OPsNetlink -- Turning the Ship

Published: 11/07/2011
Author: The International Association of Fire Chiefs

By Deputy Chief John F. Sullivan, Worcester Fire Department

Moving an aircraft carrier takes patience and perseverance, and the same is true for any fire service organization. Every Operations Chief has a personal vision for their department’s operational course and we hope to steer the ship in that direction. Being able to realize that vision is dependent upon several factors; how long you hope or expect to be in the position, how much authority you have to make institutional changes; how receptive your organization is to the concept of change, and how much patience you have as a leader.

We are all in the position of following in the footsteps of a predecessor, either good or bad. This can be the proverbial double-edged sword. If the person who held that position prior to your arrival was an all-star; it may be very difficult to live up to the expectations of that heritage. If that person was a place-holder, expectations of your arrival could be equally daunting, the masses yearning for leadership. Either way, the troops are anticipating a change, which will cause some level of anxiety. The impact of a new “boss” in Operations will depend in large part on your history with the department. We have all sown the seeds of whom and what we are over a long period of time; our leadership style and personality should not be a surprise to anyone.

Directing the operations portion of a fire service agency is an “all-in” proposition. To a great extent, operations is the public face of our profession, and the manner with which we deliver services to our customers is the litmus test of how well our organizations are led. The lions-share of personnel, budget dollars and resources are dedicated to the operations side of the house, therefore strong and definitive leadership is necessary to keep the mission and vision foremost. Creating a customer-oriented environment in operations will help to ensure an empathetic workforce that provides high quality services to our communities. In turn your department should receive favorable performance reviews by our customers.

The ship needs a course in order to navigate. I believe in setting the course, or in this case, the expectations of the Operations Bureau high. By setting the bar high, we are really setting an ideal goal for our folks to work towards. No person or organization can expect perfection, but we must be willing to set our standards in that direction, otherwise we are limiting the potential of our workforce. The fire service is replete with high achievers, and setting our organizational goals and expectations high, releases the potential to its fullest. But expectations are useless without responsibility and authority. Most people appreciate the opportunity to take on a challenge that has relevance and importance to the profession. They do not shy away from a challenge as long as they are given the opportunity without too many restrictions. Obviously oversight is necessary to ensure that the organization is within its jurisdiction and scope of responsibility; however no harm can come from exploring the opportunities.

The Operations Bureau Chief is one of the best positions of the fire service! We have an enthusiastic, highly motivated staff, and little to none of the political nightmares that the Fire Chief must endure. The Ops Chief can both run and pass with equal regularity. Nothing brings as much satisfaction as seeing a project through to fruition with the possible exception of mentoring a colleague or subordinate to the same result. Watching the company officers mature as leaders has great satisfaction, as long as you are providing them opportunities to shine. Look for the win-win and your organization will most assuredly win! Utilizing the resources of the IAFC‘s conferences, section membership and this newly formed OpsNetlink forum can provide an Operations Chief with the inspiration and tools to accomplish their operational mission and fulfill their vision.

The secret to turning the ship is to let the ship turn itself. Create an atmosphere where the ship wants to turn, and the internal compass will steer it in the right direction. The joy is truly in the journey, but the satisfaction of arriving is pretty good too.


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