How to kill a Fire Department

The sad truth is that it happens everyday. All across the Country.

What’s even worse is the fact that I’ve seen it first hand. I’ve watched from the cheap seats and, unfortunately; from the front row as well.

In my opinion, it all boils down to leadership. ISO ratings, National Accreditation Stickers or any other achievements for that matter have no bearing on the morale or the “state” of a Department without strong, true LEADERSHIP.

I’ve had to try to take some time to calm down and collect my thoughts prior to attempting this post and, I’m still not sure if I’ve reached that point. Lately, several issues have continued to grow and fester in my mind and the more I think about them, the madder I become ( I’m not sure if I’m more mad or disappointed … I guess maybe my expectations are just too high).

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There have been some serious local issues around me lately and, quite honestly; their outcomes have had me feeling like I could “puke in my mouth” (this statement will come back up later in the post … you’ll understand more at that point). I feel sick to my stomach.

I know of a Department here in SW Virginia that is sinking FAST. From my personal knowledge and conversations with it’s members, it’s obvious that Department morale is at an ALL TIME LOW.

It’s a SHAME. This Department was at one time (in many’s opinion) the most well respected and desired employer in the area. Today, it’s simply an “option”. It’s better than being unemployed and  will at least look good on an application to anywhere other than there. It’s become a “stepping stone”.  A vast expanse for what Scott Mutter and I used to call “tumble weed employees” blowing through to bigger and better places.

The demographics don’t seem to offer any logic either. “Playing the numbers” just doesn’t work. Employees are MORE than a number … more than a statistic. NOBODY wants to work or stay in workplace environments such as these. Even closer to home for me, the Roanoke Times  recently published an article on the diversity of the Roanoke Police Department. In that article, they spoke of the hiring and recruitment practices of the City and their desire to become more diverse. Read that article by CLICKING HERE .

What they failed to mention in that article is the problem within the City as related to RETENTION of their members.

In my mind, you can’t talk about one without the other … they go together …recruitment and retention.

Rhett had an excellent example involving the City over on the just the other day. The “Junior Member” of his company, who happens to be a “minority” left the Fire Department to become a Police Officer within the same City.

Read about Jason Gardner’s last shift HERE

This is a young member … a good, desirable employee. Do you mean to tell me that a Department that used to boast 30+ year careers now can’t keep a member longer than 5 years? Not even the minority members whom they actively recruit?

J.G is not the first young member to leave either (minority or not). The “turnover rate” within this Department since (approx.) 1995 to the present has far exceeded the same  numbers from its inception to that date. I wonder why nobody is looking at these numbers? Is this a “generational effect” or the result of low morale …. poor management / leadership?

Another local example can be found in last week’s Officer Seminar held in Roanoke. I’ve spoken several times here lately about Chris Naum being the featured speaker at the 5th Annual Southwest Virginia’s Officer Seminar for 2012. Chris is a great speaker with a remarkable resume. How many times do you get a speaker of this caliber in your area? One who travels the “National Circuit”, well educated, published, a contributing writer to Firehouse and Fire Engineering Magazines, founder or contributor to various websites such as The Secret List, Firefighter Close Calls and Everyone Goes Home.

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The event was open to the entire region yet only approx. 160 members attended (approx 160 over 2 days, 80 each with the same presentation). It’s EMBARRASSING. Do the members of Southwest Va know it all? Do we NOT need training such as this…. a different view or perspective? Have they become complacent or is it simply a lack of motivation? Or, could  this too be related to low morale and poor LEADERSHIP / MANAGEMENT?

I spoke with a Chief of one of the larger Departments eligible to attend. This was a career Department who’s members could have attended AT NO COST. They had less than 10 members in attendance (that’s over BOTH days of the 2 day Seminar… 10 members!).  In the past, this Department has even sent “on duty” companies down to listen in …. NOT THIS YEAR.

I asked one of the Chiefs if the turnout was embarrassing to him and/or his Department. I asked his thoughts on the poor attendance. His reply was no, it was not embarrassing.  The explanation he gave was that his Department had instructors of this caliber “in house”. His members didn’t need to attend functions such as this to receive quality training.

REALLY? My mouth must have hit the floor. I know this Department. They have some GREAT members. Some GREAT instructors, motivators and leaders but I haven’t seen them offering classes. I found myself quickly racking my brain in an attempt to remember if I had overlooked any training opportunities offered by this Department. I hadn’t.  I couldn’t help but think … where are these great instructors? Why isn’t this Chief promoting them and offering their knowledge and talents to our Valley? Why were these instructors not at the Seminar to support Naum?

I wonder if the thought of low morale ever crosses this Chief’s mind. I wonder if he has ever considered that morale in his Department is so low that his member are not going to spend their day off in a class that they are not going to be compensated for (even though compensation shouldn’t matter when it comes to quality training… there were plenty of Volunteer members in attendance at the Seminar).

I wonder if he even realizes what an insult his statement was. An insult to Chris Naum, to the members of the committee that has put this Seminar together over the last 5 years and an insult to the Fire Service in general.

