It’s What You Don’t Do

I Wanna be in charge!

As a firefighter seeking a way to promote to the supervisory level in a fire service organization you have to realize that it’s not about what you do; it’s about what you don’t do. It’s about the little things daily that are not attended to; The little things that in reality don’t amount to much and may seem trivial, but collectively add up to define who we (and you) are as an organization.

The problem with this is that many firefighters never understand this concept until they are in a position of management and see if for themselves. Typically, 12-18 months after appointment as a manager, company officers find themselves sitting in their office completely overwhelmed. They simply cannot understand why their company is not performing well. They sit in dismay behind a wrecked desk of piled up projects that seem insurmountable. They contemplate and question the integrity and commitment of their own team while the rest of the company strolls along with no stress at all and oblivious to any problems.   Deadlines are missed, tensions rise, and senior staff cannot understand how or why we struggle to accomplish the simplest of tasks to maintain our core values. And then the unbelievable happens, service levels are impacted for the worse and nobody can explain what happened.

Every officer walks into the position with the exact same dreams and goals. They want a cohesive group of firefighters that gets along very well. They want big fires that magically go out at the mere appearance of the company. They want to have fun. They want their co-workers to name their children after each other. Unfortunately, all of this is a dream, and not how it typically works. Time and time again I have witnessed this disaster unfold. No matter what the company makeup is, there is always trouble ahead for company officers. I challenge anyone to find me one company officer that says it was a cakewalk. Yes, dreams can be realized, but only after the initial trauma of becoming an officer heals and they recommit to their guiding principles that got them there in the first place.   There are no officers that were bad or even average firefighters. Every officer I know performed at an EXCEPTIONAL LEVEL as a firefighter.

For years I have struggled to convey this message in a meaningful manner that would be easily interpreted by senior members of the organization looking for a path to management and eventually leadership. Over my career as a company officer and chief officer, I have sat with many firefighters seeking my advice and feedback on “what they need to do to become an officer.” Aside from the normal education and certification requirements, my answer has been consistent with every conversation. Start today by demonstrating some simple leadership. Let your principles and traits shine through. There is no magical bullet. There is no inside information, it’s that simple.

It’s Who You Are

The fact is, your interview for the position of manager started the day you walked through the door as a rookie firefighter. Becoming an officer is a really big deal, and it should be. But, becoming a firefighter is a bigger deal as the daily decisions you make will affect you for the rest of your career. You will make mistakes. And, you will have “off” days as a firefighter. But, how you respond to the occasional mishaps and feedback throughout your career will define how you will be as an officer.

How you ‘consistently’ attend to your job as a firefighter or driver will define who you are and is the best indicator of your potential as an officer. So, my first piece of advice is, “Start today, and be the best at the job you’re being paid for.” After many years of doing this job, I think I have developed an ability to spot an officer after their first 6 months. Trust me, it’s that easy. It’s a characteristic that is genuine and cannot be faked. That doesn’t mean people cannot change. But, some people get it from the first day.

Start today by showing you’re humble, that you’re human and willing dying to learn. Start today by showing a constant and pervasive commitment to the fire rescue profession. Start today by being positive about everything.   This is not a job you get by filling out an application. It’s one of few jobs that you actually “take an oath” to commit to.   Start today by asking “why yes” instead of jumping on the “why not” freight train to a disaster.

There are no conspiracies or strategies to unlock to becoming an officer. Being an officer is just like being a firefighter. It’s not what you are, “it’s who you are.” It’s a personality, not a job.   If you think becoming an officer is about taking a test, passing a set of exams, and charming the heck out of an interview panel you’re very “VERY” wrong.   It just doesn’t work like that. It cannot work like that, there is too much at stake.   This is why being an officer starts today, not after receiving a set of bugles.   No matter how well you do on an exam, your traits and habits that you have demonstrated over your career will be revealed in the “process.” And, you cannot trick the process.

Becoming an Officer

So how do you start? It’s not about what you do day-in and day-out. Unfortunately, it’s more about what you don’t do. You, your company, your station, and even your department will be defined by what YOU DON’T DO.   Anybody can extinguish a fire. Anybody can deliver EMS. Anybody can get through a shift with nothing broken and nobody hurt. If you don’t put out the fire, or keep your apparatus in top shape, then you will be defined by those missteps. Departments that struggle have people sitting on their butts whining about the daily whatever. They have firefighters with no initiative that blame the “system” on their attitude.   Who are those departments? Those are the ones that appear on the daily TV news with their aerials in the air, or a dramatic situation that has nothing to do with providing this valiant service to the public.

