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Let's Talk Fire: 3 Areas That Can Make or Break a Fire Officer

Sam has been a firefighter for nine years. He currently serves as lieutenant and public information officer of his city's fire department.

Do you lead or boss?

Do you lead or boss?

In the Beginning . . .

I can honestly say that I have had more difficulty putting pen to paper on this one than any of my previous "Let's Talk Fire" articles to date. Perhaps it is the current state of affairs that seems to circle fire officers and leaders like a bloodthirsty shark, or maybe it is current issues I am seeing and being made aware of in local departments in my area, or maybe, just maybe, it's the fact that every time I write anything that mentions leadership roles and responsibilities feathers get ruffled and feelings become compromised. I don't know if those answer the why but regardless, we are not going to let a few egocentric turkeys hinder forward progress, are we? Of course not!

I do want to go on record and state that nothing in this text is directed at any department or individual, for that matter. It is meant to satisfy the two Es, education and entertainment. It is my desire that through this article, you may develop skills and knowledge that will make you a better fire service leader and also help you to better understand the responsibilities and roles of leaders above you in your own department. It is my goal to help every firefighter, from probie to chief, develop the skills to lead with the right attitude and know-how.

It is important that we realize as an officer or leader in the fire service, all eyes are on us. We must never assume the only person affected by our actions is us. This is far from the truth and a dangerous way to think about things, especially if you are a fire ground leader. A multitude of people will be affected by your choices. Your crew, the people we serve in the community, our families, and even the governing body of your department all have the potential to be affected by the actions you take as a leader in the fire service. That scope is much broader than just that of an individual, and we must always keep that in mind when we are trying to lead.

People have come to trust officers. They see that different color hat as a definitive sign that you are capable of leading and making the right decisions to save their home, family and property. Sometimes our choices are relatively easy. Take buying toilet paper for the station. Not a lot of thought going into that one. But on the other hand, sometimes we are put in situations where the choice is not so clear and evident.

Let's look at an example presented in two ways.

Fire showing on A/B corner. You have a victim trapped in the C/D corner. Easy right? We are sending a crew in there.

OK, so now you have fire showing on the B side and heavy smoke on the D side. The house is more than 60% involved, and you have a child trapped somewhere between the B and D sides of the structure. Now your choice is not so clear cut, and your actions can and will endanger your crew.

In this text, we are going to touch base on three areas that can greatly influence your ability as a successful fire service leader or officer. These are three areas where people generally strive or fail. A solid grasp and firm understanding of these concepts can really boost your potential in a fire officer setting. Remember, as a leader, we are there to do what is right and work for the betterment of our department and our community.

It's no secret the fire service is very, very demanding of us. As I said, all eyes are on you and especially on the ones in the leadership roles. A good friend and a great trainer once told me, "people will forget an atta boy the next day, but they will remember an oh shit forever." This is ultimately true for the fire service. I have rescued animals, saved belongings, assisted countless people, and still get ridden for a mistake I made with a pike pole the third day on the job; it is part of the culture.

You can use these areas as stepping stones. They can go up or down depending on how you utilize them and allow them to be utilized in your department.

  1. Decision Making
  2. Communication
  3. Team Work
Motivation is better than severe criticism.

Motivation is better than severe criticism.

Area 1: Decision Making

Decision-making may very well be the most important skill a good fire officer can obtain. It comes with experience, knowledge, and in most cases, some good old common sense. It is important that you realize not every decision you will be called upon to make will be life or death; in fact, the majority will not be. As I said earlier, sometimes the decision will be as simple as where to buy toilet paper or who is on dinner detail, but other times more complicated and trying decisive choices will be thrust upon our shoulders. It is the nature of the beast.

It is often how we handle decision-making that dictates who we are and how we are viewed as leaders and officers in the fire service. It speaks volumes about us in all truth. Our goal should always be to be efficient and effective in our role as fire officers as well as make all decisions on sound thought-out reasoning. Our priority should never be to boost our credibility and ego regardless of the outcome of what we do. Abusing power is unethical and should never be tolerated in the fire service.

You also do not want your decisions to be dictated by political gain. The fire service is not a popularity contest, and if that is how it is being treated, then changes need to be made, and they need to be made in a hurry. With any decision, whether it be life or death or just who is going to mop the bays after open house, the desired outcome needs to be presented. How you make your decision will be based on what you want the outcome to be. If you want the fire out, put water on it. Sure not all situations will present simplistic and easy answers, but they all require a desired ending point. We will look at three ways to make decisions as a fire officer in the following few paragraphs.

