Fire chief career crusher: A toxic relationship with the boss

When personal relationships between fire chiefs and their bosses reach irreconcilable differences, the chief can start packing

In just about every walk of life, personal relationships become the organizational cement that binds the team into one efficient and effective operational unit. It is these human relationships that determine if the task will be completed in the spirit it was intended or if we will just check the boxes.

Further, those same forces will be a major indicator of the quality and quantity of the group's effort to resolve a collective challenge. Typically, the more cohesive on the purpose and vision by the entire department (both members and administrators), the better the results.

Let's be clear and agree that every fire chief should want a high-trust and high-performance organization that the community can always count on in their times of need.

A good analogy is the cohesiveness of a sports team. The franchises that win division and national titles most often describe their internal relationships within the organization as very good to outstanding.

Positive personal relationships seem to go hand-in-hand with winning. When a team wins everyone is happy.

Miracle on ice
When the fire department performs well, the customers and elected officials tend to be content.

13 Career Crushers

  • Revenge
  • Discrimination, harassment and hazing  
  • Inattention to details of the organization
  • Troubled personal life
  • Actions not in align with departmental goals and values
  • Declining health
  • Ignoring technology
  • Illegal activity
  • Irreconcilable differences with the boss
  • Lying 
  • Political suicide
  • Political ambition
  • Incompetence

Yet, when there is discord in the clubhouse, there is dysfunction on the playing field. Poor performing teams back-bite and pass blame at every press conference. And the team keeps on its losing ways.

When a professional sports team has agreed on a common goal, possess a unified vision and their interpersonal dynamics are appropriate, they become much more functional and formidable than one that does not possess these basic common bonds. Sometimes when everything is aligned properly, the nearly impossible get accomplished. 

I will never forget the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. The "miracle on ice" unfolded while the entire world watched mesmerized. The underrated and over performing U.S. men's Olympic hockey team stole the gold medal from the heavily favored Union of Soviet Socialist Republics hockey club. To this day, the 1980 U.S. hockey team is known as the "Dream Team" and described as a band of brothers able to do the nearly impossible.

Need for change
Applying this career-crusher principal to the work of pubic safety services is relative simple. When the discord in the organization begins to affect the operation and delivery of services, adjustments will usually be made.

If the fire chief and executive staff members are not able to get along in their personal relationships, the disconnect is identified very quickly by both internal and external sources. There is an elevated awareness that the organization is out of balance and under achieving. 

The focus becomes the obvious need for change to get the system back in harmony. The changes to improve personal relationships that can be implemented range from minor (team building training) to historically sweeping (replacement staff being inserted into the mix) that will have a long-term impact. 

The damaged internal relationships need to be repaired before the agency can return to striving to become the best high-performance and high-trust department it can be. If the chief and executive staff members are going to outlive the changes, the re-direct will need to come from within the department or from the chief's immediate boss. 

When outside folks get wrapped up in making changes to an organization, usually there is a blood letting. If the internal leadership cannot lead during troubled times, someone from the outside will likely make the required changes. It is always a matter of leadership and deciding how to resolve problems and conflicts — this separates really good bosses from bad leaders.

A major disconnect between the chief and his or her boss is generally more difficult to resolve. In fact, it the discord rises to the level of an irreconcilable difference, there may be very little hope for a resolution. Thank goodness that these situations are few and far between for the chief and the department.

My story
One such situation occurred a long time ago, but is worth recounting in the spirit of learning from other's adventures. Just before the workday was to start, I received a telephone call from my boss, the city administrator.

He abruptly asked if I was aware of that the fire marshal's office ordered the removal of all of the chains and padlocks from one of our larger high schools. I was not aware, but promised to get the facts first thing and report back to him with the details by mid-morning.

While driving into work on that chilly morning, I called the fire marshal and we agreed to meet at the school in question and do an on-sight inspection together. All I could say was "Wow!" Every doorway, except the front main entrance, was locked with a large-gauge steel chain wrapped around the panic hardware and secured with a case-harden padlock.

The emergency exits were inoperable. The school administrators firmly held that the student security needs were much greater then the need to exit during a fire or other emergency.

Someone had entered the school using a side emergency exit door and murdered someone. The resolution was to simply lock down the facility all of the time — problem solved. 

An on-duty school resource officer from our police department staffed the main entrance. Couple the police officer's presence with a quality metal detector and the need for school security was resolved.

Best option
Of course, the chains and locks had to come off the doors immediately. And, they were to remain off of the doors anytime people were in the school. Several extra police officers were summons to help with the patrol duties until an appropriate resolution was identified and implemented.

To make sure that the school's fire exit doors stayed closed with panic hardware latches in place and unchained and unlocked, several fire inspectors who were on light duty were temporarily reassigned to assist the police department.

At first there was some commotion about fire inspectors engaging in police work without proper training and proper equipment, but once the requested task was identified and clearly understood by the light-duty folks, the flare-up went dormant.

As the city administrator was thoroughly briefed, his disappointment in the chief (me) grew. The solution was to install a magnetic lock on each emergency exit doorway — all marked exists. The magnet provided 10,000 psi of force and could be opened with the magnetic field being turned off manually or when a fire alarm pull station was activated. 

Of course, potentially a person could pull an alarm station and open the remote doors. But we determined that it was impossible to resolve every potential scenario in which a perpetrator wanted to gain access.

Not so fast
The estimate cost to install the 10,000-psi magnetic locks on all city schools was just under $6 million. The city administrator was now livid and it was very clear that my career-dissipation light was on constantly and getting brighter.

This happened only about a year into my four-year appointment, so it was very disturbing to me to be described as "not having solutions, but only problems." I was certain that it was time to look for a new spot in the sun and find a city without so many pressing unaddressed issues. 

A few days later the boss called me to his office. I was certain this was to discuss my separation and departure. However, the administrator apologized for his comments and vocalized frustration about the unexpected school costs. 

He asked me to forget the entire discussion and that we needed to get the locks ordered and installed. All of that happened and the public schools were a lot safer because of the fire code improvements. 

The chief may not know when or the topic that can cause a complete disconnect between a higher boss that develops into an irreconcilable difference. I would describe those times and situations as circumstances that test the organizational leader in a most difficult and stressful way.

Moments of truth
To use DCFD's Chief Lawrence Schultz's classic description: This is the type of process that allows one to demonstrate their application of courageous leadership. Chief, will you stand and resolve mission-critical issues or turn your head the other way? 

It was clear that the chains and locked had to come off the school emergency exit doors. There was no room for negotiation or lesser effective resolutions. I didn't realize the internal storm that would follow this situation. 

It seems to be such a well-known law and fire code principle that the city would have to follow. However, the locked and chained fire doors caused quite a stir at city hall. 

If was difficult for me to hear that "the fire department could bring problems to the table without solutions." I thought that the mag-lock system attached to the top of the emergency exits was an ideal solution to this very serious problem. 

This situation had all of the makings of my separation from the department. It is days like those that become the chief's long, dark and smoky hallway. It shows people your core values and what the chief stands for.

I am glad the story ended in a positive way, however, when irreconcilable differences present themselves, generally it becomes a career crusher.

Until next time, please be safe out there.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Get FIRE CHIEF in your inbox

Thanks! You've been successfully signed up for the Fire Chief

Copyright © 2021 FireRescue1. All rights reserved.