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A while back, we overheard a firefighter refer to the brass on the collar of a chief officer as “plungers.” Freely admitting that it took us aback for a moment, we still wanted to know what the firefighter meant by his comment.
The firefighter explained that the chief wore brass plungers on his collar to signify how much power he had to force some mandate or decree upon people – and more plungers mean more power. It is plausible that if you look at the brass collar pins that fire officers wear, they can appear to look like plungers – the tool we use to force “material” down small openings. Obviously, his remarks were meant to be demeaning, but his perception may have some truth.
On the flip side, we’ve also heard it mentioned in the officer ranks that the number of plungers on one’s collar coincides with the amount of “material” the officer has to deal with. Following this logic, the lieutenant has to put up with one level (firefighters) and so on and so forth all the way up to the chief, who is said has to put up with the most “material” of all.
Bugles, or speaking trumpets, were first used by fire chiefs in New York City in 1853 to better communicate to firefighters on the fireground. In time, bugles began to be used as symbols to signify rank; more bugles meant that officers had more influence or power within the organization. Today, lieutenants have one bugle and fire chiefs have five bugles, as examples. The key here is that bugles were originally used to communicate to others.
So how did bugles morph into plungers, at least as perceived by some in the fire service? Most likely, it happened over a long period and as a result of how messages were given. If people feel like information or communications are forced on them, then something is being done wrong. All of this comes down to how power is wielded and how people are treated. What is needed here is a short lesson in leadership.
Types of Power
The currency of leadership is influence. A leader needs followers, and the reason people will follow you is because you have influence on them. Influence is power, not in the traditional sense of energy in action, but in the sense that your position power, or personal power, can cause the follower to do something.
Power, then, comes in five types. The first three types are grouped in what is called “position power.” These types of power come from your formal position within a group, organization or community. They include legitimate power, coercive power and reward power. The remaining two types fall under the category of “personal power.”
Legitimate power is derived solely from your position. A fire chief has legitimate power when he or she asks you to complete a task. Because that person is the chief, you’ll most likely do what he or she asks. Even the most unpopular chief gets a certain amount of respect merely because of being the chief – this is legitimate power in its most basic form. Another example of legitimate power is on the fireground, where the incident commander has supreme power over all others – based solely on holding that position.
The second category of position power is coercive power. The same chief that we spoke of earlier also has coercive power because he or she can make life difficult for you if you do not do what he asks. The chief can threaten you with insubordination or even send you home without pay. By virtue of his or her position, the chief has this coercive power over you and you’ll most likely do what the chief wants done.
Conversely, the chief also has the ability to reward you to complete an order. This is known as reward power, where an “If you do this, I’ll give you that” relationship is pre-agreed upon (either formally or informally). The chief could reward you with a special assignment or duty, promote you or even grant you overtime through reward power.