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Assessing What They LACK: L is for Leadership

Editor's Note: The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Courage to be Safe program identified four area where fire officers needed to improve their awareness, training and skills: leadership, accountability, culture and knowledge (LACK). This five-part series helps officers focus on each area for a more comprehensive understanding of the program.

Being a firefighter can be hazardous…even if we’re doing things exactly the way we should. Firefighter safety is a critical element of the overall effectiveness of a fire department service-delivery system. Fire suppression, emergency-medical services, hazardous-materials services, technical-rescue services and disaster-response services are delivered by firefighters who have committed to place themselves in harms way to protect others.

Over the past 20 plus years, the fire service has significantly increased the emphasis placed on the health and safety of firefighters. This includes training more effectively, providing consistent and effective Incident Command, developing and following standard operating procedures (SOPs), providing proper equipment and complying with regulations and standards. In addition, health evaluations, emphasizing psychological – emotional – physical wellness, tracking chemical and medical exposures and utilizing safety officers have also contributed to the health and safety of firefighters. Even with all of this in place, those who occupy positions of leadership are critical and must accept and act out their responsibilities every day…no matter how difficult or unpopular those actions might be. This may be easier said than done, but lots of fire department leaders regularly (and effectively) do it.

Leadership is the foundation of the fire service. From day one, we’re training new recruits to be leaders through our examples. Strong leadership can improve the odds of firefighters surviving emergency situations. No matter what formal positions of rank we hold, leaders demonstrate their commitment to safety through their behaviors and actions. This sends a stronger message than anything leaders simply “say” to those they lead.

There are many things that leaders should stress on a regular basis. Data associated with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s (NFFF) "Everyone Goes Home Program" clearly identifies the most common contributing factors to firefighter injuries and fatalities. Although they can’t all be prevented, there are intervention strategies that leaders can emphasize that will minimize the level of risk. A few of those are as follows:

  • Firefighters and fire officers must stay mentally alert. Inattentiveness or complacency of leaders and others cannot be allowed to affect actions or decisions.
  • Many firefighter tasks involve hard, strenuous work performed with little time for warm-up. Firefighters die of heart attacks and strokes, or experience other career-ending injuries while training or working at emergency scenes. Leadership includes setting the standard for maintaining a reasonable level of fitness, physical strength and flexibility, combined with an emphasis on rehab services and psychological and emotional wellness.
  • Fire and personal vehicle crashes that occur during emergency response and non-emergency travel are a significant cause of firefighter injuries and deaths each year. Leaders must require that members take care while driving or riding to and from calls, follow SOPs and they must be required to wear their seat belts…period.
  • From the standpoint of leadership, fire officers must not place firefighters in offensive positions at what are defensive fires. If firefighters are improperly positioned and structural integrity is compromised, there is a sudden increase in the extent of fire, a change in the ventilation profile, a lack of crew integrity in the hazard zone or a number of other factors, the result could be tragic for the firefighters. Leaders determine the strategy and should not be seduced into taking inappropriate risks with firefighters’ lives. The leaders must be willing to take the heat from members for strategic and tactical decisions that might be unpopular. Leaders must ask themselves initially, and again periodically throughout every incident, “Is the risk I’m taking with my people worth what we’re trying to accomplish?”

The comments and actions of leaders have a direct impact on the health and safety of firefighters because they form their attitudes and govern their actions. The inability or unwillingness of those in leadership positions to lead (regardless of their rank) undermines firefighter safety as much as any other factor. Leadership and supervision includes modeling the behaviors and expectations we have of others. Leaders are always teaching others how to behave and perform by their own example…positive or negative.

If fire departments put more emphasis on developing the leadership capabilities of fire officers as outlined in the NFFF LACK (Leadership, Accountability, Culture and Knowledge) Program, we could make even greater strides toward enhancing the safety of firefighters in career and volunteer fire departments. Fire department leaders have the responsibility to do whatever needs to be done to maintain the safety of all fire department members. These responsibilities are usually spelled out in departmental rules, policies, guidelines or procedures. The challenge is not identifying what leaders should do; the challenge seems to be getting leaders throughout the organization to carry out their duties and responsibilities in a consistent and effective way. Decisions and actions of leaders (especially regarding safety) are sometimes not popular with the department membership, but this cannot be allowed to deter the leader from doing what needs to be done. Strong leaders do all they can to maintain a positive, productive and healthy work environment. They’re competent, compassionate, empathetic and caring…but they also hold those under their command accountable for decisions they make and actions they take.

Study the LACK Program, and ask yourself how you rate against the leadership criteria identified: What do I need to change about myself? Am I part of the problem? Do I hold myself and others accountable as leaders? Do I need to recommit myself to training and leading in a way that works toward strengthening firefighter health and safety requirements in my fire department?

DENNIS COMPTON is currently chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Board of Directors. He was the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and as assistant fire chief in Phoenix, AZ, where he served for 27 years. Compton is a well-known speaker and the author of several books, including his new Progressive Leadership Principles, Concepts and Tools, the When in Doubt, Lead! series and Mental Aspects of Performance for Firefighters and Fire Officers. Compton is past chairman of the Executive Board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) and past chairman of the Congressional Fire Services Institute's National Advisory Committee. 

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