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May 17, 2013, Toronto – This is being written as I wait in Boston’s Logan Airport for my flight home to Toronto, after a very informative visit with the National Fire Protection Association at their offices in nearby Quincy, Mass. True to the NFPA’s reputation as a professional and progressive organization, its hospitality and welcoming attitude were exemplary, with one glaring exception – the first thing I encountered upon entering their lobby was a life-sized Sparky statue, all decked out in a Bruins jersey and holding a hockey stick. Talk about rubbing salt in the wounds . . .

May 17, 2013
By Peter Sells

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May 17, 2013, Toronto – This is being written as I wait in Boston’s Logan Airport for my flight home to Toronto, after a very informative visit with the National Fire Protection Association at their offices in nearby Quincy, Mass. True to the NFPA’s reputation as a professional and progressive organization, its hospitality and welcoming attitude were exemplary, with one glaring exception – the first thing I encountered upon entering their lobby was a life-sized Sparky statue, all decked out in a Bruins jersey and holding a hockey stick. Talk about rubbing salt in the wounds . . .

This week, the Boston Globe featured a story about Boston’s fire chief, Steve E. Abraira, being publicly criticized by 13 deputy chiefs for failing to take command of fire department operations at the marathon bombing scene on April 15. In a letter to the mayor, the deputies stated that the chief’s response to the marathon bombings was inadequate and part of a pattern of shirking responsibility during emergencies.

“You can unequivocally consider this letter a vote of no confidence in Chief Abraira,” the deputy chiefs wrote to Mayor Thomas Michael Menino in the letter dated April 26, as quoted in the Boston Globe. Abraira responded that the command staff had control of the scene when he ¬arrived and that he acted appropriately under the circumstances.

“When I got there I was comfortable with what was going on,” he said. “. . . The nationally accepted practice is that you only take command [as chief] if there’s something going wrong or if you can strengthen the command position or if it’s overwhelming for the incident commander, and none of those things were in fact happening.”

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In the letter, the deputy chiefs expressed their opinion that Abraira has reversed decades of department protocol by changing department operating procedure and relegating himself to spectator status at fire scenes, rather than taking command as his predecessors did. By not taking direct command, the deputies wrote, Abraira “shields himself from immediate accountability while setting the stage for under-mining the confidence and authority of his command staff. While acknowledging his ultimate accountability for depart¬ment operations, he avoids on-the-scene responsibility.”

I was reluctant to write this blog on the basis of only one perspective, especially one that smacked of public airing of internal departmental dirty laundry. But my reluctance dissolved when a follow-up article stated that the chief’s boss, fire commissioner Rodrick Fraser, told a committee of city councillors, “I think this whole thing, in my opinion, is a revolt against change by a bunch of dinosaurs. They don’t run the department. I do,” adding that the department’s response protocol is in line with national standards.

Taken at face value, the commissioner is correct. Established incident management practice is for a later arriving senior officer to leave command in place unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary. The senior officer should take a support function such as public information, or liaison with other agencies or political leadership. At a crime scene such as the marathon bombing, the obvious function where the chief’s authority would be of best use would be co-ordinating with senior police leadership.

I find that the deputies appear to be trying to have their cake and eat it too. How could the chief “shield himself from immediate accountability" while “acknowledging his ultimate accountability for depart¬ment operations”? How can someone be “under-mining the confidence and authority of his command staff” by demonstrating satisfaction with their ability to command?

You cannot lead until you learn how to follow. The acute issue in this situation is a crisis in followership. That being said, there is also an underlying failure in leadership on the part of the chief and the commissioner. The failure in leadership, however, is not as described by the deputies in their letter. The failure is that, in the almost two years since Abraira’s appointment, he and the commissioner have not successfully communicated their vision of command procedures to their deputies. This should have been dealt with in the first weeks of Abraira’s tenure through clear directives, frank discussions and role-play command exercises.

Seasoned command officers sitting in a classroom? Well, why not? Even a deputy chief should not be too big for his britches to undergo training and to accept change, when the consequences are as serious as commanding fire resources at a major multi-agency emergency scene.

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo


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