As not to sound as averse as the title; no one is truly stuck in the middle as a fire officer. Many of us whom have promoted in a formal process made an independent decision to move up the chain based on a number of indexes including salary, leadership strengths, career challenge, and technical merit. However, this article is meant to represent so many of us nationwide who are labeled as “middle management” in the fire service and sometimes feel our voices are not represented. So many articles are dedicated to motivating the firefighter for better service or how to be the best company officer and department fire chief. In the center, is this odd group where there seems to be little opinion and conversation. With that said I fully admit to not functioning in the management fire chief’s role yet in my career with the future looking bright, however in conversation with many battalion chiefs, acting battalion chiefs, assistant chiefs, and captains who can function in the middle I have ascertained that some friction is created for us from superiors who perhaps have not defined or understand the importance of our position in the organization. This document is meant to share that you are not alone in the “middle” and maybe a few chiefs may begin to ask organizational questions if we are tasking our staff relative to their position and ability.
Also to eliminate some length of content we will not get into the discussion of fire ground duties for battalion chiefs, acting battalion chiefs, or assistant chiefs as it is very clear that you may lead or retain command of an incident or perhaps be relegated to other duties such as safety, or perhaps a divisional assignment. We can cover some of this ground another day.
First the definition of middle management in several cited documents appears to be a subordinate of executive management who is responsible for a minimum of two tiers of junior staff below them. Further, we are held to technical, strategic, and human resource related domain areas in alliance with top management planning. Alarmingly, in reading several articles from business journals it is stated time and time again that middle management is first to be downsized due to cost and opinion that we are an unnecessary layer of leadership and communication that can be eliminated to “flatten” the organizational design slightly for speed and efficiency. Keep in mind this is private industry and although has some similarities to public service we are not “profit” oriented and therefor might be a different animal.
As a primer for those considering on moving into middle management please keep in mind that you have two internal groups to coordinate and one exterior stakeholder to consider. Internally you have the shift below with needs and the executive chiefs above with expectations. And like any tier of the organization we have the citizen stakeholder who in my opinion is my most important index of satisfaction to whether I have met my obligations.
Let’s begin to outline a number of the issues and areas of job stress for the chosen fire officers in the middle. Again this is a compiled list from many sources and has no department or municipal label involved. This can be Any town Fire Department and neither volunteer or career leadership issues:
1.) Strategic planning/vision/direction: It has been proven time and time again with many research documents available that employees in middle management that have clear goals and timelines are far more productive towards the cause than randomly comprehending where the organization might be going. Your middle tier should be able to be the spokesman for positive changes and direction that is occurring at the upper level and be the trumpet for the positives to come. There must be a consistent message from the leadership staff. The goal should be to include and build a “management team” with strong communication and cooperation to guide the fire department through what are certainly challenging times to say the least. Without this portion your middle managers are playing “ground hog day” with their careers. If you can understand the metaphor from the movie than enough said. Sell us the vision because we want to see the horizon.
2.) Policy, directive, and procedure savvy knowledge: The majority of our day to day routines and decision making should be driven by guideline of some type of which the expectation is that we should understand and be able to practically recite if needed. The promotional process is often built around testing and knowledge of our written standards. As the group most likely to instate orders both on and off the fire ground we should be actively involved in tailoring and editing our rules to make the achievable. From the standpoint of managing the street we most likely find the flaws or pin holes that exist in policy and can provide the needed input in place of blanket policies from above that may or may not have had significant thought and development placed into them. Management can write any policy or directive they like but if not practical and applied it’s just another slice of paper or another PDF document in a file that is never truly adopted. Ask for input from us. We may surprise you with our ideas and approaches. At our level hopefully we have technical merit in areas that may clarify directives if needed.
3.) Engaged in active leadership and management learning: We clearly understand the need for the rank and file to train each and every day for the dangerous work we engage, but for whatever reason seldom do we push active learning and development for the middle. Should there not also be an expectation of improvement of leadership and supervisory skills as well as our fire ground command presence. Should we not actively discuss our performance fire ground needs and how to reinforce safety for the staff we lead? I would consider it is more important for the middle to be less stagnant then ever considering the depth of knowledge we have to have including fire dynamics, public safety fire prevention, codes issues, human resource issues, people skill development, communications, and general organizational structures just to name a few. Make in an investment in our education and improvement so once again we will surprise you chief with a higher level of performance amongst the shifts we manage or in our respective battalions which ultimately reflects on the department as an entirety.
