PrepTalks: Brian Fennessy “Building a Mission-Driven Culture”


[PrepTalks Theme Playing] [Fennessy] I’d like to share with you a little bit about my leadership journey. I never dreamed about being a a fire chief.
That was not ever on my list of things to do in my career goals. I was born and
raised in a little community called Altadena, California. Southern California,
right there in the foothills. One of five brothers, traditional family. The
leadership model that I was raised under was very autocratic to say the
least. It was you did what you were told. You didn’t speak unless spoken to and if
you did step outside the lines there was probably a wack coming.
That was my leadership model. I was the black sheep of the family, my brothers
all did very well in school, I did not do so well at school. I was an athlete and
I found myself making it through high school, through the Pasadena Unified
School District, and I ended up at eighteen years old my father said, “Well listen, it
doesn’t look like education is in your future, you’re not staying here without a
job, you better go find something to do.” So two days out of out of high school,
and trust me the military was an option, and perhaps incarceration was another
option, I don’t know! But I went down to the unemployment office in Pasadena and
they saw me looking at some of the bulletins and he says, “How would you like to be a
firefighter?” And I said, “Well I never really thought about it. Well what do I need to
do?” They said, “Well show up in Oak Grove Ranger Station locking out of Flintridge.
They’ll issue some boots and they gonna put you on a crew and you’re gonna
travel all over the western U.S. fighting forest fires and brush fires.” I thought wow I
hadn’t been out of LA very often that might be a tan interesting life. And it was hard work but I loved it! It gave me purpose I was
traveling beyond you know throughout the western United States. I was moving up in
the organization. I was no longer throwing dirt with a shovel, I was
running the chainsaw. I was I was moving up! And I spent thirteen years between the
Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management from nineteen seventy-eight through nineteen ninety some of the large wildland fires the great fires in Yellowstone and got a
lot of really great experience. And my mom used to remind me that you know while I was digging line above those expensive homes where
the fire was burning down to that, if I did not go to school that I’d be digging
ditches for a living. She was right there I was digging ditches, but I loved it!
I had uncles in the fire service and they encouraged me to really get a real
job and to perhaps look at some municipal fire departments so I’d take a
test now and then and I got hired in nineteen ninety by the San Diego City Fire
Department. I started as a firefighter there spent ten years as a firefighter
again, no aspiration become fire chief, and through a lot of hard work, special
projects, working at busy stations, I moved up fairly quickly. And I spent my
last three years in San Diego as the fire chief. I’ve been with Orange County
for about a year. I want to share with you an experience I’ve had that’s caused
me to really reconsider leadership during you know not
only chaos, and ambiguity, and uncertainty but even day-to-day operations. We call
it mission-driven culture. And I’ll share with you a couple stories along the way
in two thousand three we had a large very large wildland fire that until two years ago
was the State of California’s largest fire. It was the Cedar Fire and it was
not our finest day with the city of San Diego there wasn’t social media there
wasn’t you know communication like we’re used to seeing it now. That fire started
around midnight out and way out in the East County about twenty-three miles east of the city and over the course of ten hours burned into the city and was taking down
structures along the way and then into the city. We relieved our crews
between seven and eight in the morning. The one shift comes on and the other comes off and we were releasing a shift, we had very little situation awareness. Going
back and, looking at some of the dispatch tapes, or listening the dispatch tapes
we had dispatchers people calling dispatch and saying, “Hey there’s fire in
my backyard my something’s on fire”, and our dispatcher telling them, “No that’s not
what you’re seeing that fire is well east of there, it’s in Ramona.” Very poor
situational awareness for those of you and my understanding is we have a lot of
emergency managers in the room who probably dealt with emergencies.