So, here’s my 2nd piece of advice. Don’t look for praise when you do something that is expected. Taking out the trash is not going to get you a set of bars.   You should seek praise when you do something unexpected (for you) that benefits the organization. It’s more about the simple things you do when you’re not looking for praise or recognition.   I promise people (especially the senior leadership) will notice things are being tended to.

If you’re sitting around the station waiting to be invited to do something, then you’ve missed the leadership train. If you’re waiting for directions from your officer to do “anything outside of the normal,” you’re screwing up your officer interview.   If your officer is drowning at his/her desk as you sit and “study something” on the computer, then you’re missing a huge opportunity.   If you pass up an opportunity to work some overtime or attend training, you’re missing another opportunity, and it’s noticed. If you’re not the one that is leading the way on the simplest of daily tasks or new ideas, then you don’t stand a chance to promote in any organization.

So what am I talking about? Take out the trash without being told. Clean anything if it’s dirty. Double, and even triple check your tools and equipment. Train on something. And by train, I mean get your hands dirty. Pull hose, climb ladders, dress up without asking for permission from your officer.   Become an expert “on your own time.” If something is in disarray, then be accountable and take the initiative to fix it. Establish very high expectations in regards to your station and apparatus. Ask the tough questions to yourself. Don’t depend on others and get over the barriers that keep you from accomplishing something. Do not wait on others (officers) to approve of your routine actions around the station.   Answer emails, take on projects, complete assignments and be dependable. Trust me, people notice when it’s not done. Tasks not performed, training not completed are very noticeable.   Not to mention hose loaded improperly.

And finally, above all.   Be accountable to maintain the history of the organization. If we clean kitchens on Monday’s, then you be the one to ensure it’s done. No one cares why or why not we do something. If history dictates the routine task, then honor it.   If the trucks are to be clean at all times, then be the one to grab the hose and bucket first. If for no other reason than honoring the traditions of our past members that built these fire departments.   Remember, if you don’t do it people (especially those responsible for promoting you) will notice.

7565-425x283-firefightersI frequently sit in dismay wondering why a firefighter in any capacity would accept anything sub-par. I think the answer is complicated and the reasons vary. But in general, I believe many just take it for granted and don’t evaluate the value and the potential of something simply defining who they are, or how they will be as an officer.

It’s your fire department, and your interview for the next step started a long time ago. Don’t take anything for granted. I have witnessed the smallest miscalculations remove a person from the process long before they ever even applied to be an officer. So please, stop waiting for an opportunity to come walking in and create your own opportunities through your daily “simple” actions. If you’re waiting for an officer to “create an opportunity” for you then clearly you’re not ready to lead.   Opportunities are everywhere, so don’t underestimate anything, get up and DO IT.


– Brian Ritter

– Battalion Chief – City of Wylie, Texas


Five Steps for Mentoring Success

“Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.” – John Crosby

“Be the change that you want to see in the world.” – Gandhi

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather we have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle

“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” – Collin Powell

To Achieve Success, You Must First Be Able To Define Success

center-for-family-services-mentorsjpg-c06caf5f1e7d84c0The one request that I receive more than anything else, has to do with our mentoring program. While I am more than happy to share anything that we are using in The Colony Fire Department (T.C.F.D.), what people are looking for is a turnkey mentoring program. Unfortunately, because our process is a model, that’s not possible. So what I thought I would do is to offer the steps that I believe are necessary for developing and implementing a successful and sustainable mentoring program.

I need to start by saying that I believe mentoring is the future of fire service training, the point being to make training personal. Training that impacts people on a personal level has proven to stay with them longer because when it is personal, the firefighter takes ownership of the training and therefore their success and survival. After all, what’s more personal than training that increases a Firefighter’s chance for survival?

Like everything else I talk about, to be successful, you must start with the end in mind (Covey). So the question here is, what do you want your mentoring program to produce? If the leadership team can’t answer this question, chances are you will not have success with developing a sustainable mentoring program. First, decide what you want to accomplish, and then decide the best way to get there.

