25 Common Mistakes Made by New Fire Officers

Feb. 20, 2006
As a rule, firefighters making the transition to officer are usually not given the proper training and tools necessary to becoming a successful manager.

Traditionally, the fire service does not do a very good job or preparing its members for making the transition to becoming a fire officer. In most departments, the process merely entails "riding the seat" where making tactical decisions is the primary expectation of that person for a finite amount of time. During this period, the "sticky" problems of management are usually either ignored or "put on the back burner" until the regular officer returns to deal with it.

It has been my experience that this is not an uncommon occurrence. Most newly christened fire officers are literally "baptized by fire", not only at emergency incidents, but also when dealing with management related situations as well. As a rule, firefighters making the transition to officer are usually not given the proper training and tools necessary to becoming a successful manager.

In his book, Common Sense Supervision, Roger V. Fulton outlines the common mistakes most often made by a new supervisor. Please think of situations that you have encountered as I attempt to align these mistakes with the everyday complexities associated with fire service management. If you are a new or possibly a seasoned fire officer, look within, are you making some of these mistakes?

  1. Makes changes for the sake of change - Most of us are afraid of change. On the other side of the coin, there are those that like to shake things up on a daily basis. This type of supervisor is an advocate for most any kind of change. The majority of the time, they are not willing to do the homework necessary to gauge if a major change is actually warranted and plausible. Basically, if it sticks OK, if not, we'll try something else. The fire service certainly needs to embrace innovative change for the better, but only after careful forethought and adequate planning.

Immediately makes drastic changes in discipline or procedure - There's a new Sheriff in town (the new officer with a shiny new gold badge), and here's how we are going to do it now! Sound familiar? Most of us have experienced this scenario at one time or another. As previously stated, a change may actually be warranted, however, a new officer would be wise to be patient, make sound evaluations and subsequent decisions not based on hearsay. Then and then only should necessary changes be made.

Was unable to effectively deal with people - Every fire officer position requires interaction with people, with both firefighters and the public. It is imperative that we give this person the communication skills that they will need to effectively do the job and portray the fire department in a professional manner. A departmental sponsored communication class would certainly be of benefit to all members.

Failed to take charge - The ability to assume a leadership position is literally implied (or should be) when you assume the role of a fire officer. Is this always the case? Is this a skill that can be taught? A fire officer does not have the luxury of not taking charge when it is uncomfortable or not convenient. Does your department's officer training program effectively address this critical element? If not, is it possible for a struggling new officer to be placed "under someone's wing" for some one on one instruction?

Made serious administrative errors - When this happens, someone has to clean up the mess that this person's either action or a lack thereof, directly or indirectly caused. Did this person not know or simply not care? Training (or possibly discipline) may be in order to bring this person up to speed. Paperwork, ever how dreary and time consuming must be accurate, timely and complete.

Tried to be "one of the guys" - Once promoted, an officer is no longer one of the guys. This person has been entrusted with a managerial role, and sooner of later, will be tried by one of their buddies. Every fire officer must understand that they have a job to do and they are expected do it.

Did subordinates job for them - Many subordinates will gladly let you do their job for them. A fire officer's job is to supervise and assist when needed when your prescribed duties allow. If a team member does not know the proper way to do something, they should be correctly shown how or referred to departmental SOP's for further guidance.

Failed to delegate - As the work piles on, the new officer will eventually learn to do delegate. Again, their primary job is to manage. In reality, a good officer should always be training someone to take their place. Delegation of duties is a natural way to accomplish this task.

Gave no positive reinforcement to subordinates - An officer (new or old or in-between) simply cannot do the job alone. The most effective officers take the time necessary to praise their people when they do something right or go beyond what is normally respected. A little personal attention will pay huge dividends somewhere down the line.

Had an inconsistent approach to problems - Did you ever work for the company officer that brought their problems to work with him or her? This person goes around half-cocked all of the time; you never know what the outcome will be when a crisis appears. This is not a fun person to be around, is it? A wild-card officer should be dealt with early in their career.