What’s the first thing that that goes during an emergency? Communications. So I’ll never forget it this is kind of the point of it, the chief at the time
whoever the chief was, the division chief or the assistant chief, said. “Listen I
need six strike teams to go to the bottom of Pomerodo Road, right off the
Interstate 15, Scripps Ranch, we’ve got homes burning up in the up in the
community. And stage there and don’t go anywhere until some chief comes there and gives you direction.” Well guess what? They form up and I’m talking six strike teams,
I’m talking thirty engines, each have a leader and they’re waiting and they’re waiting and homes are burning or being lost by the block just up the road. Half mile, three quarters of a mile up the road. The chief doesn’t show up and pretty soon the
crews, they want go up there and engage the fire, but you know we’re told listen the chief said we were not to move until
somebody comes here and gives us direction. If you do bad things happen
consequences happen. About half those strike teams and finally said, “Forget it
we’ll let bad things happen, we’re going up into the neighborhood,” and they went
up there and they did the best they could. The other three did not, the other
three did not. What I found is that large organizations much like the you know San
Diego Fire Department or the organization I am in, we are a lot like elephants,
right? You know we’re big, you know we’re clunky, and so trying to change the
culture of you know how we lead, how we prepare our firefighters, how you prepare
your emergency managers, is changing. I would offer up that we in the fire
service, probably law enforcement, most other public safety, we live on the rule
base side of the slide there. You know we very paramilitary, right? We’re
told when to eat, where to be, and we’re really good at that, right? I
would offer up that does not work during periods of chaos, again uncertainty,
ambiguity it doesn’t work. Our standard command and control doesn’t work. I’ve
been there, I’ve been in the neighborhoods, I’ve been in a lot of emergencies. it doesn’t!
What does work is an intent based philosophy. Where we’re giving very good
task, what to do. Purpose, you know why we’re
doing it. And through that end state, what right looks like when it’s all over.
I want to play a video for you. [Gerboth] The Cedar Fire was a watershed moment within our department and the county. The Cedar Fire at that time and still is the
largest fire in California history. Burned over two hundred eighty thousand acres, and over two thousand structures, and claimed fifteen lives. [Smith] It was an awakening if you will where so many agencies, certainly San Diego Fire and Rescue, felt an explosion in complexity,
in accountability, and the resources are flatlining. The outdated hierarchical,
centralized command and control model fails in large, complex, chaotic events. It
just can’t keep up. [Fennessy] What we’re trying to do is align ourselves with a framework called mission-driven culture. Mission-driven culture uses intent, principle
based, operational concepts that are really originated with the military.
[Smith] Mission-driven culture uses a framework of decentralized decision-making that’s
guided by leaders intent. So senior leaders communicate the task, purpose, and end-state of an assignment, provide the resources. But delegate the how, the
planning and the execution of that assignment, down to first line
leaders and operators. [Fennessy] I have people on staff say, “Listen Chief I’m the best kind of employee man I’m a rules follower.” I’m like well okay you know, rules
are a good thing, I mean we need rules, we need policy but largely they’re guidance because, again I don’t want somebody I don’t want one of my
firefighters, one of my captains, not to take action when action is right in front
of them in a very time compressed period, because they’re afraid of discipline,
some of the consequences, you know the city, the county going to back me up? My
expectation is that they’re going to take action even if it’s outside of
policy. We all I think most of us come from government agencies in this room and we’ve got bookshelves full of
books, you know policy, sometimes policies with people’s names on them, right? We
remember why that policy went in there. We can’t come up with a policy for
everything, we literally have to move that decision-making down to the
people that are closest to that decision point. Pretty tough, because a lot of a
lot of officers again in these paramilitary organizations do not
want to give up that level of control. I’d offer up if you if you have an
opportunity read Stanley McChrystal’s book General McChrystal talks about team of
teams. And his story really is about you know his experience in Iraq in two thousand three. He he goes to Iraq to manage the Joint Special Operations Task Force. The greatest, you know the best of the best, all in one task force. And finds out
very quickly that they’re getting their their butts kicked a
little bit by al-Qaeda, because al-Qaeda is operating in a very decentralized
very networked way. Where we the greatest you know military in the world, we are
very well planned, you know our decision-making goes all the way to the
top, it comes all the way down, it’s very slow, it’s very sluggish. He had to devise another way. And what he did is took what al-Qaeda was doing
well, and did it better himself. And pretty soon you know our special
operators were pulling off missions in a rapid way, more rapid than
they had before and they were having considerable success. A lot of
parallels there. Really it’s about you know when we look at when we’ve been
successful certainly that in the fire service, I look at the engine company I
was on, or the truck company, or the helicopter crew. It’s that small team you
know that cohesion, trust, we know each other’s moves. Pretty difficult for a
large organization, but that’s the journey you know we’ve been on, I was on
in San Diego, now we’re on in in Orange County. You know here’s a pretty good
diagram of what that decentralized command looks like. On the on the left side you know that’s our traditional structure that’s that’s our org chart.
