items in my opinion. MEMBERS, MACHINES, MATERIAL.

For the members of the department there are some major safety concerns. First and most important, are there enough of them? It is the members on the streets that must be the priority in bad times (they must be the priority in good times also). Before the fire prevention folks get in a tizzy let me tell you that I am fully aware that the best way to save lives is to prevent fires. Duh. It’s vital to recall, though, that people will continue to call 911 to spite our best prevention and education efforts. Before starting or adding people to a new added value service we must fully staff the engine and ladder companies who will respond to the inevitable woops that the public will create for us to handle. For volunteer outfits we must have an active recruiting plan. Think outside the box. If the public isn’t interested in helping fill the roles, can we work with our neighbors to increase automatic aid or shared services? Can we tap into retired firefighters living in the district to fill the non combat roles needed at an incident?

Bodies are not enough though, we need well trained bodies. It is interesting to me that in tough times many departments make the first cuts in training. Training is a safety item and one that should be increased in tough times. I heard an excellent speaker last year who was a decorated military veteran who found himself in the middle of the real events that the movie Blackhawk Down was based on. One of the things that he mentioned was the daily drills over and over that their team went through before and after the mission. In the middle of extreme conflict there was training. It keeps us focused on the mission and prepares us for the worst cases.

For machines and material, do we have working apparatus and good safety equipment? Are the nozzles, hoselines, and ladders all fully tested and maintained. If it doesn’t keep the brothers safe or help us take care of the mission then don’t worry about it. I’m amazed how many departments are focused on the color of their uniforms or the design of a new patch in times of turmoil. These small items are deck chairs. If you are worried about what color the new carpet in HQ is you are missing the big leak in the hull.

TIME SENSITIVE ITEMS must be handled after safety. There are things that can’t get dropped in times of crisis and for that matter anytime. Deadlines must be met especially when government mandates are at stake. What pressing deadlines are looming in the near future? Once safety is handled move on to these so they will not pass. Think about how many departments fail to receive money from the grant process simply because they take no time to fill out the form. As the old lottery ad said, you have to be in it to win it.

URGENT FROM ABOVE. Hopefully we are all on the same page when it comes to tough times. Regardless we all have bosses to answer to. The city manager, the town council, and the fire chief must all understand the issues and the possible solutions. Elected officials should trust the chief to solve the problems and give him the support to get it done. How many elected buffs are trying to play chief or fire department consultant in hard times? Too many. If the Chief isn’t doing their job fix the chief. The Chief must recognize, though, that when push comes to shove the orders from above need to be handled.

FUTURISTIC CONCERNS- Once this emergency is over we need to be able to set the path for the future. What have you gone without that needs to be implemented? What have you learned to do without and found that there are better ways to do the job? The old adage, necessity is the mother of invention” still applies. Start working on a strategic version once the items above are taken care of and figure out how you will best move ahead in the months and years to come.

A couple of hints

You need to take charge and know your part. It is not by micromanaging the members bailing water with buckets or turning wrenches to repair the bilge pump. You have qualified and motivated people working for you. It is the nature of the folks attracted to this work to fix stuff. They just need direction and the resources to do it and not you micromanaging who and how they mop the deck.

Consultants are rarely the answer to solve these issues. Our definition of the average fire service consultant is the person who borrows your watch in order to tell you what time it is. We believe that most fire departments have the knowledge to solve their own issues in their midst. When faced with a new problem outside experts may be needed but it is the exception rather than the rule. Many weak leaders use these outside firms to justify unpopular decisions. It’s concerning that the profession known as the bravest is sometimes led by such cowards.

A commentary that we’d like to make is that followers must be willing to step up and FOLLOW when times are tough. It seems like at the first sign of icebergs, many members want to start organizational opinion surveys to “throw the bums out” of the chiefs ranks. Putting new leaders in charge might be needed in tough times but start with a work together attitude first. Chances are, working together will fix the problems. Surveys to get things off your chest are generally a mob mentality that only leaves everyone pissed and leaders holed up until the riot has passed by. Very few leadership moves are made when a department is going through such an evaluation, lest someone gets mad and puts it in the questionnaire.

The bottom line is, when in troubled times, lead. When times are good, lead. When you are unsure, lead. Either way you can’t go wrong.

Michael West has been a member of the fire service since 1982. He is a 4th generation firefighter who has instructed internationally at fire departments and conferences. Mike is a Captain with South Metro (CO) Fire Rescue. He has a Master’s Degree in Strategic Communication and Leadership from Seton Hall University, a Bachelor’s degree in Management from the University of Colorado, and an Associate’s Degree in Fire Science. Mike has written dozens of articles for fire service publications and websites and has contributed to several books as an author and technical advisor, Mike was awarded the 2006 Colorado Fire Trainer of the Year Award. He is an officer of Fired Up Training Services, LLC a fire training and consulting company and can be reached at .