Looking beyond the obvious to be a full-contact leader
By Anthony Avillo and Ed Flood
Captain Alice Wonder is company commander of Engine 27 (E-27). E-27 is first-due in one of the busier districts in the city. The department is in the process of upgrading and replacing all large-diameter hose (LDH) with new five-inch LDH. The upgrade would standardize supply hose with the other departments in the county mutual-aid agreement. E-27 was one of the first companies to be fully upgraded.
E-27 has worked two multiple-alarm fires with the new LDH inventory. At the end of both jobs, the supply hose was disconnected and drained. On each occasion, Wonder’s firefighters complained that the locking mechanisms on the new Storz couplings were abnormally difficult to connect and disconnect. The pump operator mentioned that a number of LDH couplings were leaking under working pressures.
Reporting the Problem
Back at quarters after the second job, Wonder was told by her battalion commander to call Deputy Chief Grace Powers to report on the problems with the new supply hose. Wonder informed Powers that E-27 needed to strip the bed and check every coupling to determine the serviceability of the new LDH. Powers agreed and had another engine company cover E-27’s response area.
Close inspection of the hose determined that the locking devices on the LDH couplings were defective. Wonder ordered all new LDH removed from service and had the bed repacked with the older large-diameter lengths. The defective lengths were tagged for maintenance and placed out of service. Wonder then informed Powers of the situation and her decision to remove and replace all defective hose. Powers agreed with Wonder’s decision and ordered her to submit the required maintenance/repair report. Wonder was to include a supplemental report to the chief of maintenance detailing the situation, the results of her inspection including the problems confronted on the fireground, as well as the results of her inspection of the couplings and the action taken to place the new LDH out of service.
During shift change and transfer of command, Wonder laid out the entire supply hose situation for her relief.
Returning to work next duty day, Wonder was informed by the off-going officer that Chief of Maintenance Mark Entymme was “bent out of shape” that she had besmirched his pet hose project. Entymme decreed the new hose could not be defective. He ordered the new supply hose placed back in service.
Wonder immediately had the engine pulled into the firehouse parking lot and ordered her company to lay out four lengths of the suspect LDH and charge the lines under working pressure. As had happened on the fireground, water began spraying from some couplings and, when the lines were shut down, the couplings were frozen in locked position.
Before Wonder could take any further action, Entymme pulled onto the apron of the firehouse. Exiting his car, he made a beeline right up into the face of Wonder.
“Captain Wonder, where do you get off changing out my hose? I am the chief of maintenance, and no one removes equipment from service without my say so! You secure those loose couplings and repack my brand new large-diameter hose.”
“Chief, the couplings are obviously defective; they’re leaking like crazy and impossible to disconnect. The couplings are not only defective, they are unsafe.” The maintenance chief’s face went to beet red, and his head nearly exploded.
It was crystal clear to Wonder that Entymme was not open to any further discussion on the matter. Without another word, Wonder ordered the pumps shut down and Entymme’s LDH repacked. This seemed to mollify Entymme, who disappeared into his vehicle and drove off into the sunset.
What Happened Here?
1. Captain Wonder found E-27’s LDH to be defective. She took appropriate action to remedy the unsafe condition. Wonder informed her immediate supervisor and received the go-ahead from Deputy Chief Grace Powers regarding the situation and the actions being taken to address the issue and ensure the in-service and ready status of E-27.
2. Understanding that a company officer’s prime directive is to ensure and maintain the in-service and ready status of all personnel, apparatus, and equipment assigned to his command, Wonder had taken remedial action.
3. The defective hose was tested, then removed from service and replaced with older serviceable LDH. All appropriate reports were submitted.
4. On returning to duty, Wonder was informed that a “bent-out-of-shape” Chief of Maintenance Mark Entymme ordered the defective LDH back into service without testing or repair.
5. Entymme seems to have personalized E-27’s actions regarding the serviceability of the new LDH.
6. Personalizing (not professionalizing) and emotionally (not intellectually) investing in the serviceability of the new LDH (for whatever reasons), Entymme blew through the chain of command and misdirected the time, energy, and resources of a front-line company. His actions and directives jeopardized the company’s in-service and ready status. He demonstrated a total disregard for consequences as well as lines of authority and line/staff coordination.
7. Entymme’s best thinking created a dangerous and unsafe condition.
Specifics aside, most of you can relate to the fictitious goings on detailed in the scenario above. Many of you have been involved in situations where a mission gets subjugated to an ego. Ego subjugation creates miscommunication and some version of “fingers in both ears, la-la-la, I can’t hear you.”
Negative to Positive
Identifying wrong-headed behaviors and pointing out problems have strong appeal because they are emotionally rewarding. The terrible downside attached to problem-centric leadership is the false sense that a problem exposed is a problem resolved. Labeling a situation, issue, or thing as a problem evokes negative connotation. Any situation, issue, human, or thing deemed a problem is tagged with a “scarlet P,” declaring it something to be shunned.
Full-contact leadership provides a thought experiment, a conscious decision to classify problems as challenges and opportunities. Intellectual judo along with semantic slight-of-hand allows a negative to be replaced with a positive.
Challenges and opportunities are positively charged environments where full-contact leaders can coach, counsel, mentor, learn, teach, grow, team build, repair, and redress. Challenges and opportunities well met propel a department, its leaders, teams, and individuals to exceed expectations as a matter of routine.
Power’s Pointed Presentation
Division Chief Grace Powers was informed of the LDH incident. Powers made an appointment to meet with Battalion Chief Mark Entymme to “clear the air”; address the LDH/Captain Wonder situation; and forge a better, more functional relationship between her command and the important work done by the chief of maintenance.
