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My career in the fire service started comparatively late (at age 28) while also being a seven-year veteran of the U.S. Army. My first impressions of the volunteer fire service started in Germany as a member of the Freiwillige Feuerwehr (Volunteer Fire Department) Troesel in Hessen in a basic engine company. I trained in all of the basics and graduated from the state primary officers academy.I am now a 15-year veteran of the volunteer fire service and a 23-year veteran of the Army. What has struck me most about the challenges of the volunteer fire service is not so much that we train technically proficient firefighters, but that there is no definitive roadmap for how we develop leaders. I would like to share some thoughts that may help guide the development of junior volunteer fire service leaders and that I compiled for a leadership class I conducted in conjunction with the chief officers at Carlisle, PA, Fire and Rescue Services.
As the fire service is considered a paramilitary organization, it was easy to tie the class into both military and firematic themes. Some of the challenges we discussed are that leadership is also developed through life experience. Key events such as marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, having a career outside of the fire service and paying a mortgage are things that just don’t come out of a book, but are key and critical to the development of the new officer. The following themes are geared toward newly appointed company and chief officers.
• Mission first, people always – This is not only a mantra of the U.S. Army, it’s what we are all about. The mission, and its accomplishment, always remain in the forefront of every unit member’s mind. The critical step is for the leader to be able to take into consideration the human factors required to lead people to accomplish that mission. Even though it may be a volunteer army, soldiers are bonded by oath to follow their leaders (or the officers appointed over them under the Uniform Code of Military Justice).
For a brand-new officer in the volunteer fire service, this is an even greater challenge because it is just that, a volunteer organization. The leadership challenge is to make the team want to accomplish whatever task is put before them and, more importantly, make them want to come back for more.
By knowing the strengths and weaknesses of team members, the new officer can develop a plan that will accomplish the mission; frequently, we follow standard operating guidelines (SOGs). While this may work in a career department, where manpower is usually predictable, in the volunteer fire service teams vary greatly based on time of day, day of the week or even which game animal happens to be “in season” that month. The bottom line is that officers must know all of their people, know their strengths and weaknesses and be able to apply them in any given situation.
The same can be said for Army Reserve components upon mobilization. I have served with the Army Reserve for the past 19 years, and every time a unit arrives at its mobilization station, it frequently looks like staging at a major incident, where the staging officer must weed through the masses to eventually put them into cohesive teams. Once the leader knows his or her people, they can grow together, and with what the commander provides as intent, each team member places the mission (and its accomplishment) first and foremost in their minds. Bottom line, know your people.
• Task/condition/standard – Everything that is accomplished in the military follows this model. If there is a task to be accomplished, it will be performed under certain conditions and there is an acceptable standard. The Army codifies its standards through regulations, as much as the fire service codifies its performance through established standards, such as National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards or even departmental SOGs.