Most associations form because there is a void, a common need, or urgency that needs addressing. There is that moment when a small group of people have a meeting of the minds and decide we need our Association to resonate with many! They file the official paperwork and meet at a round table in a restaurant to have their first formal meeting as the “Board of Directors.”
Associations know that there is strength in numbers; they provide information, professional development, protection, advocacy, leadership development, public policy influence, networking opportunities, enhancement of one’s resume, camaraderie, mentorship, letters of recommendation, letters of endorsement, and more.
There’s a void, and many need to be addressed within the Houston Fire Department. A Chief Officers Association can fill those voids and needs and assist with solutions. The following seven reasons a Chief Officers Association is needed are below. If you agree with them, let’s work together towards definite improvement.
1. A Chief Officers Association is Long Overdue
In the past, we’ve had several members that have promoted through the ranks and end up being appointed to Fire Chief of the Houston Fire Department. As a group, everyone would not always agree with who was the chosen one, but we all knew that person would at least be one of us. One that was born and raised in the Houston Fire Department and been through the same experiences we have. When it comes to local government, we knew that if certain situations were presented, how they would respond because of traditions, values, and friendships in the department.
However, that is no longer the case, and it will probably not be the case again until we are treated equally as other departments. Fire Chiefs from other smaller departments will continue to be brought into Houston’s more extensive department by local city leaders to use our department as a stepping-stone to move on to better opportunities. These Fire Chiefs work for the Mayor and city council. However, it is our pleasure to serve the citizens of Houston.
A Chief Officers Association is a necessity because we are the department’s majority managers, and who better to grab the attention of local leaders than the few members challenged with managing the entire department. We have been great stewards with the resources we have been given to work with no matter the political atmosphere as it continues to change from one Mayor to the next or one Council Member to the next. We’re always being asked to do more with less, and it is merely time for a change. The Association, as managers of the department, is that change.
A recognized Management Association would meet with local leaders during times of transitioning from one city leader to the next and perhaps become involved in the vetting process of who they decide will be OUR Department’s Head. A recognized Management Association would have the Fire Chief’s attention and ultimately assist him/her in managing the department along with his command staff if he/she chooses to do so.
As a group, we would not be able to tell the leaders who to hire, but we would be able to let them know if we are willing to dance with whom they have chosen or show them we’ll hold up the wall and look at an empty dance floor while the music plays.
2. Peer Representation in Grievances
Of course, we are all Firefighters just like in the Marines; they are all Marines, but there is a rank structure, and the higher-ranking officers are responsible for managing the department. Authority will always be challenged at some point by persons who are not in the ranking position. Chief Officers and Senior Captain level officers make up less than 10 percent of the fire department.
If we all belong to a single association and there are grievances filed, who gets the best representation and who gets the short end of the stick if the Association’s makeup is the majority of the department? You’ve guessed it correctly, you as a manager because you are in a superior-to-subordinate position, and that comes with the territory.
We will ask two more questions for you to form your answers or opinions. How can one (a Chief /Sr./Jr. Officer) expect to be represented by one who does not function in the same capacity? Would anyone below the rank of Chief, Sr. Captain, or Captain be able to serve you equally?
3. Break Down the Silos Between Divisions
Bubbles are the best way to describe our current divisional structure within the department. We have several divisions that function within their bubble and have an inkling of how the other divisions work. We have too many silos within the department, and there is no flow of information from one division to the next.
Emergency services make up most of the department, but how many times has someone in Emergency services had a question for Arson, Fire Prevention, or OEC and not have been able to get in touch with someone to assist them or vice versa. For instance, on a personal note, you have someone you know who may want to open up a business in the city and need code questions answered, or there was a fire that affected someone you know. You would like to know how to get information concerning that fire, wouldn’t you want to get that information from someone you are familiar with?
We have silos and for reasons that will hopefully be a thing of the past. The fire department is built the way it is because of the services we offer to maintain public safety and health. A Chief Officers Association will help break down the silos we have between each other and create a better department.
4. Improvement of Management Skills
Not everyone sees the need to improve their management skills because some think we do an excellent job managing personnel. Some of us do, but what about the just beginning (still green) members or who may have had a rocky start promoting up the chain and think they do not have a problem managing personnel, but their personnel thinks otherwise. Sometimes we have a blind eye to our management skills but still desire assistance with being a better manager.
There are all types of personalities in the fire service, and learning our type and the types of others will help improve our management skills. We can all improve our communication, interpersonal, technical, and decision-making skills as the department’s leaders. The Association would provide seasoned Chief Officers the opportunity to mentor newer officers. Let’s face it; there is no formal program within the department that trains you on how to do the job or handle situations that may arise while functioning in the Chief Officer’s position (no succession plan). You read a few books, come out high enough to get made on an exam, and Voilà! You are the new supreme leader, green behind the ears but responsible for a corner of the city.
Experience is the best teacher. If you are battle-tested and have scars to prove it, you will help others learn. Seasoned Officers have probably made a few mental mistakes in judgments and learned valuable lessons from them. This Association gives them the platform to share those experiences with members who can listen and learn. I am speaking only about the positive outcomes from the battle scars, not the negative or retaliatory experiences.
Also, the Association will partner with Institutions of Higher Education to learn how to approach differences in personalities and manage personnel accordingly.
5. Leadership Development
Leadership development is essential to a fire department of this size and is a priority for this Association. Organizations that invest in developing their leaders end up outperforming organizations that don’t. Our Association will lobby for leadership and training opportunities within the department as well as outside opportunities. Acquiring leadership skills to manage a department under constant change is critical to maintaining the troops’ morale. Low morale leads to issues for management and could lead to less than optimal job performance.
When is the last time you heard about the Houston Fire Department leading anything? After the recent 2017 hurricane, the police department emerged as the rescuers, perhaps by design, but perception is the reality to most. Police are here to Protect and Serve. How did they end up with leading rescue? Fire Departments are for Fire and Rescue, and we should be the leaders in our field.
The COA has plans of partnering with Institutions of Higher Education and other Fire Related Organizations to provide leadership training.
6. Networking Opportunities
Meeting and getting to know other officers within the department creates a sense of community and builds a better department. Meeting members from different divisions and departments and attending local events shows your commitment to our profession. Besides, these events will allow you to meet some of the other decision-makers, keep current on local and state happenings, trends, new technologies, meet vendors, and perhaps the opportunity to give back by mentoring others. On a personal note, networking with others can help introduce you or family members to opportunities that would not have been possible if you didn’t network. Networking is part of being in an association, and what better platform than the one you are currently performing the duties of an Officer.
The COA provides the opportunity to bring unity to all commands by building great friendships that will carry on way past our active careers into retirement. Camaraderie is what makes groups gel and create lasting moments in time. We all know of guys at the station we use to enjoy spending time with, but then we all moved on with our careers. When you move up in rank, those relationships are still there, but different unless you are blood relatives.
When you are a Chief Officer in suppression or support areas, you may think you are a part of the crew, but you are not a part of the crew because if you have to play your role as “Chief,” you may have to enforce department policy. Implementing policy will put a strain on some relationships, and the chatter will spread about “Chief ________(fill in the blank).
A group of officers understands the challenges faced in the day-to-day operations of managing the department. There isn’t a better group of people to build relationships other than your peers. Working with people with common goals and similar situations will automatically build camaraderie and perhaps enhance your time in and out of the department. It could make all the difference in the world for an aspiring officer wanting to obtain a position within the department or outside of the department.
Thanks for reading this article, and we hope the Chief Officers Association will last for over the next 100 plus years.