Des Moines Fire Chief Sets a Good Example

The Younker’s building fire has everyone reeling, and saddened. Right now it’s hard to see anything good through the haze, but there are a few silver linings to this tragedy.

Des Moines Fire Chief John TeKippe has and continues to demonstrate outstanding leadership as he manages this event and its aftermath. TeKippe recognized the event for what it is: a once-in-a-lifetime thing that most firefighters could never expect to see. And that’s precisely why TeKippe was so wise in turning over the fire investigation to an entity (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) that does this kind of work all day, every day. It just makes sense. It makes sense for taxpayers, and it makes sense for the people who want the best shot at getting to the bottom of what happened.

But TeKippe’s action is somewhat unusual. Particularly when it comes to public safety, sometimes the double-edged sword of pride can make it tough for officials to turn over responsibility to the most expert hands. For some it is difficult to admit that one’s own unit really isn’t in the best position to lead a given effort. But a true leader looks beyond perception, and does what is best for all concerned.

The same issue sometimes makes it challenging to pool resources at a regional level to obtain better results and/or save money. Imagine, just as an example, a regional homicide investigation squad that handles the sort of crime that occurs only rarely in the suburbs. A metro-wide team specializing in this type of work would likely get better results at less cost. In reaching for outside assistance to lead his investigation, Chief TeKippe sets a great example for communities in the metro area to think about the best way to handle unusual and extraordinary events, even if it means giving up some control and authority. Ceding command goes beyond accepting assistance.

The manner in which assistance is accepted can also vary. Another demonstration of Chief TeKippe’s leadership came in his public recognition of suburban communities for their assistance in fighting the fire. Mutual aid agreements exist for circumstances like this, and the fire chief went out of his way to thank the suburbs and publicly recognize the need for their help and the importance of their contributions. Chief TeKippe clearly considered the fighting of the fire to be a team effort. He never thought about any group deserving credit above any other, nor did he worry about how accepting help might reflect on the competency of his own troops. It was just the smart thing to do.

It’s refreshing to see such clear thinking in the midst of a crisis. It would be great to parlay Chief TeKippe’s leadership, and the firefighters’ mutual aid culture, to even more collaborative endeavors in the region.

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