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By Mark vonAppen

In this time of transition in the American Fire Service, due to mass retirements and paradigm shift in how we do business, the unfortunate, and sometimes dangerous, side-effect is that there are individuals who are thrust into leadership roles out of necessity (somebody needs to get promoted, right?) that do not possess the tools necessary to lead effectively.   It’s hard to make up for 15 – 20 years of rubber-stamping, pencil whipping, and showing up late for class.  As a result, we have seen members of the service catapulted into high level positions that never learned the jobs five or six ranks below them.  

The bottom line is that when numbers and personal agendas come first, the fire service loses its heart.  If you're only looking down the road, or cruising at 30,000 feet, claiming to have an eye only on the horizon, you run the risk of losing sight of your people.  When you lose sight of people, the only reason that the fire service exists, you begin to focus on things that are easily tabulated and quantified; response times, metrics, and a heartless bottom line.  

The bottom line is that effective people skills are becoming a thing of the past.   Metrics don't talk back and can be managed with seemingly no consequence. The bottom line is at the other end of the metrics are real people, with real lives, that are of real consequence.  The bottom line is numbers and statistics don't serve people.  People serve people.  If what you've read so far makes you angry, don't be mad at the author, take a look in the mirror.  The truth has no anger or opinion, it simply is.  That's the bottom line.

Our bottom line involves heart.  Our professional learning curve is steep and the environment is unforgiving, we are paid to be guardians of the community who solve problems by taking action, not through diplomacy, glad handing, checking boxes, metrics, and bottom lines.  Not many of us in society possess the courage and moxie to make the push down a hot, dark hallway to protect their neighbors.

We do, because our bottom line is about people.

"Make sure that nobody has to follow in your wake and undo what you did because you did what was easy instead of what's right."


Most anyone can move paper effectively.  Making big stacks of paper into little stacks of paper doesn’t put out fires or solve human problems.  Moving paper does however have an important place inasmuch as it supports the mechanism to deliver service in the form of superior training, and purchasing equipment to enable the boots on the ground to perform at a high level when the bell hits.  So, if you've lost sight of, or no longer have the will to serve people, then the bottom line is this; you need to move on. 


People come first.  The role of the Chief is to give the officers who report to them the tools to do their job well.  The role of the officer is the same; to support the efforts, and cultivate the talents of those beneath them. If they’re not doing that, then they’re not doing their job, bottom line.  The role of everyone in the fire service is to serve.

Do your job right. Make sure that nobody has to follow in your wake and undo what you did because you did what was easy instead of what's right. "Just get it done," is a problem statement in today's fire service. We are an action-oriented service provider.  The quality of our work really matters. Shadow programs that make administrators feel better to say that they provide, but do not really exist, only erode our credibility. Are we really performing and serving as advertised?  The bottom line is we had better be. Until we stop being the champions of mediocrity as a culture and work towards a true meritocracy we are doomed to hear hubristic and ignorant statements forever.


Some of us have forgotten why the fire service exists. 

We exist to answer the bell, that's the bottom line.

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