Mentoring v. Coaching

I often hear people using the term mentor to address issues that would be better resolved through coaching. Coaching is generally a more formal approach used to address existing skills and behaviors. A firefighter or fire officer who is struggling with basic skills or lack of knowledge, who requires immediate improvement, would benefit better from the immediate feedback that comes from a coaching relationship.

On the other hand, if your goal is to position a fire officer of firefighter for future success with the r960-bb18be36d425ed79d6c10d0718b86242organization, a less formal mentoring process based on a one-to-one mentoring relationship would have the greatest value. While the mentoring process may be somewhat formal or more informal, the focus should always be long-term success.

It has been my experience in the fire service, that coaching takes a different teaching and interpersonal skill set than does mentoring. Coaches must have knowledge, they must have skill competency, and they must have the courage to do the right thing. Coaching works well during indoctrination or orientation programs but leaves off where mentoring begins. While the mentoring process should evaluate the application of existing knowledge and skills, the focus should be on mastering skills and applying knowledge to real-world situations. Mentors are usually skilled at turning events into experiences that will last a career. They too must be proficient and knowledgeable, and they must have experience with the organization.

Step 1 – The Model

The first step in developing a mentoring process is to clearly define what the process should produce. Once outcomes are identified, work backward to develop a process that leads up to the achievement of those outcomes. We use a model in T.C.F.D. that clearly states what we hope our mentoring process will produce, and the parts of the model describe what is necessary for a successful mentoring process. By using a model, mentors are empowered to choose and use their own mentoring style, while mentoring towards a defined and consistent outcome. I have yet to see a successful and sustained mentoring program that was mandated or the result of policy. Like customer service, there are certain dos and don’ts, but exceptional customer service is the result of individual compassion and effort.

Step 2 – Changing the Culture

Culture modification often requires breakthrough change. Breakthrough change requires vision, commitment, and managing the culture daily. If the organization is struggling with committing to quality training, a mentoring program will likely also struggle. Once the organization embraces training, learning, and investing in the next generation of firemen and fire officers, mentoring is the next step to make sure they succeed and survive in those roles long term.

Changing the culture is the most difficult part of the mentoring process, and often the most feared. To reach full potential, mentoring must be supported by a learning culture. If the organization does not value training and learning, the members will not value the benefits of mentoring. Too often a “mentoring program” is put into place in hopes of solving deep-seated cultural or climate issues. While any form of mentoring can be beneficial with the right people, it should not be viewed as a cure for all that is wrong. Outside of a learning culture, mentors become discouraged and feel defeated because they are always going against the grain, and eventually the program fizzles out. For the program to succeed, support must come from the top, from the Chief of Department. It’s the chief that must provide the leadership, the horsepower, and be the main advocate for the process.

Step 3 – Mentoring Tools

This is the heavy lifting, and the phase that requires the most work and the greatest attention to detail. In The Colony, we want our mentors to model and teach The Colony Way. For mentors to be successful, the leadership team must provide mentors with the tools that define The Colony Way.

We want our mentors to teach philosophy more than policy. To do that, mentors must understand what the leadership and operational philosophy of the organization is. Coaches address policy, rules, and regulations.

T.C.F.D. operational standard is S.M.A.R.T3. Strategic, Managed, Aggressive, Risk Regulated, Tactics, Tasks, and Techniques. Our Fire Operations Guidelines (FOGs) and coaches address fire ground strategy, incident management, operational aggression, risk management, and company tactics. Mentors focus on the tasks, techniques, and the organization’s commitment to being smart versus just being safe.

56aa934b884e7-imageMentoring is a great tool for achieving operational predictability and consistency between shifts and stations. To accomplish this, the organization must provide mentors with the information that describes what that operational predictability and consistency looks like. When leadership or operational guidelines are lacking, the organism (the fire department) will adapt in order to survive. In the absence of leadership and operational direction, micro-cultures such as battalions, stations, and companies will make up their own.


