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Leadership on the fire ground - help pick up hose

Posted on 1st May 2020

A friend and colleague of mine told me of a conversation he had with a deputy chief who questioned him about whether it made any difference to fire crews if he as a battalion chief helped them pick up hose after a fire. The deputy appeared to suggest that aiding his fire crews by picking up hose line didn’t have any impact on his influence with his crews and was an unnecessary leadership behavior. I personally couldn’t disagree more with the deputy chief on this issue. Picking up hose means something.

Company officers including chief officers are the formal leaders on the fire ground. Fire crews expect officers will provide direction at the scene of an emergency and they will center their decision-making around sound strategy and effective tactics. Never forgetting about reducing risk for the fire crews. Firefighting activities will never be free of risk. The danger of injury or death loom in this high-risk profession. Fire ground leadership among other things is meant to reduce the risk as much as possible while still accomplishing the mission, life safety and property protection.

Effective fire ground leadership is built upon a series of actions all of which are interconnected. The first important building block is developing relationships with your crews. This relationship building takes into account that you as the leader develop trustworthiness with your crews and your superiors. Your superior must believe you will get tasks completed. So do it. Completing tasks required by your superiors develops the relationship so that in times of need, you’ll be the go-to person. If your superiors trust you to get things done, you’ll get the call to get things done. This relationship building with your superiors isn’t about kissing ass, it’s about letting them know that you are their best asset and that they can trust you when things are difficult. They don’t have to like you…but if they trust you to get things done, you’ll be in the pipeline when tough things need to be done.

Next and equally important in fire ground leadership is that the men and women under your command can trust you to make sound decisions in high risk incidents. Your crews over time develop confidence in your decision-making ability by watching how you interact with them in the fire house, during training sessions and during emergency incidents. Fire crews include in the mix of their assessment of you how you treat them when no emergency exists. Do you take time to sit in the fire house kitchen and discuss department issues, do you assist them with work-related problems they are having, do you demonstrate that you care about how your crews think and feel. Do you provide guidance and clarity about department policies? Do you discuss previous incidents that may not have run a smoothly as they should over a cup of coffee in the kitchen? Do you discuss the incidents that went well? Fire crews need to know that you care about them and that you are willing to support them.

A word of caution here, it’s fine if you’re compassionate and attentive to your crew’s emotional needs, but you had better be competent in the art of firefighting and emergency medical services or in short order you’ll be nudged to the sidelines when danger lurks. It cannot be over-stated that fire ground leaders must be well trained, experienced and disciplined in their approach to emergency situations. In his book, In Extremis Leadership (2007), Colonel Thomas A. Kolditz writes, “Followers demand leader competence, and nowhere is that more critical than in dangerous contexts. No amount of legitimate or legal authority is likely to command respect for obedience in a setting where life is at risk, whether in a war zone or on the side of a mountain.” Further, "Confidence is the building block for leader-follower trust relationships in in extremis settings.

Take opportunities to train with your crews. If you’re capable, run training sessions with your fire crews. Teach veterans and recruits best industry practices. Challenge your personnel to be better professionals. Pick a topic you feel passionate about, learn everything you can about it and then teach others. Your teaching develops your own expertise as well as those you supervise. Further, it demonstrates to your fire crews you know what you are doing and this helps them in developing confidence in your ability to lead in times of stress.

Finally, for this short discussion, be consistent in your interactions with those under your command. Approaching the work day with wide mood swings, over the top and defensive responses to questions will not endear you to those you work with. Treat people fairly, even the ones you don’t like. I can assure you, not everyone likes you either. Show respect to all under your command. Don’t lie to them. Once you’re caught as a lier, you’ll not likely ever recover. Tell the truth, even when it is painful. Take responsibility for your actions and the mis-steps of your crews. If they made mistakes, it’s because you, the leader failed to properly ensure they were well trained. Discuss personal issues with your subordinates in private, don’t air others laundry at the kitchen table. It is okay to be firm, just be fair. Hold people accountable for their actions. When someone does well, complement them. When they fail, redirect their actions, retrain them and give them an opportunity to try again.

Leadership takes work on your part. If you aspire to be the leader of a fire company then put forth the effort. Read professional journals, seek out formal education, attend conferences. Develop your professional knowledge in firefighting and EMS. Read books on leadership from a variety of sources, don’t strictly read firefighting leadership material. As you develop your knowledge and understanding of leadership forget not from where you came.  Just because you’re the fire company leader doesn’t mean you’re better than those under your command. This idea holds true even for chiefs, even they need to pick-up hose from time to time