Fire Service Leadership Requires the Courage to Care

by | October 1, 2020

From the time I started in the fire service to today, notable mentors and leaders have provided a positive role model for me to follow. Some demonstrated strong leadership, others demonstrated impeccable professionalism and still others showed they truly cared about me. I am sure many of you reading this piece share similar experiences.

The third attribute I mentioned above is tremendously undervalued when it comes to defining a great fire service leader. Leaders who I felt truly cared about me knew me by name, asked about my family and would take an interest in what was going on in my life, both personally and professionally. When I was injured on the job, these leaders would take the time for a quick visit at the hospital or a quick call to see how I was doing and whether my family and I needed anything. Such efforts seemed easy from my viewpoint; they only required an investment of a minute or two. But that investment gave me the trust that if I did truly have a need, the leader would take care of it.

It’s possible to be an efficient manager without caring about your personnel. But you will never develop the bonds needed for excellent team performance. When we don’t care about each other, there is the potential for mistrust and the hesitancy to be open and honest with each other—about everything from mental health and substance abuse to challenges away from work—which can in turn affect the ability of each member of a team to perform at their highest level. And in the fire service, that can have deadly consequences.

A Common Thread in Poor Fire Service Leadership

I have been blessed in my career to work for some great leaders. But like many of you, I have also had the unfortunate opportunity to work for poor leaders.

To be clear, just because a leader is a jerk on a fire scene doesn’t necessarily mean they are a poor leader overall. I’ve certainly worked for jerks who could manage a fire scene very well and were good fireground officers, tactically speaking. While I didn’t care for the way they treated me, I never questioned their ability to make well-reasoned decisions on the fireground and I had confidence they knew what they were doing, which motivated me to follow their directions on an emergency scene.

Other poor leadership attributes I have experienced include leaders who manufacture problems within a crew, then parade around boasting about how they “fixed the problem,” which will hopefully earn them their next promotion. Other leaders would remove me from a task I liked doing only to place one of their “favorites” in the position instead.

I am certain you can identify people in your career that fit into these examples of poor fire service leadership. The one thing these poor leaders had in common is they didn’t know the first thing about me, my likes and dislikes, my family or anything about me other than I was on their crew and we had work to do. These leaders were making decisions with only half of the information available to them.

What Does It Mean to Care?

It is one thing to say you care, but it is something entirely different to show that you care! There is a misconception that caring for those you work with is difficult. While this may be true for some initially, with practice and true desire you can begin investing in your people in a very tangible and effective way.

What does that look like? Leaders who care know what is going on in the lives of their personnel. And this knowledge isn’t limited to work-related knowledge.

Do you know the names of your crew’s family members? Do you know the name of their spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend? How about their kids? What do they like to do on their days off from the station? Do they work a job away from the station? Where do they like to go on vacation?

Caring for others is undervalued. As leaders, we need to be willing to invest in those we serve shoulder to shoulder with.

When you know these kinds of details, you get to know the real person you work with. Everyone has likes and dislikes and when a crew knows this information, it is useful in getting along in the fire station and during an emergency operation. Knowing what motivates your members can also help you assign tasks best suited for their interests and career development—which in turn can lead to a more efficient, motivated crew.

But most importantly, knowing your crew members can help you identify personal struggles that can spill over into the job, with potentially dangerous effects. Great members of a team can easily become mired in a personal struggle. Relationship challenges, financial struggles, substance abuse, depression and other circumstances can put the best firefighter on a road to self-destructive behavior, which can result in the need for discipline or even separation from the department.

Far worse consequences are also possible. When a member is struggling away from work, it can create a distraction at work. A distracted member can place the crews and the public’s safety at risk. The negative consequences related to a distracted member’s job performance are preventable when the organization has a culture of truly caring for one another and can provide support for a member who is struggling.

Please remember that with trust comes great responsibility. Within the fire service culture is also a history of bullying, discrimination and harassment. If your crewmembers share personal details with you and this information is later used against them through thoughtless teasing, bullying or other harassment, you may never be able to recover the trust you once had.

Share Your Story, Too

Getting to know your personnel goes both ways—you should also be willing to share details of your life with the members of your crew. Let them get to know you. What are you planning to do on your next vacation? What grade are your kids going to be in school? What classes are you enrolled in this semester for your professional development path? When you show you are willing to share details of your life with your crew, the more they are likely to become comfortable sharing details with you, too.

There are limits to how much you can or should share. You can undermine your effectiveness if you come off as a personal train wreck, constantly moving between dramas or overwhelmed by the circumstances of your life.

To be clear, disclosing information about yourself and your situation, good or bad, comes with risk. Members could try to use that information against you for their benefit. The best way to combat this is to set a good example: Use the information they share with you appropriately and only for good. Hopefully, your crew will reciprocate.

Life in a firehouse—full-time, part-time or volunteer—is a family environment, for better or for worse. As with any family, trusting each other and supporting each other is critical to the success of the family overall.

Having the Courage to Care Is Worth the Effort!

Frankly, it is easy to lead without caring about anything other than accomplishing tasks. And as noted above, showing compassion and caring for each other can come with risk. Caring for others can take you out of your comfort zone—you may be uncomfortable knowing the personal struggles of a member of your crew. But with this risk also comes great reward that can make the difference when building a high-performing team, company or crew.

Investing the time and effort to truly care about the individuals who are part of your team has several tangible benefits, including:

  • Enhanced sense of worth—Knowing each other professionally and personally can make team members feel accepted and valued for who they are.
  • Better teamwork—When a crew trusts each other, they begin to anticipate what tasks need to be accomplished and work more efficiently and cohesively.
  • Reduced frequency/severity of discipline—When members trust each other, they can say to one another, “Hey, you better quit that before you get in trouble.” This provides a way to correct behavior against department expectations without the need for formal discipline.
  • Enhanced situational awareness—If a member of your crew begins to struggle, they will be more likely to reveal it early. Hopefully, this will allow you to identify and address matters of concern before they have a long-term impact for the individual and the crew.
  • Improved overall work environment—When individuals get along, they look forward to the opportunity to be together for work or non-work activities. This can include activities where the family members get to take part in off-duty activities, which encourages a family-like atmosphere for all.

Caring for others is undervalued. As leaders, we need to be willing to invest in those we serve shoulder to shoulder with. Get to know them! Be willing to let them get to know you too. The more you all know, the more you will trust each other. With trust comes the willingness to not only share when things are going well, but when one of us is struggling.

For too long now, fire service leadership has failed to address firefighter mental health and wellbeing. We can all have a huge impact on mental health simply by caring about each other. Whether your role is a firefighter, senior firefighter, equipment operator, company officer or chief officer, every one of us can have the courage to care for each other. We owe it to each other to care enough to know what’s going on and to know when we need to help each other out.

BRUCE BJORGE's fire service career includes more than 38 years of experience in command and training positions with career, combination, volunteer and military fire agencies. Currently, he is a Battalion Chief with the Western Taney County Fire District in Branson, Mo., and has also served as a company officer and Assistant Chief of Training. Bruce is also the Director for Fire Policy Sales at Lexipol. He formerly was the Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) Specialist for the University of Missouri Fire & Rescue Training Institute where he managed their Mobile ARFF and other live-fire training programs. He has also served as a Training Developer for Lexipol. He holds Training Officer certification from the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Training Program Management course. Bruce has been an active instructor and evaluator for the past 28 years and is a regular presenter at state, regional and national conferences and training events.

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