Newbury Park, California
Asst Chief; Los Angeles Fire Dept.
"Never stop learning ..."
Why they're a Crisis Leader:
I’ve worked alongside Greg teaching some courses, and his classroom presence is admirable. Almost every student leans forward on their elbows, waiting for the next nugget to be shared.
When you read his interview, you’ll see why.
Greg has always made time to lend an ear, offer feedback, or be of service. And always with focus, attention, and a smile on his face. Greg is the consummate leader and the boss we all wish we had at least once in our career.
Greg’s stories will have you on the edge of your chair. You’ll feel almost every emotion hearing his experiences as a crisis leader. And you’ll see why so many people have such unabated respect for Greg West.
You’ll also hear the reverence he has for the leaders that he looks up to, a true testament to the ‘paying it forward’ theme that is part of his character.
I had the opportunity to drive with Greg through some of his former response districts in Los Angeles not long ago. It was clear that he left a positive legacy in that fire department and city, and it’s an honor to include him in this interview project.
#1 "What is a Crisis Leader?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "What is a Crisis Leader?"
Crisis leader. That crisis being, there's a lot at stake.
In my profession in the fire service, lives are at stake, property is at stake.
The wellbeing of the people who work with and for me is at stake, and the leader part has really given me pause, because when I started thinking about all this, it was, I just fell into the focus, and maybe the trap, of they do what I tell them because of who I am, that I outrank them, that I, they all work for me, that I am designated as whatever it might be, unified commander, section chief, branch director, whatever, and I kinda got away from that, because like many of us, I've seen high-ranking officials that aren't really leaders.
And, as I thought it over, I thought a leader is somebody who can drive people to do what they want them to do, because of several factors of technical competence, first of all.
Their ability to communicate with, collaborate with, listen to, and deal with people, and I think that listening is a big part.
You have to be a good listener to, to understand your people and know how to communicate with them and convince them that they can follow you, and you're looking out for them and they will be safe.
I think part of that, being a leader, is decisiveness, courage, and the ability, and the wherewithal to make good decisions, and even change some of those decisions based on information or intelligence that comes in, or input from somebody who's working with or for you.
So, and that takes some courage sometimes to say, this is what I had in mind. This is the way I usually do it, but based on what you're telling me, I'm gonna make a change.
And, I think part of that leadership is, you have to be good at what you do, that's that technical competence thing, but you have to demonstrate it.
You have to be out in front. You can't lead from behind.
So, that leader is somebody who's demonstrating through training, through education, through practice, that the leader understands what it is that needs to be done, because they can do it too, and they've got the courage and confidence to stand in front of coworkers and subordinates and show them that I've got this, that I can do it.
Part of that leadership is being systematic, and working as a battalion commander in Hollywood, the systematic part came back with really, really good results several times, because everybody knew of the five companies responding to a reported fire incident, they knew where I would put the first and second engines, where first truck company would go, the second truck company.
And, what made me feel really good about it is responding to incidents from a long distance, and as I heard the assignments being made by the company officers prior to my arrival, it was working just the way I would've done it if I were there, and it was kind of a validation of my system and their trust in my system, and working with what we had in place, and we all worked on through the years, over five years I worked in Hollywood.
And, I think the last thing is never stop learning. I will attend the same classes as a lot of my subordinates, and I'll be in there with them.
You know, good example is I have a picture of me that I look at all the time, a high angle rescue class that I attended with urban search and rescue folks from Los Angeles City, and the first time anybody went over the cliff, well about a 60-foot drop, in a lowering operation with a rescue Stokes basket on my lap.
I was the only guy there in a white helmet, or a command officer's helmet, and I was the first one they put over the side, and that meant a lot to all of them, and it sure meant a lot to me.
So, that's a long way around to talk about a crisis leader, which is so much different than just being a command officer.
#2 "What's an example when you relied on your own Crisis Leadership?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "What's an example when you relied on your own Crisis Leadership?"
I'm starting as a paramedic and leaving as an assistant fire chief.
I've looked through my memories, through my slide tray, as it were, of things that happened and it's easy to go to the emergency incidents, but there's so many different times that I really had to stand by my beliefs and do what I had been trained on, and what I knew was right.
And demonstrate that I was that crisis leader, and I've got different examples of different scenarios.
Chronologically speaking, back in 2000, I worked for over a year on the Democratic National Convention Planning Group in the City of Los Angeles for the convention coming to town, and I was the second in command of the Fire Department contingent, and we were there with law enforcement, and Department of Traffic, and EMS, and people from the state.
And I hope he never sees this, but my boss and I had very different leadership styles.
For pretty much everybody in the office, about 60 people in the office, they found it very hard to work with my boss, communication-wise and the ability to compromise on things, and I became what was known as the buffer. And I had to stand up and we agreed to disagree on a lot of things.
And the funny thing was that this chief had been a staff chief for a long time, took Fridays off. And we worked all week because we had so much to do. So, the team became my team on Friday, and we came to call it Hawaiian Shirt Friday, looking out for the troops because nobody in any other discipline wore a uniform except the fire department people.
