The biggest mistake a fire chief can make

Gary Ludwig, IAFC President Chief Brief
by Gary Ludwig, IAFC President

One day, a fire chief who is a good friend called me to talk, either for therapeutic reasons or validation that he made the right decision about something. In the end, the phone call may have been therapeutic, but he had certainly not made the right decision. He had reacted emotionally to a situation and felt he had to make an immediate decision. He made his decision without talking to anyone else or the parties involved to get more information.

But how did he get into this situation?

This fire chief’s brain had been trained over the years to make immediate decisions. After all, that is what we do as firefighters, company officers, chief officers or fire chiefs. On emergency scenes, there may not be time to consult, research, discuss or investigate all the possibilities and solutions. As such, our brains have become accustomed to quickly assessing the problem, devising the best solution, and making an immediate decision. Unfortunately, for some of us, this overlaps into our administrative responsibilities, and we sometimes make hasty and uninformed decisions before we have all the facts.

The biggest mistake you can make as a fire chief is making decisions before having all the information. After all, your decisions can impact your career, promotion chances, and even your ability to feed your family and put a roof over their head.

In the case of my friend, he did not do what I call, “I before E”—Intelligence before Emotions. He reacted to the first piece of information he heard and make an immediate decision, just like he was on an emergency scene. He did not take a breath, pause and get more information.

What happened: Failed decision-making in action

The chief relayed this story to me: He stopped by a department high-rise training evolution. During one drill, several different evolutions were being conducted, one being that firefighters had to take hose to one floor below the roof of an occupied 15-story building, pump through the standpipe system in a stairway one floor below the roof, and flow water through the stairway up to the roof to simulate an apartment fire on an upper floor. The stream was then directed over the side of the building. They could not flow water on an occupied floor.

When the fire chief went to the training, he went to the roof and found firefighters training without a safety officer. There were many obstacles on the roof, and the parapet wall around the edge of the building was only 6 inches tall. Firefighters were working while training and, at times, walking backward on the roof when trying to advance hose. Other times, they came close to the edge.

The chief was greatly upset at the absence of a safety officer, so he designated himself in that role.

Several weeks later, two of the fire chief’s firefighters got hurt at a six-story training tower at the fire academy when they improperly positioned the platform truck against the roof of the training tower. One firefighter jumped from the basket on the platform truck to the roof of the training tower and severely injured his feet.

When the chief learned of this second incident several weeks later, he let his emotions get the best of him. The chief immediately fired off a blistering email to the operations deputy chief, to whom the training chief reported, ordering a safety stand down on non-classroom training until all safety issues could be addressed. Turns out that while the chief thought he was copying all the chief officers in the department, he accidentally copied the entire fire department membership.

Chief-level mistakes

The chief admitted to me that he made several mistakes with the situation:

  1. He wrote an email in an emotional state.
  2. He didn’t investigate the event surrounding the second training event that caused the injuries.
  3. He didn’t double-check his email before sending. He said he was so focused on writing the email that he did not even notice that the auto-populate feature had included every firefighter in the department.

If the chief had checked first before sending the email, he would have learned that the training chief was already addressing these issues and examining safety during training evolutions. The training chief had already decided not to hold anymore training evolutions until the issue around safety had been fixed.

The chief’s actions caused a fervor in the department. He told me that the worst result was that he took a dedicated and hardworking training chief and ruined his enthusiasm for the job. The training chief was greatly upset by the chief’s actions, and the distress showed in the training chief’s attitude. There were days when the training chief took off because he did not even want to come to work. The chief said he learned that you never want to push a loyal and outstanding firefighter to the point that they do not care anymore.

Pause before reaction

President Abraham Lincoln was known for writing his “hot letters.” Whenever he was “hot,” he would write a blistering letter to someone. But Lincoln would do something that the fire chief did not do when he got upset. Lincoln would put the letter in a drawer and let his emotions cool down. After his emotions subsided, he then decided whether to send the letter. According to presidential historian Doris Kearns, most of the time, Lincoln would not send the letter and would write “never signed, never sent” on the letter. Others in history who were known for holding back on their emotions before they put something in writing include Mark Twain, Harry S. Truman and Winston Churchill.

As fire chiefs, one our goals should be to continue to enhance and lead the organization—not send it into turmoil. It is vital that we look before we leap and make sound, rational and good administrative decisions. In the case of my friend, the fire chief, I doubt he’ll make that mistake again.

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