Carter: Some More Tips for the New Fire Officer

Last week on my blog here on Firehouse.com I shared some thoughts with you about how the newly promoted officer should act and think. It is my fervent hope that you chose to remember the part about caring for your people. Because without that thought in mind, this little visit with you will have little or no value.

As a newly promoted officer, you have been moved into a critical new role. Bear in mind that the promotion might have come as a result of a civil service test mechanism or the annual election in your volunteer fire department. It matters not because the results will be the same. Not only are you now responsible for the safety and well-being of your people, you are also answerable for their training. If your people cannot perform, I can assure you that you will be the first person to whom the department leadership will turn looking for an for an explanation.

However, what is the first thing that people who wish to teach must do? They must learn. They must learn about a number of different things, not just the topics involved in firefighting,EMS, Haz-Mat, or whatever might be the case. They must first learn about themselves. Then they must learn about other people.

They must work to learn as much about the how and why of people’s actions as they possibly can. Why do I suggest these things? I offer this advice because of my hard-won experience as a fire officer in both career and volunteer assignments. The circumstances of the situation dictated the responsibilities which I was required to perform. 

Let me suggest that some of my greatest problems as a fire officer came about as a result of my own personal mistakes which were made worse by a poor reading of the actions and attitudes of the people around me. Many times what I perceived as acceptance was a mere tolerance of my actions. That was a very hard lesson to learn.

People will put up with a great deal when they perceive that a man’s position requires it. This is a terrible thing to find out; however, its discovery is a true first step on the way to future success.

A great deal of my time has been spent assessing my personal strengths and, more importantly, my weaknesses. I am first and foremost a big person, so I will always appear overbearing. And since no steps were taken to temper this, I suffered. So did other people. Even at my advanced age circumstances dictate that I continue to work towards a tempering of my volumetric problems with a lot of humanity and humility.

Further, my skills as a listener leave a great deal to be desired. Not only do I have a tendency not to listen, but my years in the fire service, with its attendant exposure to loud noises, have taken a lot of the physical capability. So it is with diminished physical capabilities and mental skills that I am forced to fight the battle of attention to others every day in my work environment.

I can recall the time that things had gotten so bad at home that my wife made me get a signed note from an audiologist that I really do have bad hearing. She claimed that I had a terminal case of “you never pay attention.” So it is with a great reluctance that I must admit to a bit of both: I have trouble hearing, in spite of not being able to listen well. What a hell of a combination.

Let me assure you that the two examples above came from a real life set of situations. These lessons were hard for me to learn and harder still to accept. But unless you are able to learn and grow as an individual, you will never do well as a supervisor, or fireground commander.

You must want to help others if you are to be an effective leader. Further, you must like people. You must like to help them and want to see them succeed. I have learned the hard way that an inward focus really turns people off. Remember that turned-off people are not happy people. And unhappy people do not enjoy their work; therefore, they do a bad job.

What are some of the traits you must assess within yourself? A short list would include:

  • Confidence in your abilities
  • Willingness to learn
  • Strength of character
  • Enthusiasm for the task at hand
  • The ability to speak, write and listen effectively
  • Knowledge of the fire protection field
  • A vision for yourself and your place in the world

The first on the list is critical. If you do not think you can do something, people will sense this ambivalence and you will fail. How would you like to follow an officer into battle who blows his whistle and yells, “Over the top, I guess.” And remember that leading by example works best.

You must always remain in search of knowledge. It is important to read books, attend seminars, conduct after-actions critiques and look for new facts wherever the opportunity presents itself. Your unwillingness to learn will manifest itself in a team that does not value knowledge. So in a negative way, the person who shuns knowledge also leads by example – bad example. Be proactive in your quest for knowledge.

Your entire reputation as a fire officer will rest on whether people sense in you a person with strong values. You must also display a dedication to those principles which guide your daily existence. Let me share with you those things which guided my personal and professional life for the past few decades.

  • Faith in God
  • Love of family
  • Loyalty to my men
  • Honesty
  • Determination to get a bit better every day
  • A sense of self-discipline, for how can you ask people to do something you cannot display yourself

If you can live by such things, your people will come to understand who you are. When they know that their trust and faith in you will always be repaid, they will literally go over the top with you.

One of my cardinal rules is to never ask a person to do something that I would not do myself or have not done in the past. People will trust you and work harder for you if they know that you do not speak with “forked-tongue.” So for me it is a strength of character which I believe lies at the root of who and what I am as a fire service leader.

Above all, be enthusiastic about what you do. Some of my favorite role models in the fire service could have given lessons to Tom Sawyer on how to get people to white-wash a picket fence. Just being in the presence of people like this made you want to do what they were doing. Oddly enough, these were also individuals who enjoyed being around people, and that showed too. It is tough to get psyched up over a dirty job. But if you can, so will your people. Enthusiasm is contagious, so catch some.

As to my skills as a communicator, well, I try. Many who have known me for years feel that I am an effective communicator, within all of the disciplines. They should talk to my wife. So many of my problems at home go back to my admission to being a poor listener. Let me assure you that there is always a corollary to being a poor listener. Chances are good that if you cannot listen and miss something, you will overlook the proper response. This leads to the old “you never tell me anything” scenario. Be warned. If you aren’t listening enough, then you might not be talking enough. These two problems go hand in hand.

Once you come to know yourself, you have to learn about your job. You must study fire protection, emergency medicine, hazard materials response, or burn prevention, OR whatever your discipline might be. How can you tell people what to do (or prevent them from doing the wrong thing) if you do not know what to do yourself? As one who has been in the business for over thirty years, I am here to tell you that you really do learn something new every day. But only if you are sharp enough to keep your eyes open. It took me a long time to learn this fact. Trust me, it is true.

Lastly you must develop a vision for yourself and your place in the world. For some people it might be very expansive. These are the people who are driven to ever-higher levels of achievement. For others, it is possible that the urge to scale the heights is not as great as yours. But these people can be just as successful in their own right. And they may well be a lot happier.

The key is to define your place in the world, and then strive to achieve it. On those days when I was a bit upset with things at work in Newark, NJ, I used to like to pause and ponder. How many people are out there who would literally kill to be a battalion chief in a major fire department? And there they were paying me to do a job that you do as your hobby at home, something you have wanted to do since you were a kid. I suggested that I need to wake up and enjoy God’s Grace.

Let me assure you that it is important to have goals and aspirations. But let me suggest that you must reconcile these with the reality of your life and your world. For you see, it is from that distillation of what you want and what you are capable of doing, that a real vision of what you might actually do is created. Remember, how can you reach the moon if you don’t occasionally shoot for the stars?

It is my hope that this column has given you a bit of insight into what you need to know to succeed as a fire officer. For if you do not know, you will never go. Or if you do go without the knowledge, people could die.

Above all remember that you are a servant of the people placed in your care. If you hold them in low esteem and treat them like dirt, it will show. Likewise, a sincere concern, demonstrated in a consistent manner will be rewarded. Remember the Golden Rule and you will do well as an officer. Ignore it at your own peril.

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