In looking back over my 35 years on the job I must say that I have seen a lot of different philosophies on this prospective. As a chief I experienced individuals who called themselves professionals and dedicated to the community fight against the basic principles of what all good departments were doing. Heck, these folks fought against reading the Charleston 9 report I mandated to go as far as running to city council to stop my mandate ... really? Most firefighters wanted to read about what happened and the lessons learned. I have seen in other cases the union standing up in front of city council saying we will forgo a pay raise if we can get more people to better serve the community we love. These two examples are at opposite ends of the spectrum thus the title of this article, “Viking Ship Rowing or Rowboat Tug-of-War.”
Now I am not the sharpest pencil in the box but I know that if you are working as a TEAM — Together Everyone Accomplishes More — but if you are working against each other you get tired and you never get anywhere. As chief Brunicini would say, “this is a No Brainer.” Last I checked we all were supposed to be working for the mission of the department not our own personal agenda.
If you have ever seen a tug-of-war event you have witnessed often times a stalemate between the two teams. In other cases you may see one time begin to overpower the other. In looking at this concept when examining a public safety/service organization it seems asinine to believe that this is the best way to accomplish what should be a common goal. I used the analogy in the title of Rowboat Tug-of-war as all that really happens is both groups in the row boats only get tired, create a lot of stirred up water and have no real accomplishments when they are finished other than they did what they did — fight each other until one group gets over come and basically nothing was accomplished.
I see this so much as I have the opportunity to be at conferences and in multiple departments across the United States each year. Companies vs. company, shift vs. shift, department vs. department, administration vs. the troops, officers vs. officers and the list can go on. OK now the real question — WHY? What does this accomplish other than create a situation that stinks and there is no winner and the really sad part is we loose the most important focus, the people and communities we serve.
Viking Ship Rowing
Viking ships were powered by large numbers of individuals, which powered the ship by synchronized rowing, oftentimes in two levels. These individuals had a row master who would keep the movement in a synchronized movement through giving orders via cadence. The ship would move swiftly forwards or in the direction desired due to the team members contributing harmoniously with other, team members each knowing the importance of doing their job and doing it well. These Viking ships could transverse long distances in expedient time. This was because the team worked together.
Today organizations where team members are following the guidance of a leader, aka row master, working harmoniously with other members for the common goal see the organization move forward with purpose like the Viking ship.
The Fire Officer
It is important to understand that the fire chief sets the vision and direction of the organization. Like it or not it is the subordinate chief officer who is tasked with seeing those are carried out. The carrying out of the vision and mission is executed by the chief officer and at the troops level by the company officer.
It is not for the fire officer to decide if they desire to do this, they have an obligation to do so unless it is unethical, immoral or illegal. As a fire officer it is important to recognize you are an extension of the fire chief. You being an extension have an obligation to carry forth the vision and mission without malice. Often you do not have all of the information or true understanding of why administration is going in a direction but you have to have trust and belief. I believe it is important as chief officers we share why we are doing things, but at the appropriate time. Often times the organization needs execution immediately and the circumstances, not to mention time, prevents you from giving all the details and answers.
We often see that critical fire officer roles fail to be a Viking rower but engage consistently in rowboat tug-a-war. At this level this activity is extremely detrimental to the forward progress of the organization. It further encourages subordinates to follow suit. All this adds up to is a stirred up mess.
So which do you want, Viking Ship Rowing or Rowboat tug-of-war? Just in case as a fire officer you didn’t know ... You help make that decision with every action, comment, attitude demonstrated and direction you give.
Douglas Cline is a 32-year veteran and student of the Fire Service serving as Assistant Chief of Operations with Horry County Fire Rescue. Cline, a former Fire Chief, is a North Carolina Level II Fire Instructor, National Fire Academy Instructor and an EMT-Paramedic instructor for the North Carolina Office of Emergency Medical Services. Chief Cline is President of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) and the Immediate Past President of the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs (SEAFC).