Imagine your department as a chain, starting at the top with a well anchored fire chief and working its way down one link at a time. This analogy isn’t too far from the truth when looking at most departments. The only difference is that some are longer chains while others may only be a few links long. The old saying “you are only as strong as your weakest link” definitely applies. The real question is…. “what kind of link are you?” Are you strong and supportive of those under you or weak and flexible? Do you align with the links above you or try to chose your own direction? With my limited experience using chains, I know that twisted chains tend to fail when they are put under stress.
Many of the problems within a department can be blamed on problems within the chain of command. While weaknesses at the bottom of a chain (firefighter) can cause problems, weaknesses in the upper tiers are guaranteed to end in disaster. When there are problems at any level it can immediately be identified on a fire ground however, the day-to-day weaknesses hide these issues until they fester and become infectious to the entire department. The sad realization is that the issues remain hidden because we all choose to ignore them. Even the newest member to the department can see the signs of a weak chain. Does the senior staff fully support the decisions of the chief? Do the company officers fully support the decisions of the senior staff? When I was in the military there was a strict unwritten rule that complaints go up the chain never down. How often do we see a breach of this concept? Chief says I want A, B, & C done, Battalion chief tells the shift chief wants A, B, & C done but he doesn’t agree with A & B, followed by firehouse discussion with a company officer who says they disagree with C. This entire process caused every link from the top down to lose strength.
Many people interject the argument that being a “yes-man” destroys integrity and creates a mindless department. While blindly following orders can lead to “helpless” departments, the challenge process must be professional and respectful. If I don’t agree with something the professional thing to do is send my concerns up the chain along with possible solutions. Without the accompanied solutions the possibly valid issue gets dismissed as whining. Failure to handle the problems correctly often leads to complaints being ignored and subsequent “trash talking” down the chain of command. If you truly want to have the strongest chain possible, stop undercutting the stability of the links above and below you. Whether at the top, middle, or bottom of the chain….your department needs you to be as strong as you can be. Don’t be the weakest link and the reason your chain fails!