Mentors and Morons Who Taught Me to Lead: A Colleague Doesn’t Always Agree With You
#006 in the series.
I relocated from the Sunshine State to the Old North State just as the pandemic started to gather a head of steam in early 2019. Luckily my training and experience taught me not to panic until you were up to your neck in alligators. The local health and emergency management authorities didn’t seem too concerned and it appeared as though business-as-usual was the order of the day. But my gut told me Governor Ron was winging it. So, while leaving the tiny beach community of Fernandina Beach was painful, it turns out after reading about the absolutely batshit crazy actions and decisions that Ron is making daily, a move to the mountains was a good gamble.
Now, one who cuts his firefighting teeth in the Sunshine State must remember to wear warmer clothing once he moves to cooler climes. I’m not speaking about North Carolina, rather the first fire cheefin’ gig I got. I remember saying that to myself during the first December working fire in Springfield. It seems when relocating to The Buckeye State to rebuild and lead a once-great organization the least concern is what to wear. But I should have worked my sartorial attire into the equation.
Following the retirement of Chief “Donnie” Lee after 40 plus years leading the 126 brave men and one woman of the Springfield Fire Division, I cut my ties with OCFRD September 1st and reported for duty in The Thermometer Capital of the World September 8th. Donnie was kind enough to welcome me by leaving a city map, windshield ice scraper, and a simple but ominous hand-written note in my department car – “Good luck.” This was following a day-and-half data dump from him to get me situated. It consisted of about three hours total of warning: don’t trust Matt (the manager) because he’s a cheapskate and bullshit artist. Don’t trust the mayor because as a philosophy professor at Wittenberg U his only interest is studying the interactions between people – yeah, we were his post-doctoral guinea pigs.
On the Sunday prior to reporting, I wandered into my local firehouse located a few blocks from the duplex I rented. As I rounded the corner I serendipitously ran into the president of IAFF Local 333; startling him as he noodled on the computer at the back of the station. I immediately noticed this fella closely resembling a fireplug wearing dark blue pants and a shirt with his feet propped on the desktop. Without any discerning uniform insignias or a nameplate, my mind wandered for a moment. Could this department be so forward-thinking that they assigned janitors to each station? As it turned out the department membership had shunned all shoulder patches and insignias, deeming them “brag rags” that volunteers wore. Wow…my work was cut out for me. As it turns out, although President Ray and I started off a little rocky, a warm, trusting friendship ensued, which is probably why he was voted out the next election.
On Monday at precisely 0800, I walk through the front door of Station 1 (circa 1953) serving as Fire HQ and “Spfld” Communications Center – the epicenter of emergency excellence. Spfld was in fact what all who lived in the Rose Capital City (another title adopted when mercury was placed on the EPA Top 300 Most Dangerous Chemicals list), called Springfield.
The first smiling face I see as I enter HQ is my new best friend Assistant Chief Jerry Beers who I discover later was in line to be the next fire chief. It seems that in the 143-year history of the SFD, when one made it to assistant chief they were always appointed Jefe de Jefes. After digging up the real story, it appears Jerry ran afoul of Matt after pissing off the union. Jerry was a short, cocky little jerk whose main contribution to society was realizing you weren’t as big a jackass as he. The manager’s BS story to city commissioners was to bring in a new face with marching orders to make significant change. Note to self: Beware when you’re considered a change agent because it usually means your tenure is limited from day one. In reality, he just wanted to embarrass Mike, who after listening to many of the rank and file deserved his comeuppance. So, Mike puffs out his chest, puts his best welcome face on (loose-fitting false teeth and all), sticks out his sweaty palm, and says, “Welcome chief.” Not a bad start I guess, but shortly after that first meeting he bought a case of bananas and started throwing the peels in front of me.
At this point, I’m starting to feel I jumped a bit too soon at accepting the job. Months after the “Welcome to Springfield Ceremony” that every new fire chief receives, I discover that two other candidates had turned down the job for various reasons – mostly because the city was just digging itself out of bankruptcy, the manager was a self-aggrandizing windbag and all FD senior management except the fire marshal had decided that if they just held on long enough to see the new guy leave all would be right with the world. And they were somewhat correct. So, if you can’t find a friend inside the team, where do you go? Outside of course.
A few weeks after arriving and getting fitted for uniforms including the knife-resistant insert for my back, I attended my first county fire chiefs meeting. Representing the only paid fire department in Clark County, I was an anomaly and somewhat of a curiosity. Kind of like the elusive wombat that you can never catch a glimpse of when you visit the local zoo. They say it’s there, but no one really sees one in its natural habitat. So, after the hand-shaking, well wishes and great dinner, I answer a few softball questions: “Did you have a good trip to Spfld?” “How do you like the area so far?” Then the real questions start: “What are your plans for the Spfld/Clark County Hazardous Materials Team?” “Any thoughts on the Crowell-Collier building?” Here we go…fasten your seatbelts, folks it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Actually, the only question that was of any significance was the hazmat team inquiry. Seems as though the team had been in place for several years, but the relationship was tenuous at best due to the SFD membership’s rabid dislike of any and all volunteer units. Ironically, Spfld was surrounded by all volunteer companies, which the fire division and its membership refused to use – at all costs. That disgraceful record was broken when the Crowell-Collier caught fire in resulting in the second-largest fire in Spfld’s history. More on that another day. Let’s see the body count; the manager is a self-aggrandizing a-hole, the union membership wants nothing to do with moving beyond the 1970’s if it doesn’t come with a significant raise, my volunteer colleagues simply tolerate the department and its “FNG”.
A few days after my first chiefs meeting, I get a call from one of my new colleagues I met. He identifies himself as the Chief of the Bethel Township Fire Department (one of the more progressive departments in the county) and says he wants to take me to lunch. What have I got to lose? A free meal and remembering what Confucius said, “Make every man your teacher,” I say sure. What was supposed to be an hour getting to know one of my colleagues (competitors?) turns out to be an entire afternoon whereby Mike provides me with the comprehensive briefing I should have received from my staff, the manager, Donnie and anyone else who was interested in changing a department struggling under its own reputation and self-serving interests.
Following that initial lunch, we met regularly to discuss firefighting in general, the possibility of departmental relationship building, politics and the future of the fire service. In short, Mike became a sounding board, mentor, and when my tenure ended abruptly after two and a half years one of my truly best friends. While we didn’t always agree with each other, we always respected each other’s right to disagree. Following my separation from SFD, Mike and I stayed in touch spending many mornings at Young’s Golden Jersey Inn and discussing the need for a fire chiefs retreat. Only God knows how many fire chiefs are used, abused and discarded when their political usefulness diminishes. Although that never came to fruition, I recall those discussions vividly.
Life is funny. When and where you least expect it, as you begin to question yourself and start circling the drain someone – a stranger – extends their hand to help reset your GPS. And you realize you’re not nuts. Your principles and beliefs about how a community asset such as a fire department should consider community first rather than self.
For that act of comradeship and kindness, I will be forever grateful. Thanks, Mike. Be well and stay safe.
See you at the big one.
R. Montes de Oca, EFO, MESH, CPM
Fire Chief (RET.)