Ignoring technology will power-down a fire chief's career

Falling asleep at the technology wheel will stifle your fire department and eliminate any chance of you being a visionary leader


The legendary fictional masterpiece of "Rip Van Winkle" has it that while on a hunting trip in the Catskill Mountains, Rip fell asleep for 20 years. Upon awaking he could not believe the tumultuous change that had taken place during his long period of slumber. 

The differences he observed were remarkable and at the same time frightening to old Rip. The quiet little Dutch village was no longer little or quiet. People and places were different, and life had move on without Washington Irving's main character.

The only constant situation or condition in our lives that can always be counted on is change. In most organizations, change is occurring at an amazing rate of speed. In other places, perhaps it is not so rapid, but change happen nonetheless. 

In some departments the leadership team controls the direction and speed of change (holding on to their own destiny). While other departments are changed by outside influences and pressures, which is usually a very stressful and messy proposition. It's always easier for an organization to be a part of and guide significant change rather than having it force upon it.

Steering the ship
If the department leadership takes the path of controlling their destiny, the members can be allowed to provide input and guidance to help the process. The bosses can then garner that all-important buy-in to digest, support and sustain any change.

When the re-direction is mandated from outside sources, a crisis at some level has likely occurred. Perhaps the department has had a steady diet of hiring undesirable members.

Generally, the outfit will be forced to amend its recruitment and selection system. When the firefighter application and selection process is re-constructed (in this scenario), most likely it will be from the hands of the human resources director or chief operating officer and not the fire chief.

To avoid becoming modern-day Rip Van Winkle, the fire chief or public safety administrator must embrace positive and productive change of all types. One of the core areas of change is and will likely always be technology. Good leaders understand that change is imminent and that change is necessary to improve the customer service delivery model to both the inside and outside of their department. 

Change agents
Great leaders, on the other hand, always seem to be our change agents and help all of us understand how and when it makes sense to make the changes that are necessary to improve our service delivery performance. At the risk of missing many of our great organizational lighting bolts here are listed some of my favorite fire service luminaries:

  • Chief Lloyd Layman of Parkersburg, W.Va. whose innovative change was interior fire fighting strategy and tactics.
  • Chief Alan V. Brunacini of Phoenix who paved the way for improvements to fireground operations, incident command and customer service.
  • Chief James O. Page of Los Angles County who focused on emergency medical service delivery improvements long before it was cool. 

These three fire chiefs never waited for technology to come to them, but found a path to bring the technology into our service. Great leaders have the pulse of the department and the community and look for the right time to make change happen.

Then there is the group of bungling folks who may hold the formal position of boss, but struggle with the actions of leader — leaders must have willing followers. Not only does this bunch miss the opportunity to change, much less lead change, they are willful in resisting positive and productive change. 

One example of a flagrant reversal of a positive change happened in weeks in a metro department. 

About-face
For over 40 years the executive staff consisted of three positions at the top of the organization: one chief and two deputies. The top three members were naturally overworked and many administrative duties were simply not addressed due to the workload. 

After a few months of justification and much budget wrangling, the senior elected official and the governing body allowed the organization to expand to include three more members to be promoted to the executive officer level. This gave them one chief and five deputies. 

The team of six demonstrated tremendous efficiencies and completed job tasks that were left hanging with no closure in sight. After four years of successes under this department's belt, the newly selected administration without warning or provocation cut the executive staff to the pervious level of two deputies.

Within a few months, most of the administrative functions were not handled. First, the apparatus procurement faltered to a degree that dozens of ambulances, engines and ladder trucks were placed out of service due to mechanical breakdowns with no reserve units to replace the frontline ones. The annual aerial and ground ladder mandated certification testing was simply neglected. 

Over time, this miscue had a major consequence in that most of the aerial apparatus fleet was grounded and placed out of service at the same time. Next, the recruitment and retention of firefighter and paramedics was no longer an organizational priority. And as one would expect, the staffing levels fell below the critical point.

Handwriting and horses
Just a few decades ago most administrative function were tracked, recorded and managed manually by pen and paper. Quite frankly, I took great pride in being able to make printed journal entries in the fire station's logbook that could rival the typewritten page. An incident report or time and attendance cards were meant to be a simple work of art, according to my many teachers and mentors.

Using a much earlier example, let's go back to the turn of the 20th century. A fire engine company was drawn by two or three well-loved, highly trained and maintained workhorses. Some cities would staff a typical engine company with eight to 10 members on duty at any given time. 

Some of the positions were engineer, the operator of both the pump and the boiler to manufactured the steam that powered the pump to move the water to make a sufficient fire stream to attack an unfriendly fire. To keep the fire engine pumping, an assistant engineering (in some cities called an oiler) had to make sure that all of the moving parts were lubricated and the boiler was properly stoked with wood and water.

Of course, the company compares to the four or five fire fighters assigned to a contemporary fire company. Times have changed based on all of the advancements of technology.

Geek light
The boss must apply technology when and where appropriate to gain business leverage and corporate efficiencies. The list of recent technological changes is significant. A few included are Tele-Staff, automatic vehicle locators, traffic-pre-emption systems, learning-management system and electronic- location and accountability systems.

Some futuristic leading edge applications that time will soon come are: reconnaissance drones for command post and hazmat events, personal recording devices on firefighter's person, and automatic seat belt restraints.

Perhaps the best way to close is with words from one of the fire service's most prominent leaders. During his presentation at the 2013 Boston International Conference for Fire-Rescue Executives, now-retired FDNY Fire Chief and Fire Commissioner Salvatore Casino said, "I am no technological genius, but I know and understand how technology is applied and its power."

That is the message that everyone should take away. The leader does not need to be a technology geek. However, having an understanding and a staff that can research and deploy the appropriate technological applications are mission critical for the organization and for the chief not to become the next Rip Van Winkle.

Until next time, be safe out there.

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