Features, Fire Department

Rambling Thoughts

By Richard Marinucci

As I write this, the National Football League is in the middle of its playoffs to determine who will play in Superbowl XLVII. Although I realize it is not always appropriate to compare sports or a game to the fire service, I find that there are aspects of sports that make me think a bit more and take a different perspective on leadership, management, administration, and motivation. Since they keep score in sports and have winners, there is less debate over who is the best and who needs to improve.

If we had a better way to keep score and decide who the top performers and best organizations are, what would that do to the motivation of those in our service? What would happen if you had to earn your spot on the “team” every year? My guess is that more people would be conscious of their physical condition and would study their “playbook” more often. Every day would be a training day without some type of mandate from the administration or direction from the training division. I can’t imagine a professional football player training less than 10 days a month and expecting to make the team.

Chiefs Not Immune
This question is also applicable to the fire chief. If there were truly a way to keep score, would our records be good enough to keep our jobs? At the end of the season, teams not making sufficient progress toward their goals dismiss the coach and look for someone else who might be able to deliver the product that the owner wants. Although this logic might not be the same for the fire service, it might be a good motivation to work as if you needed to earn your job every year. Of course many or most chiefs do operate as an at will employee. In my nearly 29 years as chief, I have never had a contract and have been subject to evaluations that could determine my future employment. Maybe I have been lucky that there is no clear-cut way to keep score in our business. But, knowing that nothing is guaranteed has a way to keep you motivated to meet whatever criteria has been established by your bosses.

Football Analogy
Football is a great team sport, and teammates develop a bond that is a contributing factor in successful organizations. The fire service enjoys a similar connection with its tremendous brotherhood and sisterhood. Even with the closeness of teammates in football, there is still an expectation of performance. The overall goal of the team is to win and that is an overriding factor that trumps even the brotherhood of the team members. If a player is not carrying his weight, the others on the team will do what they can to offer support, encouraging, motivating, and the like, to see that the performance is up to par. If not, the teammate will not be on the team. There is a limit to the support received.

Contrast this to some degree in the fire service. Low performers will be protected and hidden even though everyone in the organization knows an individual is not carrying his weight. I don’t have any magical answer to this dilemma but I do know that for an organization to truly excel, everyone needs to contribute.

A few years ago there was a running back for the Detroit Lions named Barry Sanders. He was unbelievable with the things he could do on the football field. He did things that seemed impossible. He was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot and was deserving of all the accolades. He remained humble, and I remember him very nonchalantly handing the ball to the referee after scoring a touchdown with no crazy celebration. When asked about this, he simply said that he was taught to act like he had been there before. It was part of his responsibility to score and he viewed it as just doing his job. Sometimes we get too excited on certain calls. We should act like we have done it before and be professional in our approach. We should be prepared and trained so that we can treat each incident as just another day at the office.

Do They Get It?
Continuing on with Barry Sanders, he clearly had a natural, God-given talent. You could not teach or coach the moves he made when carrying the football. Could we say the same thing about our service? Do we have natural born firefighters that just seem to “get it” and their talent allows them to do things better than most? I suspect the answer is yes. Even though we don’t have instant replay to marvel at what was just done, many of us have seen firefighters do things and wonder how they did it. Even though they trained and practiced, they seemed to have the necessary instincts to do what was necessary. We are fortunate when we have that talent on our team.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.