Step 4 – Choosing Mentors

Once the process has been identified, the culture modified, and the mentor’s tools developed and distributed, it’s time to identify mentors. Choosing the right mentors is essential if you hope to achieve the best outcome. Remember mentoring is about people first. While those with mentor qualities should be identified and encouraged to participate, mandating members to be mentors is not the best route to a successful process. Mentors should:
• Have experience with the organization
• Have the ability to turn events (fires) into experiences (experience fighting fire)
• Have a positive attitude
• Be committed to the vision and professional standards of the organization
• Have a passion for the profession
• Be an advocate for the mentoring process
• Be someone who cares about the success of others
• Always be a part of the solution and not the problem
• Be a lifelong learner; a student of the fire service

Step 5 – Support the Process

This is the most important part. If a member(s) commits to mentoring the next generation of firemen and fire officers, the absolute minimum that chief officers and company officers should do is support the process and run interference for any negativity that may arise to defeat the effort, this takes courage. Those that don’t believe in progress, those that don’t participate in training, and those who oppose anything positive, should not be allowed the authority to derail the success of others.

In closing, I have yet to realize anything negative regarding the mentoring of new members and new officers. I can’t imagine why leadership wouldn’t fully support the effort. The only way we are going to be successful in meeting future challenges is to position our people and our organization for success and survival in the firehouse and on the fire ground. This should be job one for all Chief Officers


Chief Scott Thompson

The Colony Texas


Defining Expectations: Leading From Your Position

Being a strong leader doesn’t mean you must be in charge. In fact, leadership is not absolute control. As I learned, leading up the chain of command is equally as important as leading down the chain (Willink and Babin, 2015). The best leaders may be the guys making the push off the back step and it is the job of the officer to use their people to ultimately ready the company for its “career fire.” Two concepts are at the center of being an effective leader: Defining expectations and planning. In this piece, we will talk about defining expectations.

Defining Expectations…

There is a lot of rhetoric in the fire service today, some of which I am guilty of playing into. We must be realistic in defining our expectations because lofty or utopic goals are merely unicorns- unachievable and not real. We have to set a standard for ourselves, first and foremost. In a previous post about the airbrake drill, I detailed how just 25-30 minutes a day has brought our crew to the next level. We can communicate, anticipate needs and actions, and we’ve built trust. Training shouldn’t feel like a punishment, and I feel barakey-1much of today’s training throws unrealistic scenarios and expectations on a crew, which immediately demotivates even the most highly motivated firefighters. Commit yourself to doing something for thirty minutes a day. Many would be surprised how many times you can raise a ladder in a thirty-minute period, or how many times you can stretch knee bundles. Like a diet or exercise plan, once you accept the commitment and discipline yourself to devote the necessary time, it becomes second nature, and you can move towards affecting the people around you positively. The cliché term is leading by example. People will follow suit.

War story time: While detailed at another station, I was using some spare hose to stretch knee bundles. About 15 minutes in, the officer walks out in the bay and asks what I’m doing. I explained that I was trying out some stuff I had learned in a recent class and was just getting some reps in. I guess he was interested because he stuck around and watched. Eventually, a third guy came out, and the officer said, “Hey watch this, do that V thing again you just did.” Later on, the fourth came out, and long story short, within twenty minutes of him being out there watching, he was now running lines, as we began to flow water. Impromptu drill–done. So what’s special about this? My discipline in “doing something every day” led to a drill that would have otherwise never happened. So I beg the question, who was the leader? Arguably, we each were because we committed the time to learn something new. Taking time to debunk some stretches leadership-showing-the-wayand flow some water allowed each of us to get better. No one was forced to be out there, yet we all were and an hour flew by. An hour that no one can take away from us.


Getting back on track, how can your people do the right thing if they don’t know what is expected of them? How can you get upset with them, if you’ve never laid out what ideas, goals, and objectives they should be fulfilling? Part of doing the right thing in our trade is fulfilling the expectations placed upon you. As an officer, or even as a firefighter, you’re not wrong to lay forward your expectations, but you must pay close attention to your approach.

1. “Hey, we need to train every day because we suck as a company/department”
2. “Hey guys, training is really important to me, and I would appreciate if, for thirty minutes or so, while I’m out in the bay, that you join me. How awesome is it going to be when we show up second or third due and put someone else’s fire out?”

The differences between statement one and statement two are that you’re treating people with respect and you’re not downgrading anyone or the company. As the old adage goes, “You get more bees with honey!”

There will always be nay-sayers. There will also be that guy, that crew, or that shift that wants to make fun of you for practicing your trade. That’s fine. In the words of my friend Captain Jonah Smith (2016), “I may not be getting better, but what the hell are you doing?”

