How to stay focused on organizational priorities amid challenging times

Three steps chiefs can employ to ensure their departments continue to move forward despite the headwinds


This article originally appeared in the Oct. 13 Fire Chief newsletter. Read the full briefing here and sign up for the Fire Chief newsletter to stay in the loop on leadership topics.

Fire service leaders are facing the greatest challenge of their careers. While dealing with the normal day-to-day stressors of leading a department, chiefs have to tackle safety and response challenges associated with COVID-19 and civil unrest, as well as the short- and long-term economic impacts caused by the pandemic. Times are also uncertain for our members; as leaders in their households, they face similar challenges. Some members are resilient and adept at coping, but there’s no question they desperately need us to lead.

So what are fire chiefs to do when faced with budget shortfalls, increased scrutiny, COVID-19 lockdowns and a society that often doesn’t seem supportive of public safety? Following are three quick pointers that can help leaders stay focused on organizational priorities and ensure their fire departments continue to move forward despite the headwinds.

#1: Reprioritize, Don’t Retreat

Firefighters battle a blaze in Philadelphia, Monday, June 1, 2020 in the aftermath of protest and unrest in reaction to the death of George Floyd. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Firefighters battle a blaze in Philadelphia, Monday, June 1, 2020 in the aftermath of protest and unrest in reaction to the death of George Floyd. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Don’t “throw your sucker in the dirt” and let current events derail your three-year or five-year departmental plan. Fire officers conduct a 360-degree assessment upon arrival on the fireground. Use a similar approach to identify lower-budget commitment projects that provide high organizational impact. Initiatives such as rewriting policies, rolling out a new training program or forming a peer support team often take a backseat to large, more glamorous, higher-cost projects such as apparatus or personal protective equipment purchases.

Now’s the time to focus on the more inexpensive initiatives that can nevertheless have deep, lasting impact. What projects can you take on that support the values underlying your strategic plan and your long-term vision for the department?

#2: Protect Your Department, Members & Community

COVID-19 and civil unrest can cause our best employees to lash out or say something stupid in the firehouse or on social media. Ensure department policy is current with state and federal law, court rulings and best practice. Then continuously train on policies just as we do everything else. Firefighter acknowledgment of policies is a first step, but it doesn’t change behavior the way KNOWLEDGE of the policy will.

Key policies and procedures to focus on include social media use, code of conduct, response to civil unrestbody armor and tactical withdrawal. And remember that skills and knowledge recede over time. You likely provided communicable disease refreshers when COVID-19 first hit, but it is time to revisit this training? If so, visit Lexipol’s Coronavirus Learning & Policy Center, where you can access free online training courses.

#3: Combat Decision Fatigue

Do not let decision fatigue cause you to fall into a trap of being reactive instead of strategic. With lawsuits against public safety agencies a constant threat, the stakes for sound decision-making have never been higher. But leaders are not immune to the barrage of negative information coming at us—political strife and divisiveness, natural disasters such as destructive hurricanes and wildfires, exhaustion stemming from repeated setbacks in curtailing COVID-19 infection rates. All this can lead to impulsive decision-making or even a refusal to make decisions. And it’s not just the number of decisions we have to make, but also the severity that can result in a bad decision.

To protect yourself, tackle complex decisions early in the day. Automate choices where possible, such as subscribing to a food delivery program. Establish routines and stick to them as closely as possible. And remember to exercise—it reduces stress and improves work performance, mood and overall confidence.

Step Up or Step Out

Faced with unprecedented challenges, it can be tempting for fire chiefs to take a wait-and-see approach. But do nothing now, and you lose the opportunity to lead later. It is possible to move your department forward even in today’s environment.

Your vehicle has three mirrors looking backward and only one looking forward. Yet if you don’t look through the front windshield, you won’t get anywhere. As fire service leaders, we learn from what’s behind us, but we must focus on where we are headed to be great!

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