Trending Topics

‘I work for everybody else’: N.Y. fire chief talks leadership

Syracuse Fire Chief Michael J. Monds is in his seventh year as chief, leading 368 firefighters stationed in 10 firehouses across the city

Syracuse Fire Chief Michael Monds

Syracuse Fire Chief Michael Monds talks with his fellow firefighters before lining up for the 42nd annual St. Patrick’s Parade. (Charlie Miller |

Charlie Miller/TNS

By Marie Morelli

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Growing up on Syracuse’s South Side, Fire Chief Michael J. Monds drove by the city’s firehouses countless times.

“I never once looked over and said, what’s behind those doors? What are they doing? Can I be one?” he recalls. “It just never was accessible.”

Monds is a graduate of Nottingham High School. When he got home from college at Buffalo State and Cortland State, some friends told him about the fire department entrance exam. The Firefighters of Color United in Syracuse was paying the fee. He decided to take the test. “I scored higher than everybody, and I got hired,” he says.

Monds had only seen firefighters on TV. “It looked like you had to be a superhero. When I got in training, I realized everybody was human like me. If they can do it, I can do it.”

He became a firefighter in 2000 and was promoted to lieutenant in 2011. In December 2017, Mayor-Elect Ben Walsh chose Monds as the new chief. Firefighters clapped and cheered at the announcement. Monds had leapfrogged the ranks of captain, district chief, deputy chief and first deputy chief.

“As soon I was elected, I kept hearing this name,” Walsh said at the time, citing the respect Monds commanded from fellow firefighters.

Monds, 48, is in his seventh year as chief, leading 368 firefighters stationed in 10 firehouses across the city. The department fights 1,000 fires a year, roughly 85 of them major structure fires.

For decades, the fire department had a dismal record of hiring minorities to a job that, while risky, also is a ticket to the middle class. After five years, firefighters can earn $84,000 a year before overtime.

Monds fulfilled the city’s 40-year-old promise to make at least 25% of its hires firefighters of color. To feed the pipeline, he developed a junior cadet program at Dr. King Elementary and a firefighter curriculum at PSLA @ Fowler. The department is 4.6% female — above the 4% national average — but not good enough for Monds. He laid out the criteria for promotion so that everyone knows what it takes to move up.

“When I get done doing this job, [I want to] make sure I made a pathway for other people,” he says.

Monds lives in the city. He’s married and has two grown daughters. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What makes a good leader?

Understanding everything around you, knowing your job and listening to everybody.

At every rank, you have certain responsibilities. To be a leader, you should be somewhat knowledgeable about everything. And then you should rely on people who work with you, or for you, who have more intellect on certain topics. You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. You just have to be able to have good relationships with good people who can help you get to the places you and the organization need to go.

Coming through the ranks, I worked with people who had really good ideas. We would sit around [and say], why isn’t the chief doing that? Until you get up here [the chief’s office is on the sixth floor of the Public Safety Building ] and realize the process it takes to make cultural changes or operational changes. It is a hard, tedious job.

But the stakes are very high.

[Pointing to the wall above the couch where he is seated:] This is the plaque of all the 42 Syracuse firefighters who have died in the line of duty. The last time we had a firefighter die in the line of duty at a fire was in 1978, up on University Hill. [Four firefighters died while searching for Syracuse University students reported trapped in the attic of a burning house – but they weren’t there.] Chief Thomas Hanlon , I leave his picture up because he was a chief at that time.

When something bad happens, like a firefighter fatality, the chief gets scrutinized. What were your policies? Why didn’t you identify your shortcomings? And what are you going to do [now]? Some of the things that they put in place we use to this day, so I leave his picture up as a reminder for me and our command staff. I think about what he went through on that night and how he had to envision how to move forward.

How do you go from being one of the guys to being the boss?

When I was coming up through the ranks, I was friends with everybody. I was involved with the union from my very first years on the job. When somebody was having an issue with work performance or off-duty issues, somehow, I was called to work with [them]. I’ve always considered myself as a peer with everybody that I worked with. Even when I became a lieutenant, I realized I was just one part of a team. At the end of the day, I have the final say on what we have to do.

When I became the fire chief, I kept that same mentality. Some people look at it as, everybody works for me. I look at it as, I work for everybody else.

My heart is to still be a firefighter, and to make sure I’m giving them what they need, so they can protect the city. And somehow, I was put in a position to help us all. It’s not a rank thing. It’s not a hierarchy thing. I’m just chosen one right now to help everybody. And that’s what I’m trying to do.

Tradition runs deep in the fire service. How do you make change?

It took forever to change the demographics of who was a firefighter. … The first time they hired a Black firefighter, I believe, was in the 1950s. It wasn’t a very diverse department. The fire service, as a whole, is not a very diverse occupation. [Monds identifies as Black.]

