Fire chiefs, if you cannot lead during a crisis, please, step aside

During crisis, chiefs must communicate effectively, be honest, get personal and convey hope


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Leading during good times is easy. During good times, you may have plenty of money in your budget, your firefighters may be happy, and there is no crisis to navigate.

But true leadership emerges during the most challenging of times. And those who have difficulty leading during difficult times find themselves in unchartered waters with no idea which direction to go.

These are difficult times.

The COVID-19 pandemic that started earlier this year – and that is still causing a record number of cases in some states – is a situation that separates fire leaders from non-leaders.

Bottom line: If you sat your office for the last seven months, with your head in the sand, and did not respond to what was happening, you need to step aside, as you were not providing leadership to your firefighters and your community when it was most needed.

It has not been easy to be a fire chief during the last seven months. Your firefighters probably experienced much fear and anxiety over the potential of getting infected or taking the virus home to their family after being exposed on some call. You may have had to send administrative staff home to reduce their exposure, and then you find administrative functions falling through the cracks since no one is in the office to address them. Your supply chain may have been compromised, and your department did not have enough PPE and other items, such as hand-sanitizers. This list of challenges, including the morale of your firefighters and other employees during the last seven months, is long!

Unfortunately, we have had a significant number of firefighters and EMS personnel die after contracting the virus. According to the IAFC, over 1,000 firefighters have been infected. In these departments and surrounding communities, this certainly intensifies the fear and anxiety.

You probably experienced a reduction in revenue with the economic downturn that will impact your fire department budget. It might be in the form of loss tax revenue or, if a volunteer fire department, the inability to raise money. Fire chiefs that I have talked to from fire districts seem to be faring much better since most of their revenue comes from property taxes. But any significant job loss that dominos into foreclosures on homes will certainly impact revenue for fire districts in the long run, if not the immediate future.

Crisis communication is the key

History is filled with demonstrated leadership during a crisis. Some that come to mind for me include Rudy Giuliani serving as mayor of New York during the 9/11 attacks and Winston Churchill during World War II.           

In the case of Winston Churchill, he rallied the British people during 56 straight nights of intense bombing from Germany. Churchill would not surrender, and even the Nazis were shocked that the British people and those who surrounded Churchill did not turn on him.

How did Churchill do it? How did he keep the British people strong and resolute during intense bombings? He communicated to the British people through powerful speeches.

If you have not been communicating with your firefighters over the last seven months, you have not been leading. If you have not been providing guidance on how your members can protect themselves with best practices, communicating what you are doing to get the proper PPE for them, explaining to them that you have processes in place if they become exposed, sharing what you are going to do to limit their exposures, among a host of other issues surrounding the coronavirus, then you have failed one of the primary tenants of leadership – communicating.

Studies have shown when leaders speak, it has a calming effect. Logically, this makes sense. In the absence of any communication and the absence of leadership, there will be chaos. The more you communicate and talk with your firefighters, the more you are able to maintain morale and functionality.

Honesty matters

The second part of communicating with your firefighters during a crisis is honesty – sometimes brutal honest answers must be given to difficult questions.

The IAFC is projecting the possibility of up to 30,000 firefighters be laid off over the next 12 months because of the economic fallout. Those are brutal and frank conversations that must be had with your firefighters if your budget is going to be impacted from loss of revenue.

Labor and management should be working together where it looks like departments may have to lay off firefighters to see what can be done to prevent it from happening. But it is up to leadership to engage labor and talk candidly about the situation and work as a team toward solutions to prevent layoffs to maintain a ready firefighting force for the community.

If you want to be an effective leader during a crisis, you will need to have difficult conversations. You cannot do conflict avoidance.

Personal is powerful

Something to remember when communicating with your firefighters is to make sure the messages come from you as the fire chief, not the city you represent. Personal is powerful. People tend not to trust entities or people they do not know, but they may trust other human beings who demonstrate that they are worthy of trust. People can handle the truth, but if you lie, you lose all credibility.

You need to communicate with your firefighters often. Just because you talked to them once does not mean you can check the box and go back and sit at your desk. Relieving anxiety and keeping your firefighters focused during a crisis in an ongoing job.

Make sure you communicate not only to your firefighters but also the citizens. You need to send the message to your citizens and the community that the fire department does not shut down and lock their doors during a crisis, and that the same response will come when they call 911.

If you have the opportunity, use video. There’s nothing wrong with emails or social media posts, but people really want to see your face. 

Here is the video I did for my community back in March during the outbreak.

Convey hope

Be truthful and promote optimism. One of my favorite sayings during this crisis that I said repeatedly is, “We will get through this. There is always a green light after the red light.”

It is during times of crisis that you as a leader are defined, not by the crisis, but how you respond to it. As a leader, you need to communicate, be honest, get personal and convey hope. We owe it to our firefighters and the community.

[Read next: 4 principles for leadership in times of crisis]

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