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Chief Insights: ‘The pushback was epic!’

New chiefs, don’t make too many changes too fast or you’ll face significant resistance


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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 Fire Chief Darryl Jones.

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

I was a rookie firefighter in the City of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. Aliquippa was a steel town that was hit hard by the collapse of the steel industry in the early 1980s. Aliquippa could not afford a career department, yet at the same time could not afford not to have a career department.

On Oct. 10, 1987, with two months on the job, I responded to a reported structural fire with entrapment. We were fortunate on this day to have three people on the rig instead of the normal two. Upon arrival, we were confronted with a 2½-story wood-frame, balloon construction, single-family dwelling with heavy fire on Division-1 Side Alpha. As the driver/operator, I helped my partners stretch their attack lines, charged their lines, and then was going to find a hydrant when neighbors approached me and said there were kids trapped in a second-floor bedroom. Witnesses stated they saw them at the window. I laddered the porch roof and went in. Unfortunately, I did not find the children in time.

This incident traumatized me. A fact that I finally accepted 30-plus years after the fact. The media tried to make me a hero, but I felt like a failure. Because of what I believed was my failure, three children lost their lives. Thanks to love and support from my immediate family, I was able to survive the incident. This was my “A-ha!” moment. This is when I realized this poor town and its citizens were paying for me to do a job at which I failed. This incident marked the first change in my “Why” – why I became a firefighter. This incident set in motion my desire to train and learn all that I could about the fire service and being a firefighter.

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

I continually state that the company officer is the link between the fire department and the public. A community rates its fire department based upon the service it receives. I wanted to give the citizens of Aliquippa the best service that we could with the limited resources we had. It is important to remember that we are called to intervene in an emergency, whether real or perceived. There is no difference to the public. To manage the public’s emergencies, I believe a company officer should have four things:

  1. Command presence
  2. A high level of skills
  3. Empathy
  4. Respect

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

Take it slow. Don’t make too many changes too fast. I made this mistake. I saw so many gaps. My first week as a chief I was firing off memos and changes like they were going out of style. The pushback was epic! It set me back years. Remember, slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

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

I would tell him to be flexible, maintain a growth mindset, and never stop learning. Learn to think critically, and maintain your physical and mental health. Finally, maintain a good work-life balance. There is a world and life outside of the fire service. Check it out and enjoy it.

Lightning round leadership

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

Being a lifelong learner and avid reader, it is hard to pick a single book, but I will go with “You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most” by Marcus, McNulty, Henderson and Dorn.

How do you organize your schedule and stay on schedule?

I use a time management system designed by Dave Krenshaw.

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

We are drastically short on apparatus. However, due to supply chain problems, a new engine is 2½ years out and a new truck is over 3 years out.

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

Reading is my hobby. Not just skimming material, I’ve learned to dive deep into some material. I find it relaxing.

Darryl Jones is the fire chief for the City of Pittsburgh Fire Bureau. Jones is responsible for the leadership over all personnel and oversees the daily operations of the Fire Bureau. Chief Jones began his career with the city in 2007 after serving 20 years with the Aliquippa (Pennsylvania) Fire Department. Jones is a graduate of Carlow University, Carnegie Mellon University and Capella University.