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from Matt Tobia,
If you serve in a fire department, any fire depart- ment, you will understand this story: Crews are dispatched to a working house fire, and as the
chief arrives on scene and begins to choreograph the
controlled chaos, he notices that a crew of firefighters
are sporting the latest in stylish facial hair. Not the
“manly” handlebar mustaches that have adorned male
firefighters for at least 200 years when, back in the day,
they were used as filters for breathing. No, these fine
young lads brought their beards with them to the fire.
Now, before you launch into a full-blown tirade
about whether 29 CFR 1910.134 is applicable in
today’s modern positive pressure SCBA world and
how it’s entirely possible to pass a fit test with a beard,
this is not a treatise on that subject. In this particular
fire department, the requirement to maintain a clean-shaven face had long been established for a segment
of the department while remaining silent for another
segment. The chief has a decision to make: pull them
off the scene and address the issue—or let it go. The
house is burning. The firefighters are serving as the
RIT. What do you do?
Building a successful fire department requires an
unimaginable level of patience and stick-to-it-iveness.
It also requires an ability to truly recognize what is and
what is not important and focus on those issues that
are genuinely relevant to the safety of the troops. My
wife has had to teach me this lesson again and again
with our teenage son. I am not particularly thrilled
when the boy (he is 14, 5' 8" with size 12 shoes) bee
bops out the door in 30-degree weather wearing
shorts. Actually, I pretty well lose my mind. My wife
(the patient one) reminds me that he has clothes on
his body and that perhaps discretion is the better part
of valor. Pick your battles—message received.
The same is true for leading in a fire department.
Driving the organization toward parity in account-
ability requires a willingness to admit that some issues
are necessarily going to be more important than others
and that an ability to triage that demand for account-
ability will, to a great extent, determine the success of
bringing the organization forward. Think about it:
facepiece fit testing, leather helmets, certification by
position, minimum training standards for all mem-
bers, progressive discipline, code of conduct, integrated
staffing, shift assignments, continuing education
requirements, and chain of command. Which of these
is most important and, when you know that you will
likely be working extremely hard to address literally
every issue as a separate rock to push up the hill, which
ones rise to the top? Which is first, second, third, etc.?
Returning to the story, the chief calls the crew over,
identifies the crew leader, and patiently and professionally explains the issue. He directs the crew to return
to quarters out of service and find a razor. Although
clearly dejected over not being able to play with all the
other cool kids, the crew does as instructed. Problem
solved, right? Well ....
Ever see a young kid get in trouble on the playground? Ooohs and aaahhhs follow the offender as
he or she does the proverbial perp walk toward the
designated adult. The other kids are perfectly willing to
pile on as they (a) are glad it’s not them and (b) feel no
obligation for or allegiance to the kid who is in trouble.
So it is in the fire service. Finger pointing is an all-too-common phenomenon, and although it may seem
cliché to say it, every time you point a finger at someone else, three fingers are pointing back at you. So,
before anyone points a finger at anyone else, the most
important rule to remember is: You better have your
own sh#t high and tight, both literally and figuratively.
Firefighters have extremely long memories. “Remember
the time, in 1965, blah, blah, blah.” You get the idea.
Simultaneously, firefighters are quick to point out when
others are not being held accountable to the same standards that they themselves must follow. They demand
“accountability.” What they often fail to understand is
that the natural consequence of accountability for one
segment of an organization will have the eventual effect
of accountability for the entire organization. This is
true in all-career departments across shifts, in combination departments between career and volunteer personnel, and in all-volunteer organizations.
Extracting accountability does not start with others;
it starts with ourselves. The fire service kitchen can be
hot—extremely hot. If you are not prepared to have
the bright light of criticism shined on you, it would be
wise to sit quietly and allow leaders who do understand the challenges of holding members accountable
to determine what is, and what is not, important. In
the meantime, get out on the street, learn your job,
and play your position.
Matthew Tobia is an assistant chief with Loudoun County (VA)
Fire and Rescue and is a 29-year veteran of emergency services.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Accountability is a two-way street