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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about "The Sickness" in the fire service. There was a great deal of conversation from this post that was constructive and on point. I must admit that I wrote it with this post in mind. Actually, this post came to me before that one did, but I wanted to define the problem in a way that most could relate to.

While reading the responses to the post a great guy and respected chief posted a response, "OFFICERS" as the solution. I couldn't agree with him more and that was the premise of this series of posts. A great deal has been posted about the role of the officer. Some write primarily about the company officer and others about the chief officer. The fact is that it is about both. They are intertwined and both play a vital role in "curing" the "sickness."

The officer has the responsibility to keep his people ready, proficient and engaged. Although each individual has a responsibility to these same expectations, at the fire house, the officer must set the tone. They dictate how the day goes and what gets done. They determine what is acceptable and what is not. Without this oversight, the "sickness" spreads and grows much easier.

At the company level the officer must address early on his expectations to his crew. It should happen at the time of promotion or when receiving a new assignment or a new crew member. The crew deserves to know what is expected, what is acceptable and what is not. This establishes ownership and responsibility by the officer early on.

Not all firefighters will have a passion for this job when they go home and are away from the fire house. Not all firefighters are going to take vacation to go to FDIC or other training opportunities. They may not be engaged when off of the job and we have to understand that there are different levels of passion for what we do. It doesn't excuse poor tactics, limited knowledge of strategies and current trends and definitely does not excuse poor attitudes towards those that do have that passion 24/7.

The officer sets the tone for the crew or company. So goes the officer, so goes the crews. The officer's attitude is contagious and will be passed on to his crew. If the company officer does not want to train, complains about doing inspections and other firefighter stuff that requires us to get out of the recliner, so will the crew. If the fire officer still believes the best forcible entry tool is his foot, so will the crew. If the fire officer believes that a booster line is the line of choice for an initial attack line, so will the crew. I think you get the point.

The bottom line is this: We have to promote great! We have to buck some trends and make some tough changes in regards to promotions. We must promote the best person for the job, not the popular guy. Not the lesser of two evils or the easy, non-controversial choice. Not the Union guy just because he is the shop steward. Although the candidate could be one of those people, there should be more to the decision making.

Let's be clear, I don't believe you have to have a degree and I am not subscribing to the idea that we need to lean to an all academic promotion process. I am calling for a process that works at your respective department, allowing the best candidate to get promoted to all positions. We have to pick people that are going to insure that their people train, understand the traditions and history of our profession. We need to pick people that will demand more than just coasting through and will instill, in the words of Chief Lasky, "Pride, Honor and Integrity."

These officers must prepare their people to take that position down the road. They must mold, coach and mentor their people to be the best at whatever position they hold and want to achieve. A great deal of this is by leading by the right example. I believe that our fire service has some of the brightest leaders amongst us right now. Some are in formal leadership positions and some are not. The goal needs to be to tap into those resources and not only let them make a difference, but encourage it.

So, a challenge to firefighters, company officers, chief officers, union officials and politicos; let's make a difference. Let's utilize our most valued resource, our people, in leadership roles. Let's stop the spread of the "sickness" and provide the cure that is right in front of us. Let's encourage and let our leaders lead.

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Comment by Christopher Huston on January 27, 2012 at 1:10pm

Thanks Chief, "we raise them through the organization according the the standards and culture", that was the answer I was looking for. It starts at day one.

Comment by Scott Thompson on January 27, 2012 at 12:06pm


Christopher you are correct and I think we are saying the same thing. Great question!  My thought is the chief has to set the standard and see that he/she is leading the organization to that standard.  As we bring in our new guys, we “raise” them through the organization according the the standards and culture.  That is why mentoring for all levels of the organization is critical.  Like with the Brotherhood,  we are getting a generation of firefighters that have not been scouts or have participated in team sports.  The may not have siblings, so we need to teach and mentor them about the Brotherhood of the American fire service and not just write them off as mutts. 

The chief has the authority to steer the ship….and it’s a big ship.  If the chief is not at the wheel, who’s going to keep things on course?  It takes the entire department to raise the next generation of its leaders….I just believe the burden to chart the course rests on the chief.  Great conversation.

Comment by Christopher Huston on January 27, 2012 at 10:59am

I agree with Chief Thompson that the majority of responsibility belongs to the Chief. However, can I pose a question? Who is the next CO, BC and Chief? The Firefighter. They will bring up bad habits with them. If the CO is a positive leader then those traits will passed on to the Firefighter. When he is promoted then the process starts to repeat itself. The Chief is there to support the work that is being done, not the work supporting him. So yes, it really does start at the bottom. When the right troops are in place, the right leaders will come forth. When the Chief supports the organization through solid leadership that includes giving the Firefighters ownership of their work, “the cure to the sickness” will be allowed to cultivate.

Keep up the discussion on this, I like where it is going.



Comment by Scott Thompson on January 27, 2012 at 10:18am

Josh –

I’m sorry I missed you’re firs post, however had to chime in on this one.  Being a member of the fire service is a great privilege.  I cannot think of another calling that affords the opportunities that firefighting does.  However with great privilege comes even greater responsibility.  85% of the “cure” for the sickness rests on the shoulders  of The Chief.  I’m not sure what many chiefs are thinking when they accept the position.  The fact is this, at the end of the day, good or bad,  the organization is the chief’s responsibility. The chief has the authority to set the standard and to hold people accountable to that standard.   FACT!


One of the problems is that too many people have been placed into the chief position, that really don’t understand the fire service.  While management, planning and financial skills are very important, they cannot take the place of leadership skills and understanding the requirements of the men and women who make up the organization, and who will ultimately determine the culture of the organization.  Another problem is we do a very, very poor job of preparing our current and future leaders.  Like  it or not, just because you are a kick a** firefighter, does not mean you will be a kick a** leader.  Next, just because you have shown up for the last 25 years does not mean you have 25 years of usable experience.

Here is my challenge;  Chief have the technical and administrative knowledge and experience to do the job correctly before you allow yourself to be placed into the position.  Second have the courage to do the right thing.  Don’t tolerate wrong.  However, first know what that is.  Take care of your people, that is job one.  Stop using politics as an excuse.  You expect the troops to adapt and overcome, you do the same.

The Company officer is on the hook for 10% of the cure.  It is your job to make sure your firehouse/company/crew/or whatever you call it is prepared and ready to go.  It is your job to lead and make sure everyone colors in the lines.  I don’t care how well you think you are doing, if you’re not mentoring your people, training them every opportunity, leading them towards success versus failure, you are a part of the sickness.

The Barn Boss (Driver Engineer, second in charge of the company, informal leader) as Chief Birt calls them, is on the hook for 3% of the cure.  Support your company officer.  Mentor, mentor, mentor.  If you’re company officer is a knuckler head, adapt and overcome and make the best of the situation.  Find the positives instead of the negatives.

Finally the firefighter, 2%.  Be passionate and compassionate.  If you don’t know ask, but try and learn it first.  Do your job, give it your best, support your boss, and thank God every day that you have been given the opportunity.  But most importantly, remember that one day you will be there, are you being the firefighter that you would want working for you when you’re the man?

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