We were trying to stay under the radar. Friday was my day, and it was Hawaiian Shirt Friday, and we would work all day long, and toward the end of the day, we would go next door to a fish restaurant called McCormick & Schmick.
And every Friday, I bought the first round. So, it was a $100 bill every single Friday and worth every penny of it because the team knew that I had their back and we were gonna get this done, so, and everybody else in the office saw it, too.
The most emotional one is me as a battalion chief working in the San Fernando Valley, where I grew up in Northwest Los Angeles.
And in making the rounds on a Saturday and visiting fire stations, we respond to 1,400 dispatches a day in the City of Los Angeles.
And they're coming and going all the time.
I heard one for a drowning, and I recognized the street because it was about four blocks from where I went to high school, and it was about six blocks from where we were.
So, in the middle of the day in December, we heard a drowning dispatch go out, and we were the closest, and I knew it.
And it's funny, or it's not that we all promote to get out from under all of those EMS runs and go to the exciting stuff, but this is a drowning.
I'm six blocks away, I'm miles closer than the two resources, and I added Battalion 17 to that incident.
And my staff assistant, the driver, questioned me on it. What are we doing?
And I just said we're doing the right thing. Let's go.
And we found it on the map, and we got there to where a three-year-old had drowned in the hot tub in December in very, very cold water.
And as I controlled the parents who were absolutely distraught and trying to interrupt the CPR we were trying to do. My partner performed CPR on this three-year-old, who, after we put her in the ambulance after the paramedic engine and the paramedic ambulance arrived, she's breathing on her own and she went home nine days later.
What brought it really close to home is on Valentine's Day a year and a half ago, they brought some cardiac arrest survivors and their rescuers to the fire department on Valentine's Day, and I got to meet little Tracy, who was a high school senior at the time.
And it was one of the most rewarding. It wasn't a big fire, but if we put life safety as our number one tactical priority, we nailed it.
And we did it.
I went out on a limb and I did things that everybody, I'm sure, out on the radio said what's the chief doing going out to a drowning?
And it was the right thing with the right outcome, so very emotional for me.
Then going in chronological order, I responded to Hurricane Katrina with California Task Force 1, 70 person, an urban Search and Rescue team sponsored by FEMA.
And we mobilized in six hours, went out the door, were escorted by the Highway Patrol all the way to the California border to get there as quickly as we could, and ended up in Dallas, yeah, in Dallas, where they put us up in a hotel with three other Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces for two-and-a-half days because FEMA logistically wasn't convinced that they could support us.
And they made the decision, right or wrong, it doesn't matter, they made the decision to hold us off until we could go in and not be more of a problem, but be part of the solution.
And 69 people on the taskforce just did not understand that, and they weren't happy with staying in the hotel, and waiting around, and not being able to do what they were trying to do and they drove over 2,000 miles for.
And the crisis leadership part was letting them know that we were doing everything we could to get to work, letting them know exactly what was going on and why, and taking the abuse, and the unhappiness for it.
And the toughest part for me is at 2,000 miles away with me responsible for all of them, I couldn't afford for anybody to get hurt. We all had to get there safely and at 100% capacity when we finally were deployed. And we were in the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
I wouldn't let 'em use the gym, I wouldn't let 'em play basketball. If they wanted to exercise, they could do pushups, and sit-ups, and they could walk the stairs, but I couldn't have a sprained ankle. I couldn't have a muscle pull, and they did not like me for it, but they all understood.
And that's that courage part of being a leader, and I've got a last one.
I know this is a long answer, but what's important to me is shortly before I retired, I responded to a fire in a grocery store late at night, about 11:30 at night.
And as I was going to the store, I thought of the Phoenix Fire Department where they had lost a firefighter in a grocery store.
And I was commenting to my staff assistant about these never have a good outcome.
And sure enough, we had an attic fire in a fairly large grocery store. The lights were still on. They were still getting the shoppers out of the store when we got there.
And we kept looking at the fire coming through the roof with the truck companies up there ventilating the roof, which made it look even worse.
The lights are still on, we can see the firefighters inside working, and at the point where the lights went out, I was depending on a lot of conversation and reports from inside, which we didn't get.
And ultimately, when I saw the smoke coming out the front doors, which were 10 feet high, I ordered everybody out.
And all but one came out, and he was on the radio calling for help, and screaming, and on the edge of panic, but that firefighter was doing everything right.
His company went back in and they rescued him. Within 30 seconds of getting that firefighter out the door, the building flashed over and it came really close.
What we got out of it was the chance to interview a firefighter who should have died, and we had just a mere miss.
My boss responded with what's the big deal? You got 'em out.
And my philosophy is when you make a mistake, stand up to it and tell everybody what happened so they don't make the same mistake.
There's a million mistakes to make out there for any first responder, Fire Law, EMS, whatever it might be, military, don't make that mistake.
And we pulled all the tapes togethers and all of the diagrams together, and shared it with every officer in the fire department. So, I had to stand up there for months with a training battalion chief and a training captain. And that training captain actually took it to the Firefighters Union to get some support for us to put this program on.
