Keys to creating top-performing fire departments

Fire departments that perform well over decades begin with a leader who is passionate, committed and unafraid of change


This is the first of four articles Chief Gaines submitted shortly before his untimely death in April. Chief Gaines may no longer be with us, but his wisdom about and passion for the fire service lives on.

By Glenn Gaines

It is a hot Sunday afternoon and the suburban fire and rescue department that provides a four-tiered EMS system is being inundated with request for EMS assistance. Unfortunately 32 percent of their EMS transport vehicles have broken down.

Most of the units are out of service or suffering from electrical problems, overheated engines and no air conditioning in the rear treatment area. The same afternoon a delayed response to a heart attack victim occurs due in part to the responding unit coming from an outlying department unfamiliar with the suburb's streets.

The previous Friday, the suburban department's union president announced a vote of no confidence in the fire chief due to poor leadership and action in supporting firefighter safety. The fire chief issued a statement that due to his decision to end communications with the union, he is not in any way concerned with the no-confidence vote.

This is a department in trouble and on track to lose the confidence of its political leadership, constituents and members. Internal morale will surely suffer in the short term; it may be irreversible if steps are not taken to correct the situation.

The overriding concern here is the risk placed on members of the organization and their constituents. So what are the mechanics of managing top-performing fire and EMS departments? How can a well-financed fire and rescue department fail?   

Two causes
What we can learn from this and many examples is that there are two leading reasons why organizations fail. Reason one is that the person holding the top position must possess and exercise all the traits of a top-performing executive. Reason two is that organizations cannot accomplish the big things if they cannot do the little, core things right every time.

There are four principal internal components of fire and rescue departments: people, facilities, rolling capital and equipment. Likewise, there are four principal external components: the public, political leaders, the environment and real property.

Each of these critical components demands constant monitoring, management, planning, performance measuring and adherence with federal and state laws, regulations and compliance with professional standards.

Sound complicated?

It is complicated and demands that fire chiefs and the senior staff manage these eight complex components simultaneously. There are several management complex operations that must be delegated to various levels of the command staff.

A matter of passion
So how do top-performing fire and rescue organizations do it?

They are led by extraordinary leaders. These outliers see further while simultaneously ensuring the details of day-to-day operations are carried out at an exceptional level.

These leaders also have the unique ability to select worthy, talented and skilled professionals who possess an uncompromising desire for excellence. There is no magic pill that will develop these skills.

When asked why he did not run for president, Gen. Colin Powell said, "I did not have the passion for the position." There is no question that serving successfully in a position of great responsibility demands a burning desire, a passion for serving, a willingness to give one's self without any expectation of a return on the large time investment.

Gen. Powell also talked about the path to attaining a position of great responsibility when he said, "There are no secrets to success. It's the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure."

My climb
I served with the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department for 34 years. I was the first member to work my way up through the organization, holding every rank.

In the final days of my tenure, I was attending a routine meeting with firefighters at a fire station. I was asked how I worked my way through the chain of command to chief.

My response was simple. I possessed a relentless desire to be the best at each position I held and learn as much as I could about each position. Accordingly, once in the position of fire chief, I became skilled at identifying the difference between baloney and beef.

Venturing up the chain in an organization can, however, give one a view of how things should operate — resistance to change by the chief may be the byproduct.

Another path to the top is by taking upper management positions in other fire and EMS departments. Experiencing and learning from diverse ideas and perspectives can help create a desirable biography and prepare one for command. 

Managing risk
A very strong commitment to training and developing high, unpromising professional standards of performance and behavior is a fundamental requirement of organizations that succeed over decades rather than years.

These top-performing organizations are also risk takers. Their chief officers are unafraid to do something that has never been done before. These steps are calculated to ensure if failure occurs, it will not be catastrophic and erode confidence in the organization.

The litmus test for these ventures is if they provide high return on investment, sustain one or more of the big four and are designed for the future.

New initiatives must be politically supported and in line with current thinking of the majority of the governing body. For example, if the majority is conservative, initiatives will be much more attractive if it includes any of the following.

  • Reduces government oversight.
  • Privatizes a government service.
  • Saves taxpayer money.
  • Creates jobs for constituents.
  • Eliminates full-time government positions.
  • Improves efficiencies and/or services to constituents (especially businesses/developers).  

A liberal majority generally will have similar interests; however, the following will also resonate with them.

  • Focuses on the underserved.
  • Supports governmental oversight of businesses and development.
  • Supports controlled growth through zoning and building code enforcement.
  • Supports reasonable and fair pay for all working class including government employees.
  • Creates good-paying jobs for constituents including a reasonable amount of government positions tied to efficient and effective services.

These initiatives are commonly referred to as growth or change. It is a risky and in most cases a burdensome pathway, however, one that must be attempted if the organization is to survive. One truth in determining the life span of an organization is if it is not changing then it is falling behind and failing. 

About the author

Glenn A. Gaines was the Federal Emergency Management Agency's deputy U.S. Fire Administrator for the United States Fire Administration. He began his tenure in March 2009 and was responsible for managing USFA programs and training activities conducted at the National Emergency Training Center. Chief Gaines began his fire service career as a member of the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department. He served in numerous capacities, including fire marshal, chief training officer, and chief of operations, culminating in his appointment as fire chief from August 1991 until December 1998. He was in charge of the nationally recognized Fairfax County Fire and Rescue urban search and rescue team that frequently deployed throughout the United States as well as internationally. Chief Gaines earned a degree in fire administration and has authored a fire service text, contributed to several other texts, and written numerous articles for several trade publications. He has served as a faculty member at the USFA's National Fire Academy, and was actively involved with organizations related to the professional development of the fire and emergency services.

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