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Competent, Constant and Transparent Leadership

It is an interesting observation when you see, experience and read about the continued pressure to change the fire services. Many times those pressures are brought externally by politicians and money, internally by personnel, leadership (or lack thereof) and an entrenched bureaucracy unwilling or unable to change. Sometimes change is made by an outside agency such as the Department of Justice.

Some would say our industry needs to get out of the 19th century in our tactics, leadership and how we recruit, hire and retain our firefighters.  One example of how we become our own worst enemy is by discriminating against our women and minority firefighters. An example is Davie, Florida who was cited by the Department of Justice in 2012 for gender discrimination in its failure to provide light duty benefits to the department’s pregnant employees. Again in 2014, the department finds itself the target of yet another DOJ investigation for retaliation, discrimination and hostile work environment against its women firefighters, among a host of other charges. This is failure of leadership and the unwillingness to change the treatment of women and minority employees.  The list of allegations is a damming indictment of the leadership of the department and the City and the possible impenetrable bureaucracy preventing change.

Another is to ignore the science of how we fight fires and slowly (if at all) adopting some of the recommendations discovered in the NIST and other studies on how we fight fires.  Culture or leadership? You decide.

Excellent leadership models are all around us in both the private and public sector. Look at the leaders of our largest private and military sectors – innovative, creative and productive. A good example is the recent debacle at GM with the issue of the ignition switch failures causing accidents and deaths of the vehicle owners. It is reported that due to the “silos” created within the company, possible defects of the ignition switches were not reported to other “silos” to correct the problem. It was only when Mary Barra was hired as the CEO and shook up those “silos” identifying (and terminating) those responsible for the failure to protect the public by looking the other way: a brave decision.

There are many excellent leaders in our industry as well. The leaders are teaching, writing and providing the necessary information and education to our future generation of leaders. This is based on their experiences and what went right and what went wrong during their time as fire service leaders – a good basis for our future leaders. What is not being taught are the methods so necessary to remove the barriers to, in some cases, stabilizing or improving our service delivery, embracing the new science and the changing paradigm of how we fight fires and provide EMS services.  We also need to teach our new leaders the techniques to eliminate barriers related to hiring, promotions, eliminating discrimination and create a level playing field for all of our firefighters. That takes courage of leadership.

As a leader, you may say, I do not have any control over those issues – I can only control the budget or the operational issues but I have no control over the attitudes and the biases of my firefighters or the politicians who are my bosses. Understanding that job preservation is important for all firefighters at all levels; it takes a strong and creative leader, leading from the front, with support from their firefighters and the courage to bust the entrenched   bureaucracy, the attitude, the cultural bias and the saying, “we’ve always done it this way.”

Strong leadership coupled with the courage not to accept the status quo is important to the survival of our industry. Change is inevitable and leadership needs to be those agents of change and remove the real or imagined barriers to success by using all of the talents of our firefighters; challenging the negative perception of our firefighters by politicians, become involved in strong political activism benefiting the fire service and to strengthen the position of the fire service in the eyes of our internal and external customers with competent, constant and transparent leadership.

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