One that generally the decision-makers lie at the top. And if you can imagine
and I’m sure you’ve all experienced disasters or emergencies, getting
information now those folks at the point of the spear is pretty difficult
they don’t have the time to wait for those sorts of things. We don’t want them
to wait for that, we need a more networked system, something that’s more
efficient much more adaptable. Adaptability is the name of the game. You
know in that you know fog of chaos. I’ll share a quick story with you. In San
Diego we were you know we had a policy that was when you got a medical aid,
no matter what the call was, you went right to that call, you didn’t bypass, you
didn’t divert, you went to that call. Even if it meant driving by perhaps another
vehicle accident. This is about ten years ago. And I had a friend who was a captain
he says, “You know I’m on this call he goes me and the crew and the engine were
going down the thoroughfare. And we’re about a half-mile you know from where
we’re supposed to be and the big black smoke column. I can’t really see where the
fire is emanating from but it looks like this apartment building. It’s the time of
day where you know it’s gonna be occupied, potentially lots of life lost.”
Big smoke and there’s people in the street waving him to make the turn and you know
the policy says to go straight, but he makes a judgment call he makes that left. He goes back around and lo and behold it’s one of those giant
construction dumpsters, it’s on fire and it’s not the apartment building. His
heart sinks he knows he broke policy knows there’s gonna be consequences for
that. And there were, regrettably you know he you know face some level of
discipline. And you can argue, right? It’s great ethical dilemma. We talk about it
all the time in small groups, big groups because you know he did violate policy
and the policy was this and the outcome was not what he’d hoped. But what if
it had been? Would that have been, would we still have disciplined him? I don’t know. And where we get caught up in the discussions you
know when we’re talking with our firefighters, “OK Chief, listen we love
this, we love the mission-driven culture but what if I make that decision, nobody’s around I’m basing it on what I see, hear, smell, touch and it’s
time compressed. I make that decision and the outcome is bad. You got my back then
Chief?” It’s like, “Yeah, I got your back.” With this philosophy, with this culture change, you have to acknowledge is going to be mistakes. Hopefully not a lot of
big ones, but they’re gonna be mistakes. And who hasn’t learned more from their
mistakes. I learned a lot more from my mistakes than I have things I’ve done
well. It turned into such a discussion I had to bring in one of my attorneys,
“Tell him, do we have his back?” And the attorney is like, “Yeah under the law blah, blah, blah. We’ve got his back.” But it’s a different way of managing. Flashback to Katrina. The pilots that did all those wonderful rescues. You know they were under work
duty rest limitations as well. Generally, for those rules we relaxed that takes
the decision from somebody way up the food chain, maybe a one-star general, or
somebody well up. They were told then that listen you pilots you crews are to
manage your work/rest. If you need more rest take it, if you want to exceed your
hours do it, but be safe. Do it in a way that it’s going to be safe. They managed
themselves, they managed the other crews, and they pulled off a number of
miraculous rescues. That was not the rules-based, compliance based,
organization. That was very much intent based. In Orange County we’re working
through our process now, a little bit different, I’ve only been there about a
year and so we’re, you know changing cultures hard, right? Everybody likes to
talk about, man we can’t wait for change, right until change happens. And
it’s like, well I was kind of okay with change but not if it affected me. But it is, you know we started, if you look left to right, with the OCFA way, that’s our mission, our values, those sorts of things. We’re having conversations at the
kitchen table in a firehouse about values. We weren’t having those
conversations when I was a firefighter in the fire stations. We’re kind of through
that piece, we’re working now into the operational doctrine piece with the
division chiefs with our battalion chiefs, because it’s no good that we at the top
all agree this is the way to operate, if we’ve got operators mid-level and others
that are not bought in. That are hampering those that do want to lead-up,
they want to operate as we’d like them to operate. Doesn’t do them much good. These really are the values of a mission- driven culture. You know who wouldn’t
support these. Service for common good, hi trust state. That’s a tough one, right? High
trust state, when the organization of people within the organization haven’t
always had that level of trust. It’s a big change. We believe that the fire
service needs to evolve, public safety needs to evolve, emergency management
needs to evolve, and adopt a philosophy that really revolves around adaptability.