When going to your crew with a set of expectations, you should be well prepared to explain why you have these expectations whether it’s asked or not. What may not seem like a big deal to a member or two may become a big deal to them when you give them the reason behind the decision; it allows the member to own their role behind the reason (Willink and Babin, 2015). Remember, knowledge base is different for every member and some may not be aware of why a particular detail is important.

Firefighter Responds To A Call

When crafting our expectations, we should have one clear objective, and that is to prevent catastrophic failures (Smith, 2016). If we can remain in control of our actions, accept our scope of operations, and work within that scope, we will be successful. If you’re assigned to an engine and you spend more time conducting RIT drills than you do stretching and operating the initial hose line, you just may find yourself in a position where that bailout is necessary. That is not to say RIT and survival are not important, but as an engine, you have one job (House, 2016) and you need to be the best at it.

Define expectations for yourself and your crew and hold yourself accountable. We each have the ability to effect change within our circle of influence; be positive, be a motivator, be a mentor, and watch the wheels start to turn.


– Zach Schleiffer



House, Gary. (2016).

Smith, J. (2016). FDIC 2016.

Willink, J., Babin, L. (2015). Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win. New York, New York; Penguin.

How White Is Your Shirt?

By G. Rice

Those who I work for expect daily that I train, develop, mentor and lead our firefighters. They are a tough bunch to work for. They have some of the highest expectations and constantly watch every move I make. I feel supported in my position and receive the necessary feedback to change my approach or position on any given topic.

Many would think I am speaking about my Assistant Chief of Operations or even possibly my Fire Chief, but I am speaking about the men of my Battalion. It’s important to understand this distinction because I believe we BC’s often lose sight of this. We exist for our men.

I’ve been working for just over a year as a Battalion Chief. My wife recently commented that my white shirts are looking dingy. I already knew this fact. It’s extremely difficult to train with my crews stretching hose, throwing ladders and participating in search drills while wearing these. I’ve smoked many a white shirt and recently spoke with my boss to ask about alternatives. He told me to keep smoking them and that they would buy me new ones this year. That is very reassuring. Not that they will buy new shirts, but affirming that training, sweating alongside my men is where he wants me.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy Photo
Photo by Andy Molloy

I’m not naive to think that everyone reading this has a similar work environment. Many do not have support both above and below to be successful. So how do we create an environment where these types of attitudes will flourish?
It starts with us, BC’s. I’ve got to ask, when was the last time you PT’d with your men? When was the last time you flowed a line or threw a 24′ ladder? How about performed a search or participated in a Job Task Simulation. How often do you provide feedback, direction, or kudos to those you work for?

I’m calling out BC’s everywhere to ask for you to lead by example. Do you mask up daily and check over your air pack? Do you even have an air pack in the car? How about we start getting out of the car to sweat alongside our men? You know how I know they need a water break? Because I need one. 14322610107_6eea8c488d_bIt’s pretty simple. Do we expect our folks to be in gear but find us walking around an accident scene in sunglasses and a vest? Lead by example. It’s really very simple.

It boils down to accountability. We expect it from our company officers but are we being accountable to them? Do we put our officers in a bad way having to field questions about the BC who isn’t geared up? Do as I say, not as I do?

I’ll be attending Nozzle Forward training this November in Houston. This will be my third time through Aaron and his cadre. These guys are smart. Aaron gets it. He often speaks about a movement bubbling up from the bottom. It’s my job to assist my guys who are doing the same within our department. How many “Aaron’s” are in my department? Am I helping each member reach their full potential?

I know I have much to learn. In fact, I know this with every bone in my body. If I do my job correctly, many of my people won’t be working for me as we grow. They’ll be Engineers, Captains and possibly colleagues alongside me. I hope I can keep up with these guys. I hope I can remain relevant in our profession.

So put down your TPS reports and get out with the men. The reports and paperwork will be there when you’re done. Support their careers, mentor and lead.


The Colony Fire Dept

The Colony,  Texas

Battalion Chief Garrett Rice



Would You Work for You? – Thoughtful Leadership

Would you work for you?

This is a great question for all fire service leaders and future leaders.  For a moment though, really think about this. Could you work for you? Try to envision being your own leader. Would you respond well to your communication style? Would you react favorably to your own leadership?

Don’t think these are important questions? Think again.