1. As a Whole Group

Allow every firefighter and staff member to have a say so. This method means everyone gets an equal say in the outcome of something. This is often how we determine where to spend funds or if the new recruit will become a part of the show or not. It fosters the idea that every member of the department has a say and has made an emotional investment in the outcome.

The key to this method is to be open and listen to ideas and concepts, even if they go against what you feel needs to be done. I will say this a lot in this article. Avoid the 'my way or the highway' attitude. A good fire leader and officer does not take that stance. If this is your view, then you have served your purpose on the fire service, and maybe it is time you stepped away.

Another aspect to really make this work is not to overstep. You may have the authority to override a group decision, but does that mean you should? This will defeat the purpose of the group vote altogether and creates a picture of you as a dictator more than an approachable leader.

2. Partial Group

Any churchgoers will call these committees. Forming such committees can make decision-making a lot easier. Not every situation will present the ideal circumstances for partial group decision-making, so be aware of when this will work for you and your department.

This is a super effective way to make decisions on firefighter progress and recruitment efforts, as well as an idea means of forming discipline boards. The key is each partial group needs to be selected on predetermined terms. It is not a good idea to form a group to vote for a promotion when the candidate running for it is best buddies with the chief, so the chief has four of his buddies on the department sit on the board. Be unbiased and fair when selecting who will be a part of your partial group decision-making body.

3. Individual

This is the most difficult in many ways. You may make a decision that you feel is the correct one, and the entire department disagrees, and now you have created a very bad work environment. Use this only when it is really the best option. The issue I see is a lot of officers rely way too much on this method. You can seek assistance from anyone on any decision, so don't always assume you are the John Wayne of the fire service.

Sometimes this is the only way to make a decision because time is never on our side. Know when this method works and when it hurts. On the fire scene, the first 60 seconds will greatly have bearing on the overall outcome, so maybe then you will be forced to fly solo. That does not mean later when the fire is still going, you should ignore a tactical idea from a firefighter and stick to the original plan. Be flexible.

As I said, you can still ask others for advice. Maybe you are unsure if you should vent a specific area, and Bob is a ventilation guy. Ask Bob what he would do and how he would go about the task. Nothing says you can't do that.


It's more than talking!

It's more than talking!

Area 2: Communication

Look at any 10 NIOSH for fatality reports, and nine of them will list communication as one of the problems related to the firefighter(s) death. A good leader must have a working understanding of communication skills. Always remember it is not about waiting for your turn to speak. You need to be a good listener. Develop skills in that area. Be able to acknowledge what was said and answer appropriately.

As a leader, how you address your crew is very important. If you are always talking in a hateful tone or constantly talking down to them, then you will not have the trust of your staff. Be firm, but be appropriate. Billy may have dropped the ladder when he was getting it off the truck. What is more effective—yelling at him and calling him dumb or helping with the ladder and telling him maybe next time, get a second set of hands on the ladder?

Another aspect of communication and one that is often overlooked is the importance of transparency. Secrets at the firehouse are a great way to create tension and divide your department. If you are a chief officer and you tell firefighter Owens about a financial situation arising, but you intentionally keep Firefighter Smith from knowing what you allowed Owens to know you are causing issues, then that can lead to major drama. Avoid this behavior at all costs.

Communication is vital to the growth and development of the department and needs to be an open two-way street. Again, be open to ideas from your crew. Never take the 'my way or highway' approach. It is only going to create a very anti-productive atmosphere. As a leader, you should foster the idea that your door is always open and your crew can speak to you about anything. Develop relationships that create strong bonds of trust and loyalty.

Fire ground communication may get a bit more aggressive but try and be a good listener and a good leader here as well. One aspect to remember is while you may sound really cool saying there is a 10 at my 10-20 can you signal 9 me when I go 10-7 . . . you are not communicating the way NFPA desires from us. Plain text is the best way to get a point across. Use your words, not your numbers.