Ahead of the meeting, Powers reached out to the chief of operations to find out if Entymme had any training or experience putting programs together and delivering them. Entymme had no such training or experience.
Powers’ enlightenment of Entymme: Line vs. staff authority, responsibility, and accountability.
Line fire officers have supervisory control over those who report directly to them.
Staff officers hold support and/or advisory authority. Staff officers create, develop, collect, analyze, and disseminate information and material support that flow to line workers in the form of advice, education, supply, resupply, and support.
Line officers and staff officers (regardless of rank) need be emotionally mature, sophisticated, competent, and capable of navigating the badlands that exist around the boundaries and lines of responsibility and authority that parallel and often crisscross line/staff interaction.
Powers brought Entymme to the realization that the chief of maintenance would have been more successful and certainly less disruptive if he had worked through the chain of command and met with and gone through Powers. Powers explained the upside of conferring with her regarding any future staff/line interactions. Powers was even more generous in the discussion of the downside of any future unauthorized interaction with members of her command.
An Officer’s Purpose in Life
Having gained a commitment to honor the requirements of the chain of command, Powers moved on to enhance Entymme’s understanding of the roles and responsibilities of leadership.
1. Fire officers exist for the sole purpose of supporting and advancing the mission, vision, and organizational priorities of the fire department they serve.
2. Leaders do not have the luxury of categorizing any mission-related action or activity as a nuisance. Nor do they have indulgence for “sweeping things under the rug,” “turning a blind eye,” “leaving it to the next person,” or “hoping for the best.”
3. Luxury and nuisance attitudes are the fertile ground in which misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance find easy root.
4. A nuisance is defined as a person, thing, or circumstance causing inconvenience or annoyance. Fire service leaders need to make a deliberate and conscious effort to avoid assigning a nuisance label to any person, thing, or circumstance they encounter while carrying out their assigned duties.
5. Fire officers are stuff magnets. People come to officers because they need stuff, want to report stuff, find out about stuff, return stuff, complain about stuff, get stuff fixed, change their mind about stuff, to start stuff, to stop stuff, etc. This is all proper and professional fire department business as usual.
Powers informed Entymme that she called the chief of operations and had been made aware that Entymme never received the training or guidance necessary for the battalion to successfully meet the requirements of the assignment he was given.
Powers was from the school of full-contact leadership, which states, “If you identify a problem, you should come prepared to solve a problem.”
Powers provided Entymme with a short-hand, practical, step-by-step program development and delivery approach that would provide a smooth, professional, and productive method for getting work done through the efforts of others. Getting work done through the efforts of others is what the fire gods created fire service leaders for.
Assignment: Remove from each frontline engine all four-inch LDH. Replace with new five-inch LDH.
• Step 1. Familiarize yourself with the equipment you will be introducing. You need to know what you’re talking about or be able to provide information (i.e., manufacturer’s literature) and any support required for the people who are doing the work.
• Step 2. Meet and pre-consult with division, battalion, and company officers as well as the firefighters involved in the project. Create a notice outlining the project.
• Step 3. Develop a schedule in concert with line supervisors. Apportion work fairly. Build in flex time. Publish and post the schedule along with the project notice.
• Step 4. Show up. Don’t get in the way. If you see a problem, deal with it, respecting the line/staff boundaries. Make yourself available for real-time consult and support. The interest you demonstrate in your project will transfer to the forces doing the work required of your project. If you’re not interested, why would anybody else give a hoot?
• Step 5. Acknowledge work well done. Commend face to face and forward a letter to the division commanders recognizing the efforts extended by the officers and firefighters doing the heavy lifting.
Outside the Lines
Powers ended her educational moment with one more bit of guidance: Peripheral vision is the ability to see objects and movement outside the direct line of vision. Perspective is side vision, what is seen on the side by the eye when looking straight ahead.
A leader needs peripheral perspective: The ability to see beyond the obvious; to sense conditions, actions, and behaviors outside the direct line of a leader’s sight.
A leader needs to see the consequence of situations that tap dance around the edges of safe and unsafe, acceptable and unacceptable.
Anthony Avillo is a 33-year veteran of the fire service. He retired in 2015 from North Hudson (NJ) Regional Fire and Rescue as a deputy chief. He is the director of the Monmouth County (NJ) Fire Academy. Avillo is a member of the editorial advisory boards of Fire Engineering and FDIC. Avillo is coauthor of Full-Contact Leadership with Ed Flood (2017). He is the author of Fireground Strategies, third edition (2015) and Fireground Strategies Workbooks (2002, 2010, 2016). Avillo has also contributed to both volumes of the Pass It On books by Billy Goldfeder (2015, 2016) and the Tactical Perspectives DVD series (2011). Avillo also coauthored (with Frank Ricci) the “Safety and Survival” chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (2018). Avillo issued the DVD Control of Fireground Operations and Forging a Culture of Safety (2016, 2014). Avillo was the recipient of the 2012 Fire Engineering/ISFSI George D. Post Instructor of the Year award.
Edward Flood is a 44-year veteran of the fire service, serving with the Weehawken (NJ) Fire Department and North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue. He has held the position of chief of operations, shepherding New Jersey’s first regionalized fire department through its transition, after which he served as deputy chief third platoon regional tour commander. Flood retired as the first chief of North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue. He was an instructor in the New Jersey Fire Academy and the Bergen County Fire Academy. Flood is the cofounder and president of Study Group Inc., a partnership of fire and emergency service training and management experts providing consulting service for fire departments, corporations, and organizations, as well as promotional tutorial services for fire and emergency service professionals. Flood is co-author of Full-Contact Leadership (PennWell, 2017).