And we’ve done a good job of diversifying. But how do you give those firefighters [opportunities] along with all the white firefighters who have been here the whole time? You give them the tools to be successful — a professional development program and a template. Here’s what you need to do to become a lieutenant, if you want to be a captain, if you want to be a district chief. Here’s what you do if you want to be a hazmat technician. I have a book I’ll give you where we laid out anything that you want to be on this department. There’s no secret code. …

But when I got hired, there were codes, and either you knew somebody who had this information, or you worked at a volunteer department [and had junior training].

We have a playbook for hiring [women and minorities]. We’re doing all those things to get people hired to change the demographics to reflect the city. And when they get on, we want to give everybody the opportunity to be whatever they want to be.

Do you have a theory of leadership?

I like to talk, and so I intentionally try to listen. And I think if you listen, you could figure out things that are working in your organization and things that are not. But sometimes when you talk too much, or you aren’t listening to the words that are coming out of people’s mouths, and understanding what they’re saying, you’re just missing out on a lot of things that you can do to make the workplace better, which in turn makes our service to the community better.

Did you have leadership roles growing up?

Playing sports early on was one of the best things I could have ever been involved with. My parents made sure that I played football, soccer, baseball, basketball. Usually, the better athletes are the implied leaders. They become the captains. I learned how to be a leader in that capacity. … Sometimes just because you’re good doesn’t mean you’re a good leader.

As a teenager through my mid-college years, I was an intern at this program called INROADS Upstate New York. Their mission was to develop and train talented minority youth and prepare them for corporate and community leadership. I worked at National Grid [then Niagara Mohawk]. They teach you everything about corporate America, how to sit and eat, how to place your forks, how to dress, how to interact. Those things helped me, even when I didn’t feel like I was a leader.

What’s the best advice that a mentor or a boss ever gave you?

Stay true to yourself. And treat everybody like you would want to be treated.

Do you have any tips for a new leader or somebody who wants to become a leader?

The people you lead need to understand that you’re going to support them. When they make mistakes, it’s a team mistake. It’s not just an individual mistake. If that person keeps making the same mistake over and over, certainly you have to address it.

Figure out what your goals and mission are. Figure out what your deficiencies are. It’s your job as a leader to make sure you address those deficiencies.

If you could go back and give your younger self some advice, what would it be?

My wife doesn’t like this about me: I very rarely rush to a decision. If I buy a car, I kick the tires and it takes, like, two or three weeks. I always was the type of person to size up everything, almost to a fault. So, I would say, enjoy the ride a little bit more than I did.

Sometimes you have good days, sometimes you have bad days. And there’s always work to be done, things to be improved. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed the people that have been in my life enough. And I haven’t enjoyed my ability to make it this far in my life.

Once we accomplish a goal, even if it’s the biggest thing ever, I’m thinking about what’s next.

I’ve heard that being in charge can be lonely. Who do you go to for advice?

I grew up in a church. My youngest daughter goes to church all the time. Every time she would come home, she was like, are you going to go to church with me? … Over the last three or four years, I’ve been going religiously to two churches every Sunday. That’s what really makes me feel good — going to church, believing in God and knowing that when I get up, and I do the right thing, and I know I’m doing what I think is right, and what God want me to do. It makes being lonely not that lonely.

What keeps you up at night?

Those people who died in the line of duty. Around the country and the world, there are fires where people die all the time. NIOSH generates reports. I try to read those reports, and I look at some of the things they’re doing, or some of the issues that were cited that could have caused injuries or some of the fatalities. And then I overlay it on what we’re doing. I’m just trying to see how we can make those improvements be impactful and sustainable in our department. Even when you have all the right policies, all the right equipment, everything is going right, firefighters still die. And that’s what keeps me up at night.

It wasn’t an accident that on your watch, the city finally satisfied the terms of a federal consent decree that required 25% of new fire department hires to be minorities.

There’s always a reason not to hire people. We’ve been trying to figure out ways to hire people. … When you are in a leadership position where you can say yes or no to somebody getting hired, you just have to intentionally say yes to some things that most people historically have said no to.

… We’re leaving the door open for people who have never had a shot. If it weren’t for that being given to me, I wouldn’t even be here. So, I’m proud to be able to do that for other people.

Micron is coming and our community is growing. How would you sell someone on relocating to Central New York ?

The cost of living is the best that I’ve seen anywhere....

There is just so much here that is offered whether the different seasons, the different types of types of activities you can do, the cultural things that are available, different places where you can live.

We have some of the greatest people, some of my friends are the greatest people on Earth. And they were all born here and raised here. I love that when you are out of town and you see somebody from Syracuse , it’s just a different aura than most other places.

You can be whoever you want to be and be immersed in a very culturally diverse area. And I don’t know how many places have that.

©2024 Advance Local Media LLC.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.