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Cop with a law degree running the Fire Service

The Mayor of Detroit has appointed a former police officer with a law degree and Director of the City’s Building Department as the fire commissioner after the retirement of Commissioner Edsel Jenkins. Let me say right off the bat, I have nothing against cops or lawyers or building officials as some of my best friends possess some or all of those qualifications. 

Mayor Dugan stated in his nomination presentation that, “the Fire Department doesn't need a top-flight firefighter at the top. Rather, Duggan said, he wanted a leader with the ability to transform practices within departments, something the Fire Department sorely needs, plagued as it is by problems with old equipment, inefficient distribution of supplies and old fire stations that make for unsafe living conditions.” 

So lets ask the hard questions:

Isn’t that the job of the elected officials to make that happen? Did the Fire Commissioner fail in his obligation to notify the city leadership of the crisis facing the Fire Department and in turn, the City fail to respond to that information? Is this a damming indictment of the outgoing leadership of the fire department and their failure to keep up with the times with staffing, equipment, apparatus and department maintenance, new programs, training successor leadership and on and on?

The past fire commissioner, a career firefighter with Detroit, was appointed for his expertise and experience with Detroit Fire. No doubt he was struggling against a declining economy with increased demands for service provided by this excellent fire department.

If you want to see a high performing and committed agency, just watch the documentary movie “Burn” to see top notch firefighters putting their lives on the line every day to protect the city.

Where did the fire service miss the boat on this appointment? Are we a victim of a political environment? Are we too “unqualified” as leaders to move the fire service to the next level? Did we succumb to culture and tradition, so hidebound that change is nearly impossible? Is our fire service incapable of making headway in those grinding political machines to make them understand that the fire service is continually understaffed, underfunded, protecting a growing community with less money, using old and outdated equipment in spite of the heroic efforts of our men and women firefighters and fire service leaders?

The real question is, is this the future of the leadership for the fire service?  I am not criticizing the Mayors decision in this case as admittedly I know only what I read about the qualifications of this appointee and time will tell if this was a good appointment. The greater question, I ask again:  what qualifies this individual to lead a great city's fire department and why don't we possess those qualifications in our fire service leaders?

Here's a heads-up for the fire service: this sort of thinking is happening all over the country. A recent discussion with several former elected officials stated a similar premise for recommending an outside replacement for soon to be retiring fire chiefs or commissioners to be someone from another discipline and not look internally or in the fire service for a replacement. What are we missing?

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Comment by John K. Murphy on October 17, 2015 at 11:00am

Thanks Jack.

Comment by Jack Barton on October 16, 2015 at 5:34pm

Great questions. I do not know the cultural/political climate in Detroit. I do know that there have been times when the fire service has failed to acknowledge when the old ways of doing business has to change. Either we take the initiative fix our problems or someone else will do it for us. Check out San Bernadino City Fire to see an example. Is that what is going on with this appointment in Detroit. Hard to say from here. Hope this commissioner can address their infrastructure and staffing issues. Hope that is what the city really wants to him to do.

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