4.) Behavioral judgment/counseling/discipline: Okay so a touchy area that we often are thrust into is that of first line of making sure that the proper activities occur and we correct behaviors that are wrong or unacceptable. It’s not that we as the middle managers don’t understand that we are in the role of supervisor, but more we are often ill prepared or outfitted to dole out counseling and discipline fairly, equitably and legally. Have we been trained in when to propose charges, or how that process transitions from middle management to executive management and in some cases to human resources for termination. Has a process been designed that is fair to the employee but at the same time protects the values and principles of being in our organization? Chief, please do not place your sacred supervisors in a position to be hung out to dry because of a bad employee who just never receives slaps on the wrist. If that is acceptable then why have a counseling system or any code of conduct for that matter. Without this system chaos will ensue and staff will feel free to do as they will and this further disarms your middle management as being able to change behaviors. Hey boss, sometime I will have to deal with a difficult or troubled employee. Please tell me how to package this for you and protect the department legally.
5.) Dynamic organization momentum: I came up with a fancy term for a group of very driven, eager firefighters or perhaps junior officers who want to develop their department in any means necessary and for the right reasons. For a shift leader and battalion commander this is often an amazing self-driven group who never ceases to impress us, however if we as the middle managers lag behind there force of forward thinking and momentum will overrun us and relegate us as a silent voice. Inevitably this will lead to stress and frustration by the boss who may resort to negative behaviors to stop, or halt the forward progress. Typically this seems to occur again when the boss has not been given “the plan” or truly is being the cart behind the horse. My belief is that we want to see our departments succeed as much as anyone. Chief, we just want to be in the know, out front and helping our well trained staff give excellent care to the public each day so the team succeeds.
6.) Chain of command communications: One of the more common complaints I encountered is that the “middle guy” isn’t in the line of communication. In today’s modern technology world of communication methods and understanding span of control I would think that department chiefs can only manage so many subordinates. Wouldn’t it be far more effective to speak to the middle and then let us carry or introduce the messages to the minions more easily? Okay, I do understand this adds a layer to the communications chain but being that we constantly rely on a paramilitary structure should our communication not also follow the same standard.
In this realm there may be caveats such as a certain firehouse needs a repair and a direct contact from management to the firehouse on the toilet that needs the flush fixed may not have to go through the battalion chief, but when it comes to the day to day street operations how is it effective to not include that district chief or battalion chief to make some decisions or correct course. Likewise I would think the information and communication should channel up to the top. I can probably not think of a departmental chief that would prefer his staff contact the town manager or mayor before him. Hey boss, talk to me and give me clear communication again to reinforce that we are a “management team”.
7.) Ability to voice concern or make change up the chain as well as downward in the organization (Meta Leadership): Meta leadership basically states that we not only change behaviors down but we have influence above and laterally with peers as well as a quick definition. So not only do the management chiefs need to function and at times be led by our concepts, but our peers who function at our level should align to work with us for consistency.
Without our influence being felt upward than what is our buy in to positive momentum. If the organization is 100 percent you will do as your told (which it absolutely can be) then you surely will stifle any positive motivation towards contributing to the department that we individually serve.
One clear example is that of policy and directive development. Yes clearly orders come from above as stated earlier and at some point the middles job is defend well developed policies and planned directives. You will notice that I prefaced with well-developed and planned. With that being said, management develops policy and directive as a framework for decision making in many instances. We, in the middle often use the tools of policy, procedure, etc. day to day for decision making both emergency and nonemergency. If poor policy is developed, we will be the ones to uncover it probably rather quickly. If it is unrealistic we will find out the hard way by not meeting benchmarks required.
The question then becomes can we legitimately voice changes to make it realistic, and will our superiors allow our participation to make it more on target. Before we launch grand sweeping changes all middle management should have a chance to read, edit, and perhaps lobby if declarations do not add up. Once again, we are then given a golden opportunity to work at our ascended level to better the organization while cooperatively helping the fire chiefs establish better work practices as a team.
8.) Direct and immediate involvement in accident and injury investigations: Okay so assuming we were to organize and standardize the middle guys into a collective team then what better group to serve along with other committed department members to find root causes of accident, injuries, and unfortunately a death. If we in the middle have been empowered with our authority, clear direction, and a common view then don’t we owe it to our men and our managers to make sure that whatever circumstances have led to a disaster are avoided at whatever cost in the future. Collectively our thoughts and opinions can most likely uncover what occurred and can generate a very clear training document viewed from the organization as being produced by this middle group of extremely talented leaders who want to see risk and problems avoided or solved. Now this is not to say there should not be involvement from safety committees, ISO, HSO, or company officers in this process however the middle management must be involved. Heaven forbid and be it unfathomable that anyone in the middle would ever develop the “I can’t change this attitude” when it comes to staff being injured or lost.
