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The Difficult Conversation on Backstep Firefighter

Officers: YOU are what you make your company to be, good AND bad


One thing about the fire service, the implications of us not being prepared are much more significant than the average worker.  Nothing against landscapers, or painters, but if they are not 100 percent on a given day; well usually only their work suffers.

Firefighters are different however.  Almost everything we do has implications for the safety and well-being of others, whether the general population or our co-workers.  Yet repeatedly we see or hear of examples where mediocrity reigns supreme and close enough is good enough.  How many times have you seen another crew make a mistake, all the while knowing they have spent more time in the recliner than drilling?  How many times have one of your people screwed up and you have decided to “pick your battles” rather than address it head on?

So why is that?  Why do chief officers allow poor company officers to slide?  Why do company officers allow sub-standard firefighters to coast?  There isn’t one simple answer, many times the ‘system’ doesn’t allow for an easy remedy.  Many times it is because no one ever told them how hard it is to have that difficult conversation and that that is part of being a leader.

"I am not going to treat you all the same. I don't like you all the same, you don't like each other all the same, you don't like me all the same. I hope I will be strong enough to not permit my personal likes and dislikes get in the way of how I get you to perform. I won't like you all the same, but I'll love you all the same." John Wooden

People perform at a variety of levels due to many different reasons.  Natural ability and interest, poor previous leadership and training, fear, dislike for authority, and lack of motivation are all reasons why someone may perform poorly.  So often the root of performance failure comes from bad experiences or someone else’s mistakes. If you take the time to work with the firefighter, you may find that the reason they aren’t doing well is because they haven’t been given the opportunity to do so.  In other words, everyone has ‘good’ in them; they just may not have had the chance to show it to you yet. A leader’s responsibility to the department, the crew, the individual and himself is to determine why the firefighter may not be meeting expectations and then work with that individual to correct the issues.  Seems simple, right?  Well it isn’t necessarily that easy and it is something that few that get promoted are ever taught how to do.

While many fighters are not up to the task, very few will be willing to admit it.  These conversations are not easy to have, but if you are concerned about doing this job the right way and bringing your crew home, they are absolutely necessary.

To be fair to the underperforming firefighters of the world, as a boss it is critical that you lay out you expectations from day one and then consistently hold your people to that level.  You can’t expect them to do something you never told them they should.  Likewise you can’t get upset if they do something you never told them not to.

But back to that difficult conversation, why is it so hard?  In one conversation I had about this the answer came easy, “we all want to be loved.”  Telling Firefighter Smith that he is not performing as expected will most likely cause Firefighter Smith to be unhappy with you.  Depending on how he relates your conversation to the rest of the shift (and he will, don’t worry) you could be viewed as the bad witch from the Wizard of Oz.

While you shouldn’t be a dictator, you shouldn’t let how you may be perceived prevent you from enforcing your standards and keeping your crew safe.  Everyone on your team requires that everyone else do their job correctly.  While telling someone they are not up to par may be uncomfortable, it will be much less difficult than dealing with the after effects of a failure you did nothing to prevent.

The not so simple to all of this is that, while we are friends with the members of our crew, we are also professionals.  We are responsible for the lives and safety of our communities, as well as our co-workers.  This requires personal commitment, training and attention to detail.  As an Officer it is our responsibility to set the goals and expectations, and then prepare our people to meet them.  Since their success or failure is a direct reflection of you as their leader, if they fail you have failed.  There is no need to look any farther than the mirror for the answer as to why.

Photo courtesy of Billy Adkins/

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Comment by Robert Galione on October 25, 2013 at 2:58pm

I never thought that it was  hard. If I had something to say I said it. Didn't matter if it was the Chief of Department or a probie. Well maybe not Capt Downey, but

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