Forbes magazine recently identified that people don’t leave their jobs, they leave their managers. And that sentiment couldn’t be more true. We’ve all had terrible officers.  It’s a touchy subject from the bottom up, which is exactly why fire service leaders should regularly audit themselves. There is no better indicator of how you are doing as a leader than a view from the bottom

Successful leadership is not always something you can teach; it’s mostly a social finesse that originates in your character as a human being and your ability to communicate with others. Some people have the ability and execute leadership effortlessly, while others struggle to maintain positive leadership behaviors and relationships with their subordinates. Even successful leaders will sometimes have at least one individual they have difficulty meshing with.

It’s important to reflect on a few questions:  Do you jump immediately to negative conclusions or are you constructively supportive? Do you look for someone to blame or do you correct the system so that mistakes don’t reoccur? Do you punish the entire shift for the mistakes of one person or do you mentor individuals? Do you show favoritism without realizing it?

Profession development should be an important part of being a leader. Successful leaders need to be diligent in passing along positive professional skills and likewise, junior level officers should always be eager to absorb the leadership nuggets provided by their superiors.

Feedback Tools: Utilizing a system similar to the annual performance appraisal only reversing the flow of information. Have your firefighters appraise your performance as their leader. It’s important for this

Paul Combs

process to remain as anonymous as possible. It’d be an awful position for a firefighter, knowing he needs to communicate something constructive, if he knows it’s not anonymous. One resource that works well is creating a Survey Monkey or Google Survey. They’re free. Giving your firefighters the opportunity to provide you with valuable information about how you can lead them better is feedback gold. As long as everyone takes it seriously. We’ve all been in a position where we WISH we could professionally develop our leaders to be better bosses, the survey gives everyone that opportunity. You might be surprised by what you learn.

Record your communications. I know it sounds too far, but honestly. Record your counseling sessions, mentoring moments, training moments. Watch or listen to them later. Try being completely objective. Pay attention to the tone of your voice, how your sentences are formed, and the manner in which you communicate with others. You might discover things such as passive aggressiveness, cussing, a judging tone, not allowing the other person to communicate their side, positive and or negative trajectories. By positive and negative trajectories I mean, are you yelling at someone who made a mistake and then kicked them out of your office vs. using the mistake as a learning moment to further develop the firefighter. Obviously, one trajectory is negative and the other is positive.

Matt Chesin
Matt Chesin

Aside from personal audits and feedback tools it’s incredibly important to exercise regular self-reflection as well as developing a healthy sense of self-awareness. Creating a sense of self-awareness and an awareness of how you are communicating with others takes a measurable amount of emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence is the passcode to both personal and professional success. We all have different personalities, differing expectations, and different ways of communicating. It’s nearly impossible for different individuals to provide the same set of leadership abilities. But we can all learn to develop our emotional intelligence to become less reactionary, more calculated, even tempered, and thought-provoking. Emotional intelligence is a measurable trait. Individuals with a lesser amount of emotional intelligence tend to use anger as a go-to emotion when something doesn’t go right and they also tend to be happy for the wrong reasons.  In the next part of this series we’ll dive into emotional intelligence.

In the meantime, we’re attempting to collect data addressing a whole host of firefighter related challenges.  Please consider completing short survey so we can conduct one of the largest firefighter studies of it’s kind in the United States. Please share with your crews.


Read more in the Thoughtful Leadership Series

Thoughtful Leadership- Wellbeing

Thoughtful Leadership- Disciplinary Action




7 Reasons Why the Peter Principle is Ruining the Fire Service.

Every Fire Department has that supervisor that is incapable of leading, whether it is the Chief that hides in his/her office, the Station Captain that made an egregious error on a call, or Lieutenant that is assigned to the first due engine.   We have all worked with them and it drives all of us crazy.  We talk about their deficiencies at the next call, during meals, and even gripe to our families.

The single biggest decision that the command staff can make to affect the entire departmentassistant-deputy-fire-chief-double-2-bugles-horns-uniform-shirt-collar-pins-2ed2dc030c2c16ae3ffeb384b5f08544—bigger than all the rest— is who they promote. When you promote the wrong person to manage others, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits, not time off—nothing.

