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Leading Without Rank

Joseph L. Kitchen, Fire Chief Bath Township (Lima, Ohio)

Shiny collar brass, gleaming white helmet, command vehicle, right front passenger seat, forty hour week. Do any of these make you identify with a ranking offer on your department? Maybe it’s a firefighter who scored one point higher on a promotional exam, or one with a few more years of seniority. In a volunteer organization maybe it’s a firefighter who had more “yes” votes than his opponent. There are many ways we see officers within our organizations. Obviously, the larger the department, the more officers there are and often the more complex the command staff system becomes. But, regardless of the size of your agency or the process used to appoint officers, there is no guarantee that the color of a shirt, helmet, or a badge will automatically ensure a good leader. As a matter of fact, they may not be a leader at all. Thankfully, there are thousands of great chief and company officers in our fire service. Leaders who show up everyday ready to work hard, motivate their employees, and do so with the highest ethical standards. However, when I talk to firefighters about issues within their departments (including my own), the blame for most everything that is perceived to be wrong is poor leadership. I believe that firefighters are quick to point the finger at their officers and place the blame for poor morale, operational issues, and safety concerns squarely on the backs of those who are in leadership roles without trying to become part of the solution. Sitting back and being critical, complaining, and blaming others is easy. Choosing to solve problems and develop solutions takes more time, effort and hard work; something many people avoid because the solution often requires personal change too. As a result, many times I’ve heard “Hey, I’m only a firefighter, it’s not my job.”

            Let’s set the record straight. It is your job. You are part of an organization that has a responsibility to its residents to provide a service. You are part of an organization which cannot effectively operate without teamwork and cooperation. From the day your badge is pinned on your chest, it is your job. I am certainly not advocating that firefighters shouldn’t follow the chain of command within the organization, nor should they circumvent the systems and programs which are currently in place. What I am saying is, despite your rank within the organization you can immediately have a profound effect on your shift, station, and department by simply changing your attitude and contributing to the organization in ways that will benefit everyone.

Here are five things you can do to be a leader in your department without holding official rank:

  1. Take on a project. Ask to be responsible for a specific program or piece of equipment. Every station needs someone who knows the equipment inside and out. Maybe its SCBA’s, saws, or extrication equipment. Choose something you are interested in and have a high level of proficiency with. Next, learn everything there is to know about the equipment. Read manuals, journals, articles, and everything you can get your hands on. Meet the vendor or sales representative. Examine your departments preventative maintenance plans, standard operating guidelines, and look for opportunities to strengthen them.

  2. Work hard. There may always be firefighters who are smarter than you, stronger than you, have fought more fires than you. But, you can choose to work harder than all of them. This means doing a little extra every day, every shift. Never walking past a mess in the station that needs cleaned up or a truck that needs washed are quick and easy ways to establish yourself as a hard worker. Hard workers are always on time, willing to assist others and not afraid to take on a task, even when they feel tired. Good leaders are hard workers.

  3. Train new firefighters. Take the next probationary new hire under your wing. Mentor them. This means not only training them to be operationally proficient and safe, but also mentoring them on this great career. Show them what being a firefighter really means. Teach them about the department’s history and traditions. Start them on a path that will lead them to love the fire service and have passion for this career. Think about your training experience. How could it have been better? Maybe you had a great mentor. How can you duplicate that experience for someone else? Training new hires not only helps them develop but also strengthens our skills and knowledge as well. This is an easy way to make a huge impact on the individual as well as the entire department.

  4. Learn. I mean really learn by studying, researching, and reading. There are so many great books, websites, and blogs out there about the fire service that you will never run out of material to read. With smart phones, tablets and iPads, we can have access to a seemingly unlimited supply of data anytime and anywhere. Set a goal to obtain one new certification each year. Attend a weekend seminar, continuing education classes, or enroll in a degree program. Education will make you stronger and more prepared to lead. This learning process will enhance your problem solving skills,= and your critical thinking. If the last test you studied for was your final at the fire academy…you are not leading. Nor should you be considered for a future leadership position.


  5. Be kind. Come to work every day with a great attitude. When the conversation at the kitchen table turns sour, get up and go find something productive to do. Treat your fellow firefighters with kindness and respect, even the ones who don’t return the favor. Recognize fellow employees for their success. Don’t get tangled up in department politics or grievances. Be polite, helpful, and respectful.

Leadership in the fire service is an honor and privilege. Getting promoted to a higher rank is a goal that many people have and fewer achieve. But, no matter what your rank, you can make a difference in your organization and have a positive impact. You can inspire others and position yourself as a future leader.


Joseph Kitchen, OFC is the Chief of the Bath Twp. Fire Dept. (Lima, Ohio.) He began his career in 1990, and has served as fire chief since 2002. He holds degrees in EMS and fire science, and in 2012, was named Fire Officer of the Year by the Ohio Dept. of Public Safety. Follow Chief Kitchen on Twitter @bathtwpchief




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