The Fifth Bugle: Thoughts on Leading in a Changing Fire Service

by | December 28, 2022

I live in a four-season community. Those seasons constantly change, regardless of my plans and wishes, but I accept them and march forward. If you watch the industry news, leadership is changing. Fire chiefs across North America are now stepping into new roles. Others are stepping away or have been asked to step aside. The seasons of change don’t discriminate, nor do they look back.

A new year is known as a season of settling in. More than navigating through a cataclysmic snow event or destructive fire, it’s much grander and more profound for a new fire chief. We observe, plan, dream, adjust expectations, get some sleep, reconnect with family—or at least try. The chiefs who decided to retire or leave often make the painstaking decision to shift into something new. They are told to reinvent themselves and enjoy the fruits of their effort with a smile. Sounds wonderful. Unfortunately, though, the fifth bugle is unique.

The fifth bugle is unlike any promotion a firefighter will ever accept. An unimaginable expectation of time, effort and vulnerability is asked of fire chiefs today. We serve in various ways, and infrequently we even handle emergencies. Today’s metropolitan-sized agencies are engrossed with homelessness, societal polarization, attacks from anti-government groups, radical decreases in funding, global impacts (like pandemics and warming), and egregious crimes against our people that have become commonplace and acceptable in some states. The “fires” have changed, and the responsibility has created a dichotomy in culture.

We find ourselves deep in paradoxical expectations. Our policymakers and elected officials quietly tell us, “I don’t know how you do it.” But from the dais, the message often panders to the loudest constituency in the room. We must find the way to make the impossible happen—and if we don’t, we must be prepared to pay with our careers.

To survive, we must surround ourselves with amazing people, caring people, wise people, and people who will empathetically tell us the truth.

We are expected to build community education programs that captivate the two-year-old mind while gaining the trust of the 17-year-old suffering from fentanyl addiction. We must provide brilliant lectures for adult learners and also the best learning method for children of every age and mental capacity.

To sit in lamentation with a mother who lost a child to a preventable illness or trauma and remain emotionless, professional and wise. Be set apart from our people as the righteous leader rising above to be a moral compass for the organization and create a family culture capable of saving lives and making the most difficult decisions. To be laser-focused on the individual needs of our firefighters and develop organizational change within budget. To have a work/family balance but always be available.

To be a collaborative leader in meetings and an inspiring orator. To have charisma on TV, but not put on a show. To show authentic empathy and compassion and to maintain stoic professionalism. To be passionate about social justice, just not too much since that will be “perceived as political.”

To be idealistic and to be realistic. To be large-picture and detailed. To be assertive and not too bold. To be astute in municipal politics and never too political. To be a skilled manager making complex business decisions that impact workers and love everyone. To be areligious and to have an easily publicly explained belief structure. To command authority, but not too much. To be collaborative and decisive. To take risks and to guarantee that everyone goes home.

To stand for something meaningful and not to make it about you.

Policymakers, elected officials and the community ask a lot. I don’t have all the answers and cannot say if it is too much. Over the years, though, the weight can become unbearable.

And yet sometimes, the gnarled and paradoxical set of expectations can make the fifth bugle work fascinating. Of course, not everything is so polarized and extreme, but we must realize that we live in a world of gradation and perpetual change.

In truth, fire chiefs are sworn to maintain a legacy of the most sacred values of the fire service. Those before us have also navigated the contradictions, compensating for weaknesses and delighting in newfound strengths. We are no different from those who came before us. We must learn to forgive ourselves for being human and others for not being kind. To survive, we must surround ourselves with amazing people, caring people, wise people, and people who will empathetically tell us the truth. We must build a diverse team with diverse skill sets. Finally, we must surround ourselves with partners in the mission.

The work is exhausting and rewarding. The fifth bugle is an incredible privilege. It is confusing, taxing and compelling. Yet, family helps, discernment helps, friends help, and rest helps. The new year sets the foundation for shifting and settling in. Chiefs, you walk in a vast field that has been scarred by others’ sacrifice and lifetimes of service. I wish you well with the new season. May your actions be steady and your heart strong.

BRIAN SCHAEFFER serves as the fire chief of the Spokane (Washington) Fire Department. His professional life has spanned over 30 years serving in fire departments in the Midwest and Northwest in progressive ranks up to and including fire chief. He also serves on numerous local, state, and national public safety and health-related committees. In addition, he frequently lectures on innovation, leadership and contemporary urban issues such as the unhoused, social determinants of health and multicultural communities.

More Posts
Share this post:

The Briefing – Your source for the latest blog articles, leadership resources and more