Making the Move to Proactive Fire Service Leadership

by | February 11, 2022

The fire service loves lessons learned. Our training sessions, reports, policies and procedures reflect near-misses and close calls. Many of rules that govern the fire service—such as standards established by the National Fire Protection Association or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—are, as they say, “written in blood.”

We put rules in place to prevent tragedy from repeating. And this is essential—failure to learn from the past can lead us to repeat the same mistakes. But there’s a dangerous limitation to this approach, too: It can lull us into believing that reacting is enough.

Today, leaders in the fire service can do better. We are awash in data and information that can and should inform our short- and long-term planning. Progressive fire departments are starting the switch from reactive to proactive fire service leadership. But that journey starts with the individual.

Are You a Risk Manager?

When you travel, do you plan the vacation from start to finish? Do you follow an itinerary? Do you look at the weather forecast a week or more out? If you’re driving, do you know your route or do you hit “start” on your GPS and follow the step-by step directions—or both?

Your answers to these questions can reveal your personal tendency to be proactive or reactive. Of course, planning a trip is just one example. Another is how you regard adversity or challenges. Are you someone who anticipates the various things that could go wrong, or do you prefer to assume things are rosy and deal with adversity when it comes up?

Proactive fire service leadership is about being honest with yourself, being open to new ideas, being willing to take action.

There’s no right or wrong to these individual preferences. But whether you are a firefighter or a chief, how you approach life affects the organization. And while spontaneity in your personal life may be exciting and even charming, it’s less effective when trying to manage a fire department.

How does this relate to risk management? Reactive leaders respond to problems. Proactive leaders anticipate problems and plan ahead to mitigate them—that is, they manage the risk. This is what Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham says when he talks about RPM—Recognize, Prioritize and Mobilize to address risk.

And this is an ongoing process because risk changes. Take, for example, a fire department that has an all-male staff. When the department hires its first female firefighter, all of a sudden it faces a whole new set of risks. There are station design issues, questions of behavior and sleeping arrangements in quarters, whether the department has appropriate policies in place such as a lactation breaks policy. There are also fundamental differences that affect personality dynamics in the crew. The department may rightfully embrace diversity, but from a management and leadership standpoint, we must acknowledge that with change comes challenge. If not appropriately anticipated and managed, there could be negative consequences for everyone in the organization.

A Service Mindset

Our desire to serve is part of what motivates us to take a proactive leadership stance. Service takes us back to why we became firefighters. It’s easy for us to lose sight of the why, but collectively it was to serve. Chief Alan Brunacini summed this up by asking us to imagine “Mrs. Smith” and to simply “Be nice”—to her and to one another. Today, I think that’s as relevant as it’s been in a really long time.

But there’s responsibility in service as well. Mrs. Smith trusts us, often unequivocally. With that trust comes responsibility—we must perform at a level that meets her expectations, that honors her trust. And that’s where we come back to proactive leadership—because service requires us to be ready. When you come to work, you need to be ready to take on the challenges with an open mind and a positive outlook. We deal with a lot of negative incidents in the fire service, but if we have a service mindset and a proactive approach, we can make bad situations better—and although we can’t prevent every tragedy, we can minimize harm, reduce pain and comfort the grieving.

Actively managing risk while focusing on serving others also means we take pride and ownership in what we do. It’s easy to say, “That’s not my fault!” Consider the leaking garden hose in the apparatus bay. People walk by it every day. What do you do? Do you walk by it like everyone else, do you clean the water and out the hose away, or do clean it up and submit a work order to prevent it from happening again?

A service and risk-management focus extends to your interactions with your coworkers, too. Be willing to get out of your comfort zone and do what’s necessary to help others. Firefighter Jones is normally upbeat and outgoing, but over the past couple of weeks he’s seemed withdrawn. Twice now, he’s failed to show up for his shift. From a risk management standpoint, we need to be thinking, why is this happening? And from a service mindset, we need to care about what is going on with Firefighter Jones. Have you asked him what’s going on? Have you encouraged him to contact peer support? Have you just generally shown through your willingness to listen and engage that you care?

Everyone Has a Role

Key to a building a proactive leadership organization is an understanding that we need a flow of information going from the top to the bottom and vice versa. Many risks firefighters are acutely aware of will be invisible to leadership. So communication going both ways is essential. We must empower everyone to have a role in the future of the organization—not just the top echelon.

What does this look like on each level? For the lower ranks, it can be as simple as “see something, say something.” If you see something that’s wrong, say something and do something to fix it if you can. But equally, if you have an idea that can make things better, tell the company officer and follow up to ensure the idea has gone to another level for analysis and decision.

At the company officer level, the first thing is to be willing to listen to your people. Yes, you’re responsible for the success or failure of the crew. But that doesn’t mean you do it alone. Listen to the ideas your people have. And don’t dismiss ideas just because they’re not to your personal liking. Example: You may strongly prefer in-classroom learning to online training. But your firefighters may find online classes an ideal way to knock out requirements in their own time, especially if they have been used to incorporating online education throughout their schooling. When you’re evaluating an idea, try to separate your personal bias from what’s best for the crew and the department.

While spontaneity in your personal life may be exciting and even charming, it’s less effective when trying to manage a fire department.

At the battalion chief level, proactive leadership is about using your perspective to identify and mange organization-wide risks. At this level you’re not just dealing with individual issues or suggestions, but collectively. Let’s say your department placed five new apparatus in service at the same time. Three months go by, and the apparatus are all developing brake problems at the same time. Now, maybe we have a training issue, maybe it’s a maintenance issue, but at the battalion level the key is identifying this as an issue and addressing on an organizational level, rather than reacting to each individual situation without connecting the dots.

Moving the Organization Forward

Proactive fire service leadership is about being honest with yourself, being open to new ideas, being willing to take action. It’s about taking the data and information that are increasingly available to us through records management systems and other sources, and analyzing to predict where we’re headed. And ultimately, it’s about taking the time to care about our coworkers and our customers.

Remember: The whole reason we exist is to serve our community. That should help us find the motivation necessary to move toward anticipating risk, being proactive, and moving the organization forward.

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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