Failed to listen to subordinates - Would we ever learn anything if we did not listen? A good officer will practice "active listening" on a regular basis, and they may be actually surprised by what they hear (and learn) from their crew.

Failed to solicit input from subordinates - A good company operates as a team. A wise officer will actually solicit input from the crew. When this happens, an officer that involves the entire team will operate more effectively and safely.

Showed favoritism to subordinates - Have you ever seen favorites played in your department? I would imagine the answer is yes for most of you. How did you feel when this happened? Favoritism is not the mark of a good fire officer.

Failed to motivate subordinates - Remember the two kinds of leaders ? the positive one and the negative one? Which one do you want to work with? A good fire officer will stand behind departmental values and never trash-talk the department.

Didn't address problems of subordinates - Firefighters are human and have problems like anyone else. We spend a great deal of time together and can usually tell when something is not right among one of us. A good officer will show genuine concern for those under them and assist when allowed to do so.

Failed to make timely decisions - Incident decisions are usually timely by necessity; can the same be said for non-emergency related decisions? Unresolved issues are a constant weight that will eventually drag you down. A decisive officer will prioritize prevailing issues and then deal with them, one at time.

Failed to effectively utilize time - Procrastination is a very bad word, and a most effective stumbling block to good management. Officers must learn to take advantage of any slow times, marking things off the list. Ideally, they should anticipate problems and get ahead of the game.

Lacked communication skills - The ability to speak and write is imperative to success in any organization. Community colleges are an excellent place to hone your writing and speaking abilities. The modern fire officer simply cannot advance without a foundation built upon basic communication skills; this small investment in your personnel will pay huge dividends for both the individual and the department.

Did not know contents of required paperwork - This is a training issue that should be addressed before someone is promoted. Once promoted, a fire officer will be expected to generate accurate departmental specified reports. Good data is essential to adequate departmental funding, which ultimately affects everyone.

Failed to foster positive interdepartmental relations - A fire officer represents the department, and their support is mandated - not requested. If a wrong is noted, they should work through the system to make a positive change. They should never resort to being a negative leader.

Failed to document positive and negative activities of subordinates - Evaluations of subordinates is not always a pleasant job, but it is your job. A good officer will perform evaluations fairly and consistently and always document everything.

Gave only negative criticism - How does this approach work with you, not a very effective motivator is it? What's the old adage "scold in private, praise in public"? A good motivator will give praise as quickly as they would offer criticism.

Failed to deal with problems immediately - Have you ever had a tooth ache leave, never to return? Problems do not go away. The best approach is deal with them as soon as possible. It will be one more thing that is not piled on the plate.

Didn't know when to seek advice from or to advise superiors of problems - A good officer will anticipate problems and will not wait for something to blow up in their face. If help is needed they should ask for it, the sooner the better. As stated above, problems do not go away, they just become bigger.

Lacked knowledge of labor laws, contracts or procedures - We now live in a litigious society, a lack of labor laws and departmental Sop's can get any fire officer into big trouble; ignorance of the law is no excuse. It is the department's responsibility to make sure that their manager (fire officers) understands the law and they do not discriminate against anyone.

Being a supervisor in any profession will challenge anyone at one time or another. The role of a fire service manager is probably more demanding than most traditional positions. Mr. Fulton's' list is quite extensive; for comparative purposes, I am sure that most of you can apply your personal experience and observations to the 25 Common Mistakes list. If you are currently a fire officer or aspire to be, you may be wise to look over this list from time to time. Don't be guilty of making these 25 mistakes, at least not all of them. You may not be able to change the fire department, but you can change yourself.

Source: Fulton, Roger V. Common Sense Supervision. 1998. Appendix 3. Page 80.

Dave Murphy retired as Assistant Chief of the Richmond (KY) Fire Department. He is an Assistant Professor in the Fire & Safety Engineering Technology program located at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Recently been named as Eastern Director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association, he also serves as the Health & Safety Officer for the Harrisburg (NC) Fire Department.

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