On the foreground, you may have to communicate with civilians. Again be respectful and professional. I have an issue with cursing from time to time, so that is something I have to be very cautious of. You need to be very selective in what you say or reveal to civilians. You may think you are looking at a textbook arson fire, but that is information that does not need to be divulged to civilians and onlookers. Also, don't use fire jargon when you speak to civilians. Telling Mr. Homeowner we impeded the spread by minimizing flow, trenched the roof, and had a 2 and a half advancing in behind S and R is going to confuse them a bit more than we would like. Now we have to repeat the phrase in common English, taking more time. Just tell them we boarded a window and cut a hole in the roof and are attacking the fire and looking for people inside. That sums it up pretty easily.

Another on-scene issue that irks the heck out of me is people who overly use the radio. You need to limit unnecessary radio traffic. I realize the leadership role means we are often away from the action. This does not mean we need to ask for updates every 30 seconds. This distracts the crews and delays the task they are committed to. Be sensible.

Area 3: Ethics and Transparency

A real leader does not hide their actions but embraces them. This topic is going to be condensed a great deal, as fire ground ethics is such a vast encompassing monster to get into. We will only touch on a few key bullet points here.

  • Favoritism and Cliques
  • Chain of Command
  • Trust

1. Favoritism

If you have read any of my previous entries in the Let's Talk Fire series, you are probably more than aware of my hatred for this topic. I am a firm believer everyone on the department should be treated equally and with the same amount of respect. No exceptions no excuses! That being said we have all seen or heard of cases in which firefighters receive officer positions not because of experience or skill but because they are buddies with someone making the decision. This is a practice that we must work to do away with my friends.

As a leader, you should not encourage this behavior and, even more importantly, should never engage in it. If Dawn is more qualified for the captain position than Bill but Bill is fishing buddies with the chief who should get that promotion? Who will actually get it? If the question bothers you maybe look at your department and see if this practice is going on there.

The same goes for other aspects. If firefighter Jones is given access to an upstairs training area but access is not given to firefighter Rogers, then regardless, something is going on. Maybe there is a justifiable reason but maybe there is not. And let me address this. If the reason can not be given, then concerns should be evident!

Favoritism divides departments.

2. Chain of Command

Even the chief of most departments answers to someone. It might be a tax board, a board of director, or a governing body. My home department answers to a city commission, of which I am a part of as an elected official. It is the chief's job to answer to and make that commission aware of goings-on in the department. Everyone answers to someone.

As a leader we must know our role in the chain of command and what we are able to do and not do in that role. For instance I am a lieutenant. This means I can do some things but I answer to my captain. On the same accord my primary objective in my role is public fire education and prevention, so in the event my captain comes into that area, he will usually call me in for a discussion before any final decision is made. Leaders work with each other not against each other.

Let me give an example. I was at a structure fire and I had decided that the best approach was entry into the D side to attack a fire nestled between two interior rooms. The structure was sound as far as floors went and I felt this was a quick and safe operation. My safety officer approached and expressed concerns over a sagging roof. I asked if her decision was to avoid entry and she confirmed that statement. I pulled out and remained in a defensive fire attack. I was her lieutenant and could have easily argued the point, but she was acting safety officer, and that meant I was to obey that order.

Know the chain of command and never assume you are the supreme authority or power of the department.

3. Teamwork

This is a tough one for most leaders. We tend to do things on our own in our own way. While sometimes that is great other times we need to utilize that dreaded word delegate. If you are swamped on paper work and one of your staff members has secretary training tag them in and let them go at it for awhile. Maybe you have three meetings to attend. Let another officer fill in for you. Sometimes this is the best way to accomplish a task or several tasks at once really.

Also as a team leader you need to know your "players". Know what strengths and weaknesses they have. If you know Billy is afraid of heights you will not send him on a roof. Or at least I hope you would not. Learn from your crew where each member shines and where they need work. This comes from training with them. I can proudly say both departments I work for have chiefs who don't care one bit to jump in and get dirty with the crew. They take active roles in training. That develops trust and an understanding of where you need to apply work at to develop your staff better.

We are a team so never degrade a colleague. If Joey is struggling with ladder drills don't belittle but encourage. My department is known for cheering other firefighters on during survival and rescue trainings and providing positive encouragement. It shows you care about your crew and want them to do good.

Final Thoughts

Take what you have learned here and use it to make yourself into a better fire service leader and a better fire officer. Never make it about you and how much power you have. If you would like to know more about Let's Talk Fire or join in on discussions related to the fire service, swing over to Facebook and visit "Let's Talk Fire".

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.