The Peter principle is a concept in management theory formulated by Laurence J. Peter and published nearly half a century ago. The theory is that the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate’s performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. Thus, employees only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively, and “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”

  1. When you do good you get promoted into to something you are terrible at. A typical example in the fire service is promoting a Master Technician/Driver to the Lieutenant position. Knowing the intricacies of your apparatus, your response area, and your complex equipment does not always prepare you to manage people. All your experience and technical know-how is going to be stuck behind a desk, making schedules, writing reports, and concocting performance evaluations. These competencies are vastly different and a proficiency in engineer/operator type of job does not correlate to managing people, personalities, and conflicts.  If you are not prepared for your new position in a leadership role as a Lieutenant, you will do yourself and your crew a disservice
  2. You won’t get fired or replaced you will just remain stagnant in your new position. Possibly because the manager above you has reached their threshold of incompetence as well. They are unable to realize how unproductive you are in your position. The subordinates will adapt and will now just work around you seeking advice from other more effective managers or subordinate leaders.
  3. When you are competent you have recordable and obvious output. You are being held accountable for that production, once it stops and there is little or no output, you are now judged by the input.  This input is your demeanor, attitude, punctuality, friendliness, loyalty, and helpfulness.   However, if you are too competent you make the immobile managers look bad.  Thus jeopardizing your position in the hierarchy or worse being promoted to a higher position that you aren’t adequately equipped for, succumbing to the axiom, “Certified, not qualified”bf7720
  4. The principle suggests that this incompetence is inevitable.  So as you progress in your fire service career, you need to decide whether you are going to jump on the train headed toward the void called “Final Placement”.  This last station is an ominous place, where you will wear down with a fruitless future, or take your time and forestall this as long as possible.   You can slow this locomotive by mentoring the person that took your old position while providing a performance plan to meet your own standards.  Another avenue is to seek out your own mentor, to provide you guidance, advice, and discuss your performance objectives for your new career path. Lastly, there is training, these are courses on leadership, management, and organizational tactics to address this pervasive incompetence.
  5. If your intent is to race to the finish line, then just latch on to the superiors, doing all you can to gain a premature promotion, stepping on as many backs and shoulders as you can, climbing to the top. Once they are your subordinates you will be able to change things for the better, set new rules, and lead your former coworkers.   This is a delusion that comes with a price.  Don’t be surprised if your shift, crew, or company start seeking transfers, new assignments, or increase their leave usage. Victor Lipman a former Fortune 500 Manager, published an article, postulating, people don’t leave jobs, they leave bad managers.
  6. If you are astute enough to realize that you don’t want to be hurled into career limbo, you need to seek out places you are productive, useful, and happy. Once there, you should forego seeking promotion, better yet focus on mastering your craft, self-betterment, and even mentoring subordinates. You are a wealth of knowledge, now go and make others’ lives richer.  I am not advising you to refuse promotions, just be prepared to accept the new position and its responsibilities since they may vary drastically from your former position.
  7. We can’t just fire all of our incompetent managers, it will create a vortex. They are useful in the sense of, they will inflict the least amount of damage on the productive people in your department.  The competent employees will maintain a non-threatening illusion that these managers are useful, are producing, and cling to a bright future.  All of this to avoid repeating this vicious cycle of new incompetent managers.


The Harvard Business Review has 4 decades of business articles providing solutions to curb the endemic management dilemma.  It is not just the Fire Service, this problem arises in every institution, career, and organization, you will never be able to escape its reach. From a subordinate’s point of view, every department I have worked for has a repetitious cycle of the deficient leadership.  Generations of fire service managers have been fraught with incompetent leaders.  It is the duty of our managers to address bad bosses by improving their own leadership skills, becoming a good boss, and stop promoting the incapable.  Our jobs as subordinates is to manage ourselves well, be engaged, be committed to the organization with purpose, principle, and pride.



Thoughtful Leadership- Disciplinary Action

Disciplinary action in the fire service is sometimes shrouded with hesitation. As discussed earlier in FFPM-Wellbeing, it is possible that psychological and firefighter-california1behavioral factors related to firefighter stress can, at times, rear its head in the disciplinary arena. It’s imperative that a fire service personnel manager (Fire Officer) be tuned-in with the firefighter in question to rule out stress as a contributing factor for the undesired behavior.

While a decreased level of performance may be unacceptable and worthy of disciplinary documentation, possible recent contributing factors such as, witnessing a suicide or rescuing a deceased child may provide some clarity as to the behavior of the firefighter. This scenario would provide for a different course of action such as the behavioral wellness program, instead of disciplinary action.

