Who Reports to Who?

Dear Nozzlehead: I’m a member of two different volunteer fire departments, and am the assistant chief at one of them. While at a critique with the other fire department, their chief told his members that they were not to take orders from the officers of my department when they were on our scene. He explained that his officers were more experienced and, therefore, his firefighters should only take orders from them. I’m not sure how to respond to this diplomatically. Some of his officers do have more experience; however, the Incident Command System (ICS) is what it is, and I think his instructions have the potential to cause confusion and freelancing. What are your thoughts?
—Diplomatically Disturbed
Dear Disturbed,
I’ve known some folks who belong to more than one volunteer fire department. On the one hand, it’s cool because you get more runs, more opportunities and maybe even more training—and that’s a good thing. But it also reminds me of a dream I once had where I had two wives at the same time. Oh, what a wonderful dream it was …. Are you kidding me? It was a NIGHTMARE!

Pause for a moment and think about my lil’ fantasy dream. In this scenario, you double the ways of getting yelled at. You double your chances of NOT saying the right thing. You double the likelihood of forgetting certain dates. You double the mother-in-law factor. You double your ways of NOT putting the toilet seat in the correct position, whatever that magical spot may be. And you DOUBLE your chances of hearing about their damn headache and why you must keep your hands to yourself. Again. Now before you call me sexist, everyone needs to relax. It’s just a fantasy—not quite “Fifty Shades of Nozzlehead,” though.

Belonging to two volunteer fire departments is interesting for sure. Although there may be some benefits, where do the loyalty and dedication rest? As the old saying goes, “You can’t ride two horses with one behind.” Isn’t being on call for neighboring fire departments like someone trying to swim and clap their hands at the same time?
OK, here’s the deal. Many fire departments run regularly with other departments through box alarms, automatic mutual aid, etc., but few have the same training and operational standards, requirements, guidelines and policies. I appreciate your comment about ICS, but it’s been my experience that you can visit 10 departments and hear 10 different definitions or interpretations of what ICS is. Sad but true.
How about this: If departments are going to run with each other regularly, they MUST have common foundations. Standard operating procedures/guidelines, training minimums, radio terminology and all that stuff that can be the cause of problems on the multi-fire department firegound must be dealt with ahead of time.

So the other department’s chief stated that his own officers were more experienced and that his firefighters are only to take orders from those officers? Scary. Experience is important, but what is experience? I know people in the fire service who have decades of experience—along with death-inviting habits and cluelessness on the fireground. And they can keep that kind of experience OFF our fireground! I also know some “five-year wonders” who, quite frankly, have less experience than most in terms of years, but who put their time to good use by making sure they stay at the top of their game as firefighters. They train, train and train and LISTEN to those who have experience. A good combination.
Instead of these two departments, chiefs and anyone else who’s whining about which department is better and who gets to listen to who, how about they just STANDARDIZE the apparatus (not the colors, relax—just the way the rigs are set up), training, officer qualifications, SOPs, SOGs, etc., so that when both fire departments arrive, they have essentially eliminated the question of who is better than who—and the two can operate as one?

Consider programs like Blue Card Command, which trains every officer equally on how to perform size up and how to function on the fireground and during all-hazard operations. Too simple? Seriously, I know it seems that way, but it can be done and it works. You CAN have two separate fire departments that actually operate as ONE when the tones go off; some parts of North America operate like that each and every day.

A simple test question is to ask yourself, “Are we doing what’s best for those who called 9-1-1 and for those who are responding?” Having different stuff for different departments that respond together regularly increases the risk of things getting all screwed up—and sometimes irreversibly screwed up.
How does this impact you belonging to two departments? Work with some of the other “silent majority” (that I hope exists) to get these changes in place so that a lieutenant is a lieutenant, a captain is a captain, a chief is a chief and a pumper is a pumper. By doing that, it pretty much eliminates the issues you raised and creates a relatively level playing field. But it does absolutely nothing to improve my damn dream.

Current Issue

April 2017
Volume 12, Issue 4