I wonder if he even knows that this type of attitude towards training (if it is indeed the case) should be a HUGE WARNING FLAG for the Command Staff of his Department.  Members not motivated to attend training at this level. It doesn’t matter if it’s due to the  lack of compensation or for other reasons. Even if you don’t agree with the entire presentation, at least you’re likely to come away having learned something! Even this Chief revealed a  mind set of not needing “outside” help. Maybe it’s more like not “wanting” outside help / influences (what if these “outsiders” made him look bad? What if they revealed his short comings?). I doubt he even understands what he said. It’s the culture that’s been bred into this new generation of firefighters / Departments. It’s the  mind set of many of our leaders today.

Nobody is looking after the members anymore. It’s not about the men … it’s all about the numbers. Yea … we’ve heard so much about the “Culture of Extinguishment” vs. a “Culture of Safety” that we haven’t even noticed the development of the  Culture of “ME”.

Chiefs are seemingly too busy making their bosses happy. Cutting budgets, station closures, manpower cuts, consolidations, brownouts …. anything to balance a budget, save money and make themselves look better in the eyes of whomever. It’s easier than having to stand up and justify their needs.

Cover ups, misdirection, deception and even outright lies are not unheard of anymore. Yet we (the members) are held to a seemingly higher standard … MORALES AND ETHICS.

In a lot of cases, the members are no better….stomping on the backs of their Brothers and Sisters just to get ahead. Forget right and wrong … in today’s Fire Service, it’s whatever it takes to make yourself look good in the eyes of the bosses….. even when / if they’re wrong. Some of these members are the exact ones that you would have never thought of having this attitude.

It’s the age old tactic of divide and conquer. As long as the members buy into this management style, their voice will never be heard. If it is, it’s a single voice … not the collective. As long as there are Chiefs out there who haven’t EARNED their position, it will always be an uphill battle for the boots on the street. These types of managers can’t understand the challenges we face … they’ve never been in our boots.

I had a Chief tell me one time that the reason I was skipped for promotion was that I was too close to the men. His rational was that you can’t be a Boss and a friend. I say you can. You can IF you also have their respect.

If the members respect you, they will never put you in a position or test Boss vs friend.

As far as earning your position / rank, this same Chief once said that a pilot of a 747 airbus never had to learn the job of loading baggage to become the pilot. His relation of this to the fire service was that a member doesn’t need to work as a Firefighter, a Lieutenant, Captain or Battalion to serve as a Chief Officer. A manager is a manager … big business or small Fire Department.

Again, I disagree. By “coming through the ranks” a Chief (hopefully) EARNS the respect of his members. Even when coming from the outside in, knowing that a Chief has walked the same path we have earns him the benefit of the doubt.

I’m kind of getting off point here but it also brings me to it. LOW MORALE is what kills a Fire Department and the morale of any Department starts at the top.

Low morale leads to no confidence in an administration. High morale motivates a Department to perform to higher standards. That said, leaders who are well respected, who have worked through the ranks and understand the feelings, needs and sacrifices of  their members are better equipped to motivate those members. They understand that even the little things can make a big difference. They know that it’s better to tell the hard truth rather than leading the members on with misgivings, deceptions  and lie after lie. They understand that as firefighters, we can handle the bad news …. we see it everyday!

Motivated members make a Department prosper. A Department that shines makes its City, County etc shine. Somewhere along the lines, we’ve made a wrong turn … we’ve got it backwards. It’s not a Chief or his hand picked administration that makes a Department …. it’s the members …. from the newest recruit up.

Have ya ever heard the saying that it’s the Company that makes the Captain look good? Well, it’s true. Keep em happy and they’ll do a good job for ya. Be their friend but LEAD them. Give direction. Listen to their needs and concerns. Be there for them. Be strict but fair…. open and honest.  Set goals … have high expectations and share them. Meet them … hell EXCEED them but do it TOGETHER! If you got there “right”,  then they’ll know it and that your intentions are true. They’ll follow you … after all, you’re one of them … you’ve been in their boots.

Chief Rick Lasky says it best in his Pride and Ownership presentation. If you’ve never heard Chief Lasky speak, you’re missing out (and to the local Chief I spoke of earlier, I guarantee you’re Department doesn’t have many speakers of this caliber “in house”).

It just so happens that Chief Lasky is presenting Pride and Ownership in Staunton, Va this weekend; October 6th. Whats even better is that the cost of admittance is simply a donation of canned food which will to donated to a local food bank….. now THERE’S and Administration that GETS IT!

Learn more about the Staunton Va Fire / Rescue Department by clicking HERE .

also visit

Agusta County Fire and Rescue HERE

The event is to be held on Saturday, October 6th from 8am-5pm at Robert E. Lee High School (1200 North Coalter Street, Staunton, VA 24401).

For more information, contact Chief R. Scott Garber @ 540-332-3884 or via e-mail at ….

Rhett and I will not be able to attend due to our obligations at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend in Emmitsburg, Md that weekend. If you are ANYWHERE, this weekend; I hope it’s at either of these two events.

Thanks for indulging the “rant” ….. Stay SAFE and in House!

Captain Wines