Battalion Notes – The Act

Erich Roden

The Battalion Chief (BC) position, or whatever your rank department designates it, is one of front-line, administrative authority and management of field operations. This includes not only the fireground and scenes of emergencies, but inside the actual firehouses under your charge in a respective, geographical Battalion, too. The administrative stuff and firefighting operations are the easy part of your day, as we have all of the rules, regulations, standard operating guidelines, policy and procedures, ordinances, and union contracts we need to guide us through the day. What’s difficult is how you develop your own voice and personal act to manage all of the above that makes you genuine and competent. 

A sage, experienced chief officer gave me some sound advice when I got promoted to BC: he said, “It’ll take you an entire year to feel comfortable in this position.” I originally dismissed this as hyperbolic management advice that he had to give everyone, but he was absolutely right. Although you’ve spent some time as a company officer, you soon realize that you can’t forget where you came from, but you aren’t there, anymore. Here’s another way to put it: when you’re a firefighter, all of it’s funny; a company officer, half of it’s funny; and a chief…none of it is funny. The fire department is a complex system to begin with, but the BC position is the one that becomes the gatekeeper between line and management. It’s acceptable to integrate into the firehouse communities within your battalion, but no matter what you think, they all want you to be a chief when it’s time to do chief stuff; to take things seriously and with a sense of urgency and importance when approached. Conversely, your bosses expect you to implement policy and procedure without being a contrarian, manage personnel issues with an administrative lens and make sure everything goes according to plan. Simple?

Think back to the last fire that went bad, the personnel misfortune in a firehouse that occurred while you were clocked-in and or rumor that is polarizing every kitchen table with something the Battalion said during rounds. What is the first question the troops will ask? Yep, “who was the chief working, that day?” Every scenario above always begins with a top-down analysis of responsibility. How the inferences and analysis will go depends on what they think of you as a chief. This is subjective, but also where group-think rears its ugly head in terms of context and perspective; however, if the troops consider you a competent and serious chief officer, then you’ll be in good hands as they work through the issue at the table and include rational thoughts about how things went wrong. If they think otherwise, then you’ll take the blame and we all know that blame is a powerful motivator to throw shade at the department – under your name and watch. Regardless, you have little control over your reputation at any rank. Sorry, but it’s true. All you have control over is how you are as a manager and person – and how you react to being called-out on your reputation or quirks. Your act will always precede you, and not everyone will buy it, even though it may have few or inconsequential flaws. This is because everyone has their own expectations and ideology of what makes a (good chief). This isn’t a bad thing. If we were all the same, we’d always have the same problems and solutions to everything and that isn’t what progress is made of. 

So what makes a good chief? Think about the chiefs you looked up to since your first day in the firehouse: were they all the same type of person? Have the same level of competency? Have the same ethos? Expectations? Demands? The answer is rhetorical because it’s a sound, “No.” Moreover, you can always name more than a few chiefs that everyone loved, and you’ll realize after thinking about it that they were different in many aspects. So why is there consensus on likability with these chiefs and not with others, even though they were sometimes markedly different? The answer is simple: they were consistent with their own act. You may not have appreciated everything about them, but you knew they were good chiefs because they were genuine in how they ran the shop. They may not have won at every kitchen table or fireground, but they gave it their all at both. Being genuine means that you find the place your voice (persona) fits between what management wants you to be vs. what the troops hope you will be. I don’t care what anyone thinks, you can’t fake-it-till-you-make-it. Everyone can see through your act and that’s why you need to give a solid year to figure out which one you’re going to stick with. That doesn’t mean you can’t change, I certainly have in a few areas of my own, but it’s the one you’ll feel comfortable portraying because you feel genuine, too.

I won’t get into a ton of different types of chief personas, as there are many, but there are always the ones you thought were the chiefs that you were going to be like, if given the opportunity. How do you pick one? Start with those chiefs mentioned above that you wanted to be like as a firefighter: What worked for them? How did they interact with the troops? What did they do when they saw something that they didn’t like? What particularities did they expect at fires? Who were mine? I’ll give you one that immediately comes to mind anytime someone asks who my ‘BC Crush’ was as firefighter and company officer:

Battalion Chief Leo Harper 

Chief Harper was what you’d call a “Black Socks” chief. His peeve was uniform and appearance. Chief Harper was known as the most squared-away guy back in the day and was black and white with rules, regs, standard operating procedures…everything – an old-school chief. He treated everyone the same, and was also know as the fairest of them all, but I always felt like he treated me a little better. I was lucky to work with him when I got a good truck in his battalion after a few years on the job. He and I also connected on a personal and professional level because he was always the one I wanted (hoped) to have the final say on things, in life and the job. Whether it was a polarizing memo, policy, or issue, his stance was always the one that was or seemed right for everyone involved, even the antagonist. That’s harder to figure out than you think, but he mastered it after a thousand years on the job. He garnered so much respect, that when the announcement came over the house PA that the Battalion was in quarters, everyone quickly tucked in their shirts, put black socks on, took of their ‘illegal’ hats and always walked by a mirror before heading into the kitchen – even those who were detailed in for the day. He was great at fires; didn’t mind the “Suggestion Box” at the Command Post when bosses begged for an assignment (more on managing this in another installment); always took care of the troops and never minded taking one in the shorts for someone in his Battalion, as long as they looked presentable…

Chief Harper is now long retired, but he stays active with the honor guard and has come to every one of my promotions. He still gives sage advice to this day and I recently got to chide him about his particular peeve with guys’ appearance in the old days while we were at a department event. He said, “look, a guy out of uniform isn’t disrespecting me, he’s disrespecting his officer. That’s why I always gave tickles for appearance.” Read that a few times and tell that me that he’s wrong. Yes, he’s of course right. Chief Harper is one of several that I fall back on when analyzing a situation or culture of a firehouse. Take some time to reflect on the ones that make you, too, and work on incorporating their attributes into your own persona in a way that makes it a sincere part of your voice and act. You’ll get a few shots at figuring it out over the course of your first year or so, so don’t rush it. Don’t be afraid to ask your confidants if you appear to be over-doing it, or worse, not being genuine or the company man that turns everyone off. You’ll notice it right away when you’re believed by the troops, by how they respond to you, ask you for help or refer to you when things go good or bad. 

Good luck.

One thought on “Battalion Notes – The Act

  1. As a new Deputy Chief, 8 months now, this piece spoke to a lot of my personal insecurities about the way the men see me and how I want to be seen. Thank you for this.

    v/r

    Deputy Chief Eric Fricke Shift Commander Group 4 Newton, MA Fire Department efricke@newtonma.gov ________________________________

    Like

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