The desire to maintain positive working relationships, motivation, and company cohesion balances along a delicate line of which all fire officers wish to neutrally navigate. The introduction of a disciplinary action willfully disrupts this delicate balance and creates misguided mistrust.

Write-up cultures are typically toxic cultures. The last thing any fire officer should want is their entire shift walking around in fear of being written up for not covering their mouth when they sneeze. That isn’t a comfortable environment to work in.

There is also a social aspect which plays out in Firefighter disciplinary action. It’s imperative that the disciplinary action be justifiable and apparent. Catching someone off guard with a write-up is no way to manage. With Firefighting, it has to be slightly more personal than handing some a cold piece of paper.

St. Paul firefighter Billeigh Riser Jr. of St. Paul, center, is schooled in the art of floor mopping by his partner, Ron Nistler of Star Prairie Township, Wis., right, at Fire Station 23 in St. Paul on Monday, March 23, 2009. At left is Kelly McDougal. Recently returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq, Riser credits his "extended family" of fellow firefighters with helping in his ongoing recovery from post traumatic stress disorder. (Pioneer Press: Richard Marshall)

Typically, all practical efforts should be exhausted before the formally documented disciplinary action is generated. These efforts include mentoring, peer assistance, peer pressure, focused training efforts, verbal warnings, and the like. Violation of policies such as theft, physical altercations, willful damage, and actions similar in criminal nature may certainly be solid grounds for a tiered disciplinary response.

Disciplinary action in the fire service must take a comprehensive effort to resolve the true spirit of the disciplines intent. To correct the issue. It’s important to find the potential root of a problematic action rather than escalate the firefighter’s problems with a write-up.

Sometimes the contributing factors could be located at home or be outside the fire department altogether. But you wouldn’t know that until you had a one-on-one walk and talk preferably outside your intimidating office.

Be a thoughtful leader. Investigate beyond a specific action and see if there are any underlying problems. You’ll gain more respect by trying to understand, than by leading with a heavy fist.



Boss, leader, brother…

imageAccording to Albert Schweitzer, “example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing”. Leaders must lead by example. It is very simple, but it is easier for some leaders to say it than do it. A leader is defined as “the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country”. So does that mean that a leader wears a different color gear or helmet; wears gold instead of a silver badge; or have multiple bugles on their badge, collar, and helmet?

Leaders are individuals who will lead their troop from the front line. They know what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong. They adhere to the ethical reason and do what is right, even if it is not the favorable decision at the particular time. They can push the un-driven, train the unmotivated, and persuade the most stubborn of firefighters. They are not afraid to train other people, even though it may show their weakness. Leaders have passion for the job. It shows in everything they do. They wear their uniform with pride when they come to work in the morning, and stand resilient after grueling hours of work. They are dedicated and are proud when they clean their helmets after battling a fire. They do not need other people’s approval because they do not have to prove anything. They do their job because that is what they were destined to do.

imageSo, who are these leaders and where are they? They are all around us. He is working quietly while guiding younger firefighters. He may be filling up somebody’s cup of coffee so that he can make a fresh pot, because he knows that other firefighters were up first that shift on the ambulance. He is the first person out of bed the morning so that he can start the morning chores early. He is the guy pulling out a hose load in the bay to fix what looks like spaghetti in the tray. My point is they are all around us. They are doing things that needed to be done. He does not point fingers. Instead, he works hard. He knows that the best motivated firefighters will follow him because good character and moral integrity are inherent in the best firefighters.

What makes them such good leaders? They work hard, lead the men by example to guide, mentor, and promote integrity, honesty, and commitment. They keep the pride alive in the rest of us. They ease the pain after bad calls. They provide calmness and good working relations in difficult situations. A leader could be the rookie who grabs a broom and a mop a little earlier than normal to get the job done, motivating an elder to assist them in completing the tasks that have to be done.

These are just examples. Leaders are not bosses; they work with their followers. You should also know that you lead others, whether you know it or not. You have an obligation to uphold the integrity, the character, and the pride to be a well- trained and motivated firefighter. Remember, training breeds the confidence that is required to successfully accomplish the objective promptly and efficiently. Second guessing yourself makes you slow down, and deprives you of the confidence that makes you motivated. As a leader, you must have the ability to lead a team and drive them to success.