Rhoda Mae Kerr, Little Rock’s fire chief, leads what she describes as “a paramilitary organization of 400 that runs 24/7/365 and has no tolerance for sub-standard performance.” And yet, if you ask her what is most important to the success of her department, she will talk about vision, values, mission, people and training. If you were ever curious about what balanced leadership looks like, drop by your local fire station.
Chief Kerr is very direct. “On a fire scene, there is no room for argument or dissention. A clear protocol establishes chain of command.” This is not a chain of command put in place to keep a leader insulated or to simply feed the ego of the boss. In fact, command at a fire scene is taken by the first captain on the scene — meaning that all of them are fully capable to take that responsibility and have the respect and cooperation of the rest who arrive. This is a chain of command that works because it is in service to efficiency and backed up by serious amounts of training and trust. Can you imagine the chaos (not to mention loss of life and property) that would ensue if each assigned task at a fire scene required detailed explanation?
On the other hand, Kerr has an open-door policy. Any member of the fire department at any level can see her for any reason. And in addition to the investments in technical and tactical training, the chief has made critical investments in the department’s culture. Convening a group representing all levels of the department, Kerr and her team crafted values and vision statements and have integrated them into the policy of the organization. The vision statement that she set personally for the organization, “Serving with pride, excellence and national recognition,” is much more than an empty slogan.
If you spend some time with the chief you will come to understand that her background has prepared her perfectly to balance the need for no-nonsense command structure with a culture that is open and values driven. Her schooling, which includes graduate studies at Harvard and the National Fire Academy, is clearly reflected in her knowledge of budgeting, administration, governance and politics. But it is Kerr’s 13 years as a schoolteacher and her 20 years doing pretty much every job in a modern firefighting organization that make her a standout.
One of the things that made a powerful impression on me was that the chief never talked about a value or policy that was not backed up in practice and with funding. Speaking about a recent fire, she was reflective.
“Two lives lost is a tragedy, but I am so thankful that we were over there talking about fire safety and conducting drills in the last few months. We saved a lot of lives before that fire even started.”
The chief also described how every firefighter at a fire has a radio. “That is because even the greenest firefighter is empowered to call operations to a halt based on an unmanageable risk or condition that he or she sees. And if they cannot report that condition directly to the incident commander, then the policy is useless.”
But the chief was most animated when she talked about the development of a values-based organization. “When all else fails, it is our mission and our values that will guide the decisions that we make.” And if you drop into a fire station or two as I did, you will find that the changes the chief has implemented in the two years since she arrived here are not only respected but widely embraced. One firefighter commented plainly: “Some of the old-timers did not think much of all the touchy-feely stuff. But most of us are pretty proud of what is happening here. You do not do this job unless you know that you will get what you need from the department — and we know we can count on the chief.”