Effective Chief Fire Officer Behaviors

Do you ever shake your head at what your fire personnel say or do? Does firefighter behavior continue to stupefy you and deny plausible explanation? If you feel a little exasperated with the myriad behaviors of today’s firefighters, take stock that there are strategies for coping and handling your employees. As an executive fire officer today you need to be a quasi-psychologist, sociologist and at times even a Marine Corps drill sergeant to understand behaviors and motivate your firefighters.

The secret to all of this may lie in your approach. That is, in order to understand your firefighters, you must learn to see through their eyes. This article examines several situations that prove to be problematic for senior staff in terms of employee behavior and motivation. But with an understanding of what motivates employees, executive fire officers may develop better motivational methods. Insights are provided in a point/counterpoint format.

Situation 1

A veteran firefighter with more than 25 years of experience has withdrawn from active involvement in fire department operational issues and now does as little as possible. It is baffling to understand why his behavior has changed so drastically but you are tasked with bringing him back to participating in moving the department forward.

Point: The typical and traditional approach to this situation would be from a “command and control” standpoint. That entails having a supervisor telling the subordinate to “shape up” and show some initiative. The expectation is that authoritative words alone will motivate the firefighter enough and immediate improvement will be seen. All of