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Chief Insights: ‘Don’t take things personally’

You will be pulled in many directions and take some shots from outsiders, so it’s important to have a support system

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Photo/Courtesy of Sam DiGiovanna

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, 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 insights from Chief Sam DiGiovanna.

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

Former U.S. Fire Administrator Ernie Mitchell. Mitchell was my former fire chief. He saw something in me and believed in me. When I took the captain’s exam, during my chief’s interview with him, he told me I was going to be a 40-hour administrative captain overseeing training and disaster preparedness. I told him I’d rather watch grass grow than be a 40-hour admin captain. His reply: “OK, thank you, I’ll interview the next person on the eligibility list.” I quickly changed my mind and said I’d take it. It was the best move I made, as it helped prepare me for battalion chief and later fire chief. When I see him at conferences now, I remind him about that, and we both laugh. I owe him a lot and have all the respect in the world for him. He taught me so much, and I am forever grateful.

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

Regionalized training. In Area C of Los Angeles, we have approximately 12 departments. We would run mutual aid together and eventually went to auto aid. We worked fires and ran into each other’s jurisdictions daily but lacked regional training. It was an uphill battle in the beginning as many agencies worked in silos. Thanks to the Los Angeles Area Fire Chiefs and their support, we eventually got there. In today’s quickly changing world, with significant events occurring daily, no matter what size agency, we need each other’s support.

What advice you would give chiefs in their first 30 days on the job?

Pace yourself. It can be very overwhelming as a newly appointed chief. No matter how much schooling you have, training or experience on the fireground, or years on the job, not much can prepare you to be a chief. You will be pulled in many directions from within your own department, by the city manager, city council, community members, chief organizations and others. Don’t take things personally. Each of these individuals or groups will take a shot at you at one point or another. Surround yourself with good people. Find some tenured chiefs to help, run things by them, and let them mentor you. Also, create a chief’s peer support network to sound things off one another. Most importantly, set the ego aside and learn to serve, not be served.

[Read next: A week in the life of a fire chief: ‘It’s lonely at the top’]

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

Appreciate this occupation. It is one of the best jobs in the world. I see too many who do not appreciate this occupation, and they expect more from their agency than they will invest in it. Stay humble, train, train and train! Did I mention train?

Lightning round leadership

What is a leadership book, podcast or seminar you’ve found invaluable?

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Photo/Courtesy of Sam DiGiovanna

  • The best leadership book I ever read (and still do) is the Holy Bible. It is full of examples of both good and bad leadership. Proverbs has so much wisdom that parallels and exceeds any psychology book I’ve read.

How do you organize your schedule and stay on schedule?

  • Plan ahead and know my limitations. I avoid taking on more than I can handle. I also know when to say no. As a fire chief, we think we are supposed to be superman/woman. We aren’t, so don’t try to be. It will age you and affect your health and career very quickly.

If you knew the budget request would be approved, what’s a big purchase you’d make for your department today?

  • A state-of-the-art multi-use training center. We are currently in a planning stage. In the county of Los Angeles, we are pretty much “land-locked.” Land is too valuable here for a training center. Many residents push back as they have the “not in my backyard” mentality. This is difficult when training is so important.

At the end of the workday, how do you recharge?

  • Faith, exercise, music and the beach. Along with good conversation with family and friends over dinner.

Sam DiGiovanna is a 35-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as fire chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, California. DiGiovanna also serves as executive vice president of fire operations for Cordico, which provides access to critical mental health information and resources to help those on the front lines best take care of themselves and ensure they are best prepared to serve others. Cordico was acquired by Lexipol in 2020.