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Chief Insights: ‘The first 30 days as a fire chief were focused on building trust and listening’

Reflecting on life-changing moments, decision-making process, and advice to my younger self


“Focus on the people,” Caughey advises new chiefs.

Photo/John Odegard

The following content is part of a new FireRescue1 initiative – the Fire Leader Playbook – aimed at helping new fire service leaders increase their effectiveness, enhance their leadership KSAs, develop trust among crewmembers, and build confidence. Through a handful of questions presented by FireRescue1, veteran fire service leaders reflect on their early days in leadership roles and offer advice, while newer leaders detail their experiences taking on a new position. Email to offer your insights for the Fire Leader Playbook.

Following are the Chief Insights from Jason Caughey, fire chief of the Laramie County (Wyo.) Fire Authority.

What was the incident or person in your career that put you on the path to becoming a chief?

As a young boy growing up in the 1970s, I was enamored by the TV show “Emergency!” My passion for emergency services was elevated due to my dad and an influential schoolteacher named George Carlson. They were both teachers but worked their summers as sheriff’s deputies.

By age 13, I was active in a local explorer post, serving as a first responder for a multitude of large events in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. In 1986, our explorer post was asked to assist in monitoring the aftermath of a fatal natural gas leak located in a neighboring community. The ability to help during such devastation and destruction solidified my desire to be in emergency services.

Fast forward a decade, I was a young firefighter sitting in a condo in Big Sky, Montana. In the condo were 25 of the most prominent American fire service leaders. One of those leaders was Chief Alan Brunacini. I will never forget enjoying my lunch that day, and Bruno sat down next to me. Keep in mind, this was before social media. I read every item that Bruno had written in all the magazines and books. He looks at me, pats my thigh, says “Speak up, we want to hear from you.” In shock, and like a backstage groupie, my hands sweaty, I responded, “Yes, sir.”

That was the moment I knew I wanted to be a fire chief. That moment also solidified my friendship and mentorship with America’s fire chief, Alan V. Brunacini. [Read more: “Chief Alan Brunacini: The missing voice of reason in the fire service.”]

Looking back, what did you want to accomplish, improve or make better in your first 30 days as chief, 6 months as chief and year as chief?

I have been fortunate to be promoted to fire chief of two organizations during my career, and both those organizations provided me the opportunity to be a non-traditional fire chief. What I mean by non-traditional is that both organizations provided me enough rope to create and envision what we could be. They offered the opportunity to experiment with many aspects of our organization. Through all of this, though, there was one common goal: to better serve our internal and external customers.

For our internal customers, firefighters, I wanted to provide them a vision of customers service, a vision of not limiting us to just being volunteers, to become an example of what we can be, even with a small budget and small call volume. I wanted to grow our members into amazing community members and through that process impact our external customers.

For our external customers, citizens, I wanted them to see the value of our members, the value of our service to them. I wanted them to experience the best, most caring service of their life while they were having potentially the worst day of their life.

The first 30 days as a fire chief were focused on building trust and listening. The first six months focused on building trust, listening and starting to engage my vision of service. The first year the goal was to have the foundation formed for the future of our organization by connecting our formal and informal leaders to the vision of service. Notice that I wasn’t focused on “stuff”; I was focused on people. This holds true today – the cool “stuff” will happen if you have the people to drive the service. Focus on people.

What’s your process for making major decisions?

Organizational decisions impact much more than the title on a policy or program. Organizational decisions are like a spiderweb; they intertwine and impact all facets of what we do. For me there are two major factors in making a new policy or procedure decision:

  1. How does it impact the service to our members?
  2. How does it impact the service that we provide our citizens?

If a decision negatively impacts either of those factors, we press pause and investigate the risk associated with the new policy and try to identify if the risk is worth the reward. Through that process, we explore alternative solutions. We also educate and communicate the “Why” of the policy to lessen the blow associated with change. We use the committee format to assist with this process, but I try to provide a vision and some parameters for the committee to work within.

Not all policies can be made by committee, and when I must drive a new policy, I focus heavily on communicating and listening. As a young leader, I learned you cannot write enough policies to impact your organization. The solution to needing policies is developing your culture and teaching and growing the leaders at all levels of the organization. By creating thinking, engaged members and leaders, many policies can be removed. In addition, you cannot beat your members into performing by policy or discipline. But you can motivate, empower and grow your members’ ownership in the culture and values of your organization. When you accomplish this, you will see that they self-police those issues once rules by policies. Yes, we still need guidelines, but I found that spending more time on the people – leading them, coaching them, listening and communicating at all levels of our organization – I was more successful than any policy that I wrote. Note: Some members need policies because of their lack of confidence and understanding. Teaching them autonomy to think and create is OK as long as their focus remains within our values.

If you could go back to your rookie/probie self, what would you tell them?

Relationships, relationships, relationships. You might not believe this, but I am an introvert, shy by nature. It took me many years to recognize the value and importance of relationships. I missed many opportunities those first few years on building relationships.

The second thing would be to focus on the things that matter instead of the cool helmet, sticker or T-shirt. Here’s an example: The morning after my promotion to captain, I was in the office and Butch Weedon, the retired Montana state training director, walked in and asked what I was doing. I told him I was ordering a new helmet. (I thought captains needed the cool red helmet.) Butch asked, “Will that helmet make you a better leader? Will that helmet provide better service to Mrs. Smith?” As he walked out of my office, he added, “It’s not the helmet that got promoted, its what’s under it that matters.” I closed the catalog and went back to work. The red helmet that was issued to me served me very well and hangs on my office wall today.

Lightning round LEADERSHIP

  • What is a leadership book, podcast or seminar you’ve found invaluable? “Rules for a Knight” and “The Ideal Team Player.”
  • How do you organize your schedule and stay on schedule? Poorly. Technology is helping with connected calendars.
  • If you knew the budget request would be approved, what’s a big purchase you’d make for your department today? Investment in our people. I would increase the value package for our volunteers to include more opportunities for them to grow.
  • At the end of the workday, how do you recharge? Not effectively. My Garmin watch reminds me that my body battery is low often. I love to travel and spend time with my wife and our dog. I find a huge recharge in listening to small business owners’ stories on how they started and grew their business.

Jason Caughey is the fire chief of the Laramie County Fire Authority in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and an adjunct professor for Laramie County Community College, where he teaches on the principles of fire behavior. Prior to arriving in Cheyenne in 2011, he was the fire chief of Gore Hill Fire Rescue in Great Falls, Montana. He also spent 10 years working for the Montana Fire Services Training School as a regional instructor and regional training manager for the state of Montana. Caughey has been an active member in the “Kill the Flashover” project, led by Joe Starnes. He is also a current technical member of the UL Positive Pressure test committee and a lead instructor for the Ottawa Project “Knowledge to Practice.” Caughey has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Columbia Southern University and is working on his master’s degree in public administration. He is currently attending the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer program. Connect with Caughey on LinkedIn or via email.