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Chief Insights: ‘Observe, interact and plan’

It’s hard to sit back and watch when so much work needs to be done, but your team needs stability, not more chaos


Photo/Johnny Torgeson

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 Johnny Torgeson, the assistant chief of operations for Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow Fire & Emergency Services in California.

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

I can honestly say I never wanted to be a chief officer. Being a captain is what I enjoyed the most. It’s where I was most comfortable. However, as corny as it sounds, I felt an obligation to promote, even though my happy place was leading a team of firefighters. People need leaders. Those who will put themselves aside and answer the call when that feeling in their gut beckons them. Becoming a chief officer isn’t a glamorous position. It’s a position to serve at the highest capacity. So, it wasn’t an incident or a person, it was people.

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

The goal of my first 30 days was to learn my people, put their minds at ease and bring stability to the uneasiness that occurs after a promotion. The first 6 months were dedicated to partnering with my leaders and establishing a leadership team. You can’t lead alone, that’s managing. The overarching goal of the first year was to set a standard of excellence through modeling and communication, incrementally introducing small changes and building momentum.

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

Observe, interact and plan. It’s difficult to sit back and watch when so much work needs to get done, especially when you’re naturally a change leader. However, your new team is relying on you to bring stability, not more chaos. The first 30 days should be spent getting to know your people and observing work behaviors. Get a feel for the culture and the organizational dynamics. Start establishing relationships and identifying the strengths and weaknesses of your team. Finally, develop a plan based on your observations and interactions.

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

AWE people every shift. Show up every day with a positive Attitude, a ferocious Work-Ethic and a heart of Empathy.

Lightning Round Leadership

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

How do you organize your schedule and stay on schedule?

  • I’m terrible at this, but my daily routine is using to-do lists.

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

  • That’s an easy one: A new state-of-the-art fire station.

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

  • I hang out with firefighters and laugh. Laughter is medicine for the soul.
Johnny Torgeson is the assistant chief of operations for Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow Fire & Emergency Services in California. He is a national speaker on leadership and team development and a fire academy instructor. Torgeson has a doctorate in strategic leadership.