Leading Firefighters

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The Text Books Don’t Have All the Answers

Officers are faced with the difficult task of leading their personnel every day they report for duty.
For us, success or failure can have ramifications well beyond what most people are used to experiencing. Everyone will have a different approach to how they lead and certainly when it comes to leading firefighters one size does not fit all. With that being said, here are a few tools that I have used over the course of my career.

It is always about THEM:

We must never forget that the sole reason why the fire department exists is to serve our community. The fact that we reap the benefits of membership, be it as an employee or a volunteer, is a privilege we need to always respect. Our mission is to show up on the worst day of someone’s life and fix their problems. People call the Fire Department to restore a sense of security during threatening times, not to recite a laundry list of why we can’t do that. If you have a member who thinks someone’s emergency is interfering with their day, deal with that. That member has the whole thing backwards and if you don’t step up to address that, that attitude can become the accepted norm.

Mission focus, every day, all the time:

We all have the off day. We all have our best intentions interrupted by life. Officers need to ensure that their people leave their other issues in the parking lot and are all in for duty. Hold a roll call every morning at the front of your rig. You are the boss so even if this is not department policy, you can set the tone for your day. Spend a few minutes talking about what the company will do, what actions you will take if you catch a hot job. Who will be responsible for what tool? Do you lay in for smoke showing or does 2nd due bring you a line? When you start the day with a mission focus, it is much easier than trying to find that focus 9 hours into your shift.

Everyday should be a training day:

If you have people under your command then you need a long term plan for their training. If you are the officer that shows up and just wings it, you have sent a very strong message to your folks that training doesn’t really matter. Great companies can execute the basics flawlessly and this only happens as a result of constant training. Training must also look at those rare type incidents that are few and far between. Good companies tend not to be surprised, and one of the reasons is that they have trained for all the alternatives.

People give you what they see:

Charles Barkley, the professional basketball player, once said “I’m no role model”. Well guess what. you are. Your gear should be the first set on the rig, and when the bells hit you should be the first one to the rig. You don’t need to shine your shoes to the point where you can see your reflection, but your uniform needs to look squared away. You need to be physically fit period. If you haven’t seen your feet in the last decade get in the gym. You must accept the fact that everything the leader says or does receives the scrutiny of their subordinates.

THEM includes your subordinates:

If you are going to get your folks to the point where they want to follow you, they must feel like you care about them! The high preforming companies rarely rely on orders, they simply follow their leader. It is also true in those companies the leader takes both the time and effort to invest in their people. The leaders are always looking for ways to help their people. They ask questions about and get to know about their subordinates lives. Families, birthdays, and how well a son or daughter did at a tee ball game or a swim meet have importance to the leader.
Each member of your command is different, with different goals and different opinions. Learn about your people. If they want to promote, you know what it takes so help them enjoy the same success you have experienced. This can be very time consuming, but it is an absolute necessity.

It’s not fun, but when needed make the choice:

In his book A Warrior’s Path Robert Trivino makes the point that leaders will often be faced with the choice between the “hard right and easy wrong”. Trivino also says that when faced with this dilemma there really is only one choice, the hard right. If you are not willing to make this choice and do the hard right, you have no business being an officer. I often find myself in this position, and even after decades serving as an officer it is still a less than enjoyable thing to do. Your community, your organization, and our profession depends on you having the courage to do this so do not let them down.

Leading firefighters can be one of the most rewarding aspects of your career. It can also be a very difficult and trying endeavor.

Every officer should lead with this thought in the back of their mind:
“The future chief of this department is working for me and he/she will learn
how to lead from the example I give them”

Good luck and enjoy the privilege of serving as an officer


Assistant Chief Dennis Reilly:

Chief Reilly is a 44 year fire service veteran currently serving as the Assistant Chief for Operations in Davis, California. Prior to moving to California Chief Reilly was the Fire Chief in Sunrise Beach, Missouri and a Battalion Chief in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The Chief Reilly holds an MPA from Penn State and has been granted his CFO designation. In addition to his fire service career the chief is a combat veteran of the US Army and has worked for several years as high threat protection contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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