9.) Major event planning: One of the responses that were brought to my attention and at first struck me as odd was that of major event planning and involvement of “middle guy”. The more I thought about this and the details to the response the more I could align with an event occurring and the middle manager being along for the ride so to speak. When I speak of major events I am not referring to the town carnival, although it would be important to understand, but more large scale, complex, expanding incident type stuff. If a major disaster were to strike our municipality I would like to be both involved and knowledgably about how we are reacting and mitigating issues.
10.) Program and budget development: Since we would prefer to be involved as organizational prognosticators, having chosen the path of the leader by promotion, we find there is much more to being out front then just the day to day actions. Preferably we should be task or involved in areas like community risk assessments, program needs analysis, and budget or finance allocations that lead to success in given areas. While completing my fire officer III program recently several of my skill and task stations involved just that so it must be relevant to knowledge of my position in middle management. Again with consideration of upward movement and perhaps desire to become a management chief someday should we not be cutting out teeth so to speak so that when that day comes we have a management reference point to the community needs and spending to achieve success? We often are ask to provide suggestions on spending or repairs but if we have no reference to budget status or more over are the bank accounts big enough to fit the needs it is pointless to contribute when we are constantly told that the funds don’t exist or maybe the next budget cycle. Perhaps in meetings part of our current and updated knowledge source should be the status of the budget and capital project planning. Once again, what if suddenly we are taxed to perform at that next level and we have to present the excuse, “Well I never had any exposure to budget creation or amendment.” Once again a common thread in ownership and involvement down the chain.
This is a small slice of expanding our roles and responsibilities in all of our fire departments. One of the issues I really wanted to avoid in penning this article was to avoid a rant session. Often, we get involved in negative chains of thought (sometimes get put to paper) that do not contribute or lead to any permanent solutions or outcomes. Really, what I am about to state as my opinion is not groundbreaking and certainly has been discussed in hundreds of articles both public and private from people who are much more astute leaders than I am. So for a moment I will speak as the mouth piece and represent many national colleagues for getting involved, and maybe expanding our roles nontraditionally.
Can we achieve some common sense leadership based on taking those as the top and those in the middle and calling them a “management team?” The point, and again has been stated so many times” within our department we are wearing the same uniform and hopefully working towards a professional high quality organization with community involvement. I know for myself I take my privilege to lead a really fantastic shift very seriously, but more I seek the challenge to adjust to new job skill at my promoted level and beside leaving a lasting change and impact to my shift but leave a lasting change in our mission or programs. I have heard it said time and time again, “Leave it better than you found it.” If I am not permitted to be part of the heavy lifting of leaving it better than surely I will express frustration and ultimately many of us lose focus and motivations to do what is needed in our position because of this. Understand that at many levels ego enters the picture and darkens already murky water and works as a boat anchor tied to our progression. Ego works to undue teams continuously and reduce mission effectiveness. Speaking honestly I know a dose of humility hurts no one, myself more than any.
It is understood to be a good leader one must also understand how to follow and as battalion chiefs, assistant chiefs, or district chiefs we are willing to follow and maintain loyalty to our departments however it makes it much more difficult when confronted with blurry mission visions or just a general feeling of disrespect. It must be reinforced that we are ranked in the middle and ultimately only have control of our attitudes, approaches, appearances, and examples to the men and women who look to us from our shifts or platoons daily to be in front and hear their concerns. We have an oath to the public but we as professional fire officers have a sworn oath to our staff to prepare and mentor them in spite of what may occur above, good or bad. I have been as guilty as any for negative thoughts leaching and tapping my leadership strength and placing me on questionable ground in front of my personnel.
Fire officers; make a solemn daily promise each day to attempt to stay on track for yourself, and your subordinates. You still have a tremendous depth of influence with your people if you make those human relationships, and you still have the true power to engage the public on the street for the real significant difference. At the same time whenever given an opportunity by senior chiefs, no matter a pleasant or hostile relation, step up and take a courageous stand for the better. We must not lose site of the big picture of why being a fire officer is important and the public who surely depends on us.
Keep progressing, keep focused
Battalion Chief Wise