Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin J. Cochran, a FireRescue editorial board member, has been confirmed as the U.S. Fire Administrator. President Barack Obama nominated Chief Cochran for the post in July, and it has now been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

While chairman of the IAFC’s Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Section, Chief Cochran wrote the Leadership Skills column for FireRescue’s IAFC section, Leader’s Edge.

Following are a few of our favorite Leadership Skills columns, written by Chief Cochran.
Read additional columns here: Image Is Everything and The Words of the Chief.

Straddle the Fence: Battalion chiefs must focus equally on administrative and operational issues
By Kelvin J. Cochran

(From the September 2006 issue of FireRescue)

“District chief” and “battalion chief” are titles used to designate mid-level managers in fire departments. Some are shift commanders; others manage divisions, such as EMS, fire prevention and training; and some manage special operations, such as rescue, hazardous materials and safety. By and large, their most common job involves managing an established number of fire stations in a geographic area (a battalion). Battalion chiefs and district chiefs also serve as leaders for company officers, drivers and firefighters within the battalion. In this article, I’ll use battalion chief (BC) for both titles.

BCs are essential to the overall efficiency of fire department operations and administration. Their responsibilities include personnel management; management of facilities, vehicles and equipment; incident management; risk management; monitoring competence, climate and controls; and preserving good aspects of department culture while eliminating bad ones. When departments are composed of two or more battalions or districts on A, B and C shifts, establishing consistency in leadership and management at the BC level is an ongoing challenge—but an absolute must.

Administration vs. Operations
One symbol of the BC rank is crossed bugles. One bugle represents BCs’ obligation and duty to fire department operations; the other represents their obligation and duty to fire department administration. What I call “straddling the fence” occurs when the chief officer is able to effectively strike a balance between administration and operations, not committing to either obligation more than the other.

When focused on the administrative side of the fence, BCs cater primarily to the chief. They are heavy-handed when monitoring rules and policies and don’t allow much flexibility. They limit bottom-up communication, but faithfully disseminate information from the top down. Further, these BCs are motivated by strategic goals.

On the other hand, when focused on the operations side of the fence, BCs cater more to company-level members. These BCs tend to lack enthusiasm for administrative goals, and they are extremely vocal about bottom-up communications but filter top-down communications. They focus primarily on near-term operational goals.

The truth of the matter: There is no fence. There is no line in the sand forcing BCs to be loyal to either administration or operations. BCs don’t have to be uptight jerks to be effective administrators, and they don’t have to be “one of the boys” to motivate company members to do their jobs. The BC is the bridge between company-level members and administrative chiefs. To be successful, they must be committed to striking a balance between leadership and management in operations and administration.

Management Challenges
Fire department mid-level chief officers face many challenges related to the following issues: personnel; lack of support from administrative chiefs; micromanagement from administrative chiefs; maintaining company members’ competence; communicating company and administrative needs; lack of access to information; monitoring policies and procedures; battalion safety; and resolving conflict between shifts.

Some BCs accept the promotion but not the responsibilities that accompany the position. There are also instances in which BCs set a retirement date two or three years out, but have already (mentally) resigned from actually running their battalion. This is unacceptable.

BCs must be determined to meet challenges head on at any stage of their career. Ignoring the challenges is not an option. Lack of commitment from BCs and support from fire chiefs will eventually lead to increased liability exposure; increased frustration and ambiguity among members; and decreased employee satisfaction. Further, this type of environment provides a hiding place for fire service slackers.

Battalion Chief Duties

Let’s take a closer look at some of the BC’s duties.

Personnel management—
This is the most important and time-consuming duty. Every member of the battalion is important and deserves special attention from the BC. As such, BCs must visit every firehouse in the battalion on every shift, all while focusing on getting maximum performance from everyone under their command. Each member needs training, counseling, challenging or mentoring. Training is necessary for skills maintenance or addressing performance problems through a regular, well-planned and coordinated training schedule specific to the battalion. Counseling is necessary when working with a firefighter to help solve a performance or behavioral problem. Challenging includes pushing a satisfactory firefighter to reach their full potential. Finally, the BC should mentor those firefighters who are peak performers; specifically, the BC should work with these members on career planning, exposing them to leadership opportunities in the battalion, the department and beyond.

Management of facilities, equipment and supplies—Fire stations and fire equipment must be well maintained at all times. Company officers should manage and monitor daily cleanings and inspections. BCs must inspect records and physically inspect facilities on a regular basis to ensure these jobs are being performed properly. Maintenance problems should be reported through proper channels to administrative support personnel, and there should be a follow up if repairs are not addressed in a timely manner. It is very important to keep company officers abreast of progress toward addressing maintenance issues.

Incident management—BCs should continually monitor incident management issues. It is vital to ensure that during any type of emergency, all company officers are capable of governing fire department resources according to the incident command system (ICS). BCs should support company officers who efficiently use ICS; further, they should assist, counsel and train company officers who experience difficulties using ICS. BCs should conduct post-incident analysis to highlight good performance by fire companies and to note areas for improvement.

Risk management—Minimizing liability exposure, injuries and the threat of line-of-duty deaths requires vigilance from the entire battalion. BCs must ensure that training on critical tasks is ongoing. Basic firefighter survival skills and training are integral parts of risk management. As such, BCs should model and promote a culture of fitness, monitor safety practices and procedures and conduct safety meetings to address trends within the battalion and department.

It’s entirely possible for all battalions on all shifts to operate consistently and efficiently. But fire chiefs, deputy chiefs and assistant chiefs must do their part to help make this happen. A message to them: Support BCs when they perform their job according to rules and policies, and do not micromanage. If a BC is performing poorly, establish an improvement plan and coach them toward success. Finally, provide them with information and resources to be successful leaders and managers.

And BCs must play their part as well. My message to them: Be dedicated to the department’s mission, always remembering there is a thin line between micromanagement and accountability. Be responsive when administrative chiefs address issues of accountability. Be committed to the needs of fire companies. Address micromanagement respectfully. Know and do your job. Finally, establish a track record of commitment to both administrative and operational goals. In other words, govern the conduct of your battalion by department rules and policies, while remaining empathetic to the needs of fire companies.

Read additional Leadership Skills columns here: Image Is Everything and The Words of the Chief.

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