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©September 2018JimWick

There Are No Chief Size Fires!


Jim Wick

Whaaat? Absurd! You’re kidding?   My reactions when I heard the words in the title. But - I was about to learn something significant.

A small town 2 station VFD I joined in the ‘70’s elected a Board of Directors who appointed the Chief, who served at the pleasure of the Board.  The Chief appointed all line officers, who served at the pleasure of the Chief.  This VFD was proud politics and favoritism did not adversely affect operations and leaders were held accountable for their performance. I was serving as a Lieutenant when the Chief retired suddenly for health reasons.  The new Chief asked me (green, in my 20’s) to serve as one of two Deputy Chiefs.  The Chief met with the two of us asking for personnel suggestions for the remaining line positions and to communicate his expectations of us. 

The Chief was a proven leader, serving in the VFD and in the highest enlisted rank in the Navy, Chief Petty Officer.  Describing his expectations, he said clearly:  “Many calls I consider Lieutenant sized fires; I expect you to let the Lieutenants command those calls.  I want you to observe safety and to coach quietly to help them learn how to be leaders.  When we have a room and contents fire or a more complicated or bigger call, these are Captain sized fires.  I expect you to let the Captains command those calls and you observe safety and coach them as well. When the emergency is bigger still, like a commercial or manufacturing structure, fatalities, or a major railroad incident, I expect one of you to be in command”. 

He paused, looking us in the eye.  I began to ask the ‘big’ question…. he interrupted, in a very deliberate tone he said: “There Are No Chief Size Fires!” I was stunned. 

It was ‘strange’ to hear a Chief make such a statement. Eventually I got it through my naïve and thick skull the Chief through words and action was expressing trust and confidence in us.  For the record, I went on to command major emergency operations in my late 20’s – far beyond what any young officer might expect - with my Chief not far off my shoulder, providing coaching and teachable moments on and off the fireground, assuring I learned (and didn’t screw up or get someone hurt)! He never “assumed” command, not once, even when I called in several mutual aid companies on major incidents. He used to say “there are no chief size fires” if the chief is a good coach and mentor “before” the alarm. He also assured our VFD had proven leaders ready to step up to lead if needed.

Too often in VFDs the Chief is a “Chief Firefighter”, the boss, who comfortably “assumes command” at a dumpster fire - just cause they showed up? This can develop into a habit or mind-set that the senior officer on location ought to be in command, regardless of the operation’s scope.  “Chief 2 assuming command” is a nice ego boost on the radio – for Chief 2; but may be completely unnecessary. Today’s Incident Command procedures and practices allow command to establish or remain at the appropriate level, if senior leaders cooperate.  My Chief so many years ago was a coach, a mentor, a leader, and role model who encouraged continuous learning, through study - and experience.  He believed in developing people. I hope you find or have a leader like him.  More importantly, I hope you are a mentor and leader adopting a philosophy of “there are no chief size fires”.

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