Certainly resilience and you do that very well here, and the cohesion. We
start out as that big elephant, we’re striving to become that cheetah. Thank you very much. [Applause] Having discussions with people and telling
them it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to make mistake, now don’t make try not to
make a big one, and listen if you continue to make mistakes maybe we pull
one of those books off the shelf, right? That’s got all the policies in them,
maybe we named one after you, but you know we we don’t find that happens all
that often. Listen, we’ve invested a lot in our
people, training, I mean we’ve invested money, time, we’ve got some very well
trained firefighters. They’re making decisions every day, life and death
decisions, I’m not looking over their shoulder. The reality is again when you
know the conditions that generally we’re talking about, where we need to defer to
the people that are closest to where the decision point needs to be. We’ve got to trust that they’re going to do the right thing. We
do that through you know what we call leader’s intend or commander’s intent. We
give good you know task, purpose, end state. It’s
very broad as long as they’re operating within that, you know those side boards
we’re okay. We’re not talking about freelancing! You know where you’re doing
whatever you want to do, we’re talking about independent action, you know within
you know the scope of you know the leader’s intent. But it is tough, right?
Because again it’s that paramilitary culture that we all grew up in, it is my dad
he told me what to do. I mean I get it. You know look at the heroic actions you
know the first responders and others did here in Santa Rosa just a couple of
years ago, Butte County, you know LA County in the Woolsey Fire.
You know those firefighters that are taking those engines and they’re
driving into the fire and they’re pushing, hey they’re damaging those
engines. They’re pushing cars out of the way that are stuck on the road. Trust me,
I mean for probably most of us they go, “Ya know that was the right thing to do,” but
how many others maybe wouldn’t have done that for fear of damaging them. And we
will never know, right? But we want you know to develop that culture where
people are going to do right things even if it’s outside you know the policy. Now
people say, “Well wait a minute you know there has to be some level of accountability. I would offer that the level of accountability is even higher.
You know we’re not second guessing you, but we need to know what took
place in what happened so we can cover your back. There’s a higher level of
accountability under a mission-driven culture. I can only again look back on my own
experiences you know whether it be on the you know hotshot crews, or running
hotshot crews when I led them. We talked about it all the time, right? It was like man I knew what the right decision was and
we did it anyways, but I hope we didn’t get caught. You know or we didn’t or those those discussions happen,
right? Because you know firefighters, first responders, emergency managers, you
get so frustrated when you know, you know what needs to be done, but there’s
something holding you back, right? I believe to your point or to your
question, I believe it does have to start at the top it has to be embraced at the
top, and it gets tested along the way. Because all those that are maybe nodding,
“Oh, this sounds good,” but are anti mission-driven culture because they like,
they like that command and control. They like telling you where to be, when to be,
and in every little thing, right? It’s hard for them and they’ll test it! And
those are the conversations that happen afterwards. Listen you know we heard what
happened you know at the battalion level and that’s not really what we’re talking
about, we’ve all you know met and discussed what about our values are in alignment.
We’ve all agreed to this because there’s more to it than you know
standing up and talking about it. We’re going through a process. [PrepTalks Theme Playing]

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