And we taught the lessons of the Vallarta fire an accountability and communication to every officer in the fire department.
Those are my four where I truly had, I call it rowing my own boat, but I did what I had to do.
#3 "What do you know now that you wish you knew then?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "What do you know now that you wish you knew then?"
Things I wish I knew then that I know now.
And the one that came to mind that, a quote I heard after putting on the presentation for the Vallarta near-miss fire was that the higher you go in rank, the more of a coward you should become.
And it was so profound to me and so obvious, and I was almost ashamed that I didn't ever define it like that, but, my position was to put people in harm's way, to put them at risk, and I did take it very seriously, and I very much cared about my coworkers, my subordinates, members of both, all the first responders.
But that short quote so clearly defines the incredible responsibility as a first responder in a command position, and, it, I wish I knew it then, as I was responding to that fire, what I was gambling with. 'Cause I'm on the outside and I'm gambling with dozens of firefighters on top of and inside that burning building.
#4 "What advice would you give someone who wants to improve their own Crisis Leadership?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "What advice would you give someone who wants to improve their own Crisis Leadership?"
Improving your crisis leadership is so multifaceted.
You have to be good at what you do.
You have to demonstrate that you assess the level of risk, you assess what needs to be done, and you can clearly communicate and collaborate on how we are going to get that done.
You can't be a leader if you don't have people to follow you, and understand that they want to do what you know needs to be done.
So, and they won't do it if you're not good at it. And not only being good at it but being out front.
That I said before, you can't lead from behind, so when we are working through dangerous operations, be out there with them.
Don't assign the training and walk away.
Be confident and give them confidence.
I think if you want to improve your crisis leadership, learn to be a good listener because a lot of people have different perspectives and ways to get things done, and they work. So you can listen and actively learn.
I had a chance to see James Comey put on a presentation in my hometown, and he said one of his keys to success was his ability to listen actively, to engage the President of the United States when he was listening, not appropriately, and not be afraid to ask the tough questions to clarify what was going on.
So I think being a good listener to those who work around you, and by actively listening, you're working on communication, you're working on that collaboration of we are in this together.
And as your leader, I'm gonna make sure we get through this because I care about you, and I'm gonna look out for you. I'm gonna make sure you know your job and can do it, and we'll do it together.
#5 "Who is a Crisis Leader that influenced your career?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "Who is a crisis leader that influenced your career?"
I've had the chance to work and learn from some great leaders in the fire service, especially in Los Angeles.
The first name that came to mind was, well, he retired as an assistant chief, Jim O'Neill.
I worked with him when I was a young, very immature, you know, be described as wet-behind-the-ears captain. And initially, just watched and just listened, and he did the same thing.
He just watched me, and he listened to me, and gave me time to prove myself to him. And he was a great teacher, a great mentor.
And what I learned from him is when somebody is striving to, not to please you but to be like you and to learn from you and not let you down, he was very demonstrative in his letting you know that you, kid, you're doin' all right, you know?
And to see the chief come out of his office at Fire Station 27 and walk out and put his arm around me and say, let's take a walk, kid, here's what you do.
And I knew I had it made at that point. I knew it was gonna be okay.
And a lot of growin' up took place in the two years that I had the chance to work with Chief O'Neill.
I'm gonna add two more to the list.
A fellow instructor here at TEEX, at Texas A&M, named John Nowell. And John and I worked together from the mid-'70s until we retired in 2008 to 2010. And we worked together. He worked for me in the last few years in the fire department, and absolutely a leader of men and women.
That he doesn't have a plan for every single situation that could ever come up, but he works from a process of looking out for the good of the men and the women who work for him, be it on a strike team out of the city or within his battalion.
He truly cared, he truly took care of them, and sometimes, at the expense or even spiting some of the leadership because he had a clear standard of what he knew was right and wrong, and looking out for people who worked around him was a big part of that.
And he had the whole package, the technical competence, the ability to communicate, the ability to know his feelings through body language. He didn't even have to open his mouth, and you knew his position. And everybody else did.
And the last but certainly not least is a retired captain from the fire department named Jim Featherstone.
And I jokingly say that I outranked Jim Featherstone for my entire career, and I worked for that man my entire career. He was a leader within the firefighters' union. He was a firefighter or a leader within the emergency management community, within the training community.
And he, there was never any doubt that he had everybody's best interest in mind at keeping them well-trained, at keeping them safe, at looking out for them, even representing them in the disciplinary process when he felt they had been wronged. And sacrificed so much of his own time to look out for the other members of the department, to go outside.
He used to bring into captain's meetings military programs that we could apply to my battalion and to the fire department of how they handled logistics, how they handled communications.
He was always out there looking for new and better ways to get things done. And I'm a better person, and the department is a better position for all of the efforts that Jim made.
He was rewarded by a position as the City of Los Angeles Emergency Manager. He served an interim position as the fire chief, just unprecedented to retire as a captain and later be appointed as the interim fire chief.
And he was very effective and well-liked within the department. And now, he's in the private sector pioneering GIS and a lot of computer-related approaches to how we can do better as first responders.