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Helping a department through loss

Lessons from a Florida chief’s message to grieving members

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Marion County (Florida) Fire and Rescue Chief James Banta posted a powerful video this week, speaking directly to his fire department’s “brothers and sisters” after the deaths of two department members. We don’t know why this video was created, and it’s not for us to speculate, but we can talk about grief and leadership.

Brené Brown says, “A brave leader is someone who says, ‘I see you. I hear you. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m going to keep listening and asking questions.’”

Chief Banta is unquestionably a brave leader. With a black ribbon across his badge, he speaks with a mixture of vulnerability, compassion and inspiration. Helping a department through grief is one of the most difficult things a leader faces. There are several lessons for all of us highlighted in this video.

  1. Speak directly with empathy but without sugarcoating the message.
  2. Label the factors that may contribute to issues. In this video, Chief Banta calls out low pay, workload, mandatory overtime, lack of sleep, substance abuse, PTSD and addiction, with no spin or excuse.
  3. Describe the complexity of why simple solutions won’t solve deep problems.
  4. Recruit your teammates with a specific call-to-action. “Be my eyes and ears,” Banta urges members, asking them to look for warning signs in their colleagues that show they may need help.
  5. Normalize emotional reactions to traumatic events by revealing how it’s affected you as a leader.
  6. Close by bolstering members’ strengths and your confidence that you will get through this together.

If you or someone you know needs help, please reach out to your department’s EAP, Chaplin, peer support, or CISM team. Call 988 24 hours a day. Familiarize yourself with the extensive list of resources for emergency services professionals on the All Clear Foundation website.

Mike Taigman uses more than four decades of experience to help EMS leaders and field personnel improve the care/service they provide to patients and their communities. Mike is the Improvement Guide for FirstWatch, a company which provides near-real time monitoring and analysis of data along with performance improvement coaching for EMS agencies.

He teaches Improvement Science in the Master’s in Healthcare Administration and Interprofessional Leadership at the University of California San Francisco and the Emergency Health Services Management Graduate Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He’s the author of “Super-Charge Your Stress Management in the Age of COVID-19.” Contact him at