Fire Service Leadership: Dealing with the Underperforming Firefighter or Officer

If you’re a fan of World War II movies, you’re probably familiar with the classic Twelve O’Clock High starring Gregory Peck. Peck plays U.S. Army Air Force Brig. Gen. Frank Savage, who is sent to an underperforming bomber unit to get it into shape. While evaluating the unit, Savage encounters a senior officer who has not been pulling his weight. In one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, Savage reassigns Lt. Col. Ben Gately to a pilot position and, in no uncertain terms, makes it clear Gately will have a crew made up of members who have shown particular ineptness in their jobs, such as a bombardier who can’t “hit his plate with a fork” and a navigator who “can’t find the men’s room.” Savage tops it all off with an order for Gately to paint “leper colony” on the nose of his plane so everyone will know who’s inside.

I know what you’re thinking: Great story line, but what does that have to do with fire service leadership?

Career & Volunteer “Leper Colonies”

The Twelve O’Clock High example plays to both the subordinate and officer ranks within our chosen profession. On the career side of the fire service, most of us are aware of underperforming crews or shifts in our departments. There’s always a company known for members who are “retired in place” (RIP), or where all the less-than-stellar performers get assigned. Most newer officers don’t want to be assigned to one of those stations or shifts because they feel they will be out of place and under a lot of extra stress.

Likewise, most of you probably have a story about certain officers who seem to be RIP, are known for being harsh or troublemakers, or who just aren’t good at their jobs. Some of these people are in positions of authority only because they got lucky on a couple of Saturdays when they took promotional exams. When these officers get assigned to a station, all the firefighters immediately request transfers without giving the new supervisor a chance.

There’s a good chance that sometime in your fire service career, you will be assigned to a company led by an officer who you don’t think will help you achieve your career goals.

It’s no different for volunteer fire service leadership. There are always going to be people who join because they want a blue shirt, always thought driving fire apparatus would be cool, or are just looking for something to do and aren’t all that interested in actual emergency response work. Unfortunately, some of those people end up in positions of authority come election time. Having to work with or report to these people can be difficult at best and cause retention issues in the most severe cases.

Thus, the leper colony. The first reaction of many officers who find themselves assigned to a company or crew of less-than-optimal performers is probably, “What did I do to deserve this?” While it’s a valid question, if you find yourself in that situation, consider the other side of the coin: There’s a chance you’ve pulled that assignment because someone up the chain of command sees your potential and believes in your leadership skills. That was not the case with our friends Savage and Gately. Gately definitely earned his assignment based on his reputation in the unit. But over time, he was able to win over his crew and become a trusted and respected officer.

Winning Over the Crew

As an officer assigned to lead the “leper colony,” you can go in one of two directions. You can decide the world is against you and you have been doomed to wallow in this horrible assignment for the rest of your career. But we all know going this direction won’t necessarily be the easy way out. In fact, it may end up being the more stressful option in the long run.

So that leaves us with option two. Undoubtedly, winning over the crew and building a team you’re proud of is going to be a challenge. But the alternative is probably miserable shifts where you’re unhappy, your supervisor is unhappy, and your crew is unhappy.

So let’s just say you’re not going to be the officer who comes in with the “woe is me” attitude. You’re going to be the officer who embraces this challenge and makes the best of it. It’s important to remember this crew probably didn’t just become the leper colony. A history of weak leadership most likely led to the current state of affairs.

How are you going to make positive changes? Well, the first thing you’ll want to do is set the ground rules for your crew. Give them clear expectations. Sit down with the crew and talk to them. Nobody is a mind-reader, although you may have one or two people who could pass for magicians given how they seem to disappear during shifts.

You might want to consider writing everything out and putting it into a binder for each member. If you want certain station duties completed by a certain time (with an exception for emergency calls), spell that out. If the department conducts performance reviews and has established goals and objectives for each rank, it’s a good idea to include those in the binder, too. If the department doesn’t have set goals and objectives, come up with some of your own for the rating period and explain them to each member.

Once you have the administrative items handled, it’s time to find the strengths and weaknesses of your crew members. Observe them around the station, on calls, and in training. Get to know them on a personal level, too. Try to understand what motivates them.

Find the strengths and weaknesses of your crew members. Observe them around the station, on calls, and in training. Get to know them on a personal level, too.

I know a captain whose assigned engineer didn’t like to do anything he didn’t have to in the first couple hours of the shift. That captain took the time to get to know the engineer a bit and found out he loved to eat breakfast at Waffle House. So the captain told the engineer that as long as the engine was all checked out within an hour of shift change, the crew would go to the local Waffle House for breakfast every morning. He also worked in the general station cleanup duties as an incentive for the rest of the crew. The captain kept to his word, and by 0805 every A-shift morning, that engine was headed to Waffle House. The breakfast schedule became well-known around the battalion, and even personnel filling in for the shift came to expect that breakfast incentive. By just getting to know his crew a little, the captain was able to build morale and camaraderie, not to mention the side effect of the public getting to interact with the crew in a non-emergency situation.

Overcoming the Bad Assignment

We’ve all read articles about how to get ready for promotions. Most of them give you the advice to work with the A team— officers and crews that have a history of successful promotional testing. That’s great advice. But it just isn’t possible for everyone to work with the best the department has to offer. So there’s a good chance that sometime in your fire service career, you will be assigned to a company led by an officer who you don’t think will help you achieve your career goals.

Just like an officer who is reluctantly assigned to the leper colony, a similarly assigned firefighter has two options. The first is to decide the moons are aligned against you, you’re never going to learn enough to be successful in the promotional process, and all your friends are going to make fun of you because you drew the short straw when assignments were made. The other is to embrace the challenge this assignment creates and use it to your best advantage.

Consider this tale: A recruit was assigned to the slowest company in the department straight out of recruit school. His friends were all running “good” calls. He was sent to the crash truck at the local noncommercial airport. He could have decided “It is what it is” and languished in that position. But instead, he used it as an opportunity to study everything he could about the department, fire strategy and tactics, and personnel management. Guess who was the first to be promoted from his rookie class? That’s right, the guy who had pulled what most younger personnel would consider the bad assignment. He went on to be promoted the first time he took any promotional test, retired as the assistant chief of operations, and moved on to a second career as a chief in another department.

Learning from Whatever Situation You’re In

You can learn just as much from weak supervisors and crews as you can from the A team captain who everyone wants to work around. Throughout your time in the fire service, you will probably have the opportunity to work with some top-notch officers. You will learn so much from them, and they will help shape your career. But don’t discredit the opportunity to work with officers who achieved their rank by getting lucky on a promotional exam. Both situations are opportunities. While everyone is learning the best ways of doing things, you’ll have the chance to learn what not to do and the type of officer you don’t want to be. That experience will pay huge dividends during assessment center testing and once you are promoted to a supervisory role.

Want to learn more? Don’t miss FireRescue1’s on-demand webinar, “Unaware, unwilling or unable? Identifying and managing 3 types of underperforming employees,” presented by Chief Christopher Sobieski. Register to watch the event here.

Jon Dorman

JON DORMAN is a content developer with Lexipol with more than 25 years in the fire service in both combination and career departments, retiring as the assistant chief of operations and deputy emergency manager. He also has 10 years of experience teaching in the Fire Science and Emergency Management program at Purdue University Global (formerly Kaplan University) where he has redesigned multiple semester-long college courses to meet the needs of the modern fire service and adult learners. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire protection science from SUNY Empire State College, a master’s degree in employment law from Nova Southeastern University, and a master’s degree in homeland security and emergency management from Kaplan University.

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