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Managing Your Shelter: Tips from the Fire Chief

Christian M. Hartley is the fire chief and chief animal control officer for the city of Houston, Alaska. A second-generation responder with 19 years of public safety experience, he has taught at several conferences and symposiums on the topics of leadership, safety and operations. Although different trades, Hartley proves that his experiences as a fire chief can be beneficial to managing a pet shelter.

Leading a shelter is like leading a pack: You must have a pack that trusts you to lead them and that you feel comfortable exposing your back to. A strong team can accomplish many things and become a beacon of hope and trust, and a broken team at a shelter will result in injuries to crew, deaths to pets and discord with the community.

As the fire chief is a rural Alaskan city, my duties have been items placed under the “Other Duties As Assigned” tab. In fact, I am pretty sure that that tab is bulkier than the rest. The city formally resolved that the fire chief is the city’s chief animal control officer in 2010, and we continue in that role today. I take that assignment just as seriously, as the lives of pets and mongrels depend on the effectiveness with which I perform my duties.

In the exact same way as human lives can depend on my decisions, animals at the shelter may depend on yours. Just the same, I find that running the shelter the same way that I run the fire department leads to the same level of success and respect from the community that funds us. Below are the basic tenets that I apply to operations and would suggest you do the same:

ALWAYS put safety first.
Your crew can’t work if they’re out on workers’ comp or laid up in the hospital. A safe work place is critical — a crew that doesn’t feel safe at work will be hesitant to volunteer time and risk injuring themselves. It’s more than the animals at the shelter — look at the building itself for trip hazards, electrical hazards, things that make your head go bump and bang, and how tiring it is to walk on your floor.

BELIEVE in your crew.
Without a team that you can depend on, how can you ever expect to trust the output of that team? In that same vein, make sure to only employ people who you can trust. Whether paid or volunteer, a team can be weakened by distrust much quicker than strengthened by respect. Once you have a strong team, focus on keeping it strong and don’t allow convenience to introduce a weakness that resets all of your progress.

CLEAR, concise and consistent management is key.
As the supervisor, the crew looks to you to be the strong head of household and provide them with a stable environment. If you write up a person for performing a task that the week before you turned a blind eye to, the crew will learn that you can’t be trusted for uniformity. They’ll be distracted by being worried about how you’ll react this week, and less focused on just getting done what needs to get done.

DELEGATE tasks and chores to others.
With the delegation of responsibilities must also come the delegation of authority. An employee that feels empowered to represent the agency will be more likely to take ownership of the task, the agency and the whole operation. If you as the boss ever find yourself feeling overworked and see your crew as being idle or apathetic, the problem is likely actually you. Pass some assignments to the crew. The worst that will happen is that you will identify an employee that really isn’t cut out for the work, and the best that will happen is you will reinforce your trust for the crew and demonstrate that trust to the team, which will strengthen their respect for themselves and you.

EVERYONE is equal.
No matter what position a person is hired to, they need to be hired with a mop in their hand. A healthy relationship of every member of the team to the full gamut of the operation is important. A CEO should know how to process a credit card payment, and a brand new employee should know how to handle a customer service complaint. Whether a person is an 18-year-old fresh out of high school and starting an internship or a 64-year-old person starting a new career, everyone deserves respect or you don’t deserve to lead them. Keep it a friendly and welcoming house, and you will find it much less likely for your family members to run away.

FOLLOWERSHIP is the key to leadership for two reasons.
Firstly, without a follower there is no leading occurring. Being alone in a line doesn’t mean that you are the line leader — it means that nobody wants to follow your lead or don’t trust that you’ll lead them the right direction. Secondly, everybody must follow in order to remember how to lead. As a supervisor, the worst thing you can do to your reputation is the pretend like you’re always right and never need to lean on anybody else. You must have people in your circle that you can trust, that you can go to for suggestions. You must be willing to listen to your customers and employees and modify your actions when safety and effectiveness are compromised.

GUIDELINES, not procedures, are the sign of a true leader.
When you have a firm document of procedures that all of the team must adhere to, it provides a consistent approach but places the key importance on process over the pets. In the end, aren’t we all in this for the pet? Procedure must take a back seat to patient to really put that patient first. Doing the right thing is more important than doing the thing right. If you look at fire departments nationwide, you’ll find that the majority are going away from Standard Operating Procedures and instead going to Standard Operating Guidelines. Guidelines are flexible and can accommodate the need of the patient while insuring that the mission and policy of the agency are fulfilled.

HAVE a plan for emergencies, for disasters and for good days.
Prepare a week’s plan of good days that consist of a list of tasks to accomplish around the shelter. Always be ready for emergencies and disasters like you likely already are, but you should be equally ready for a slow and steady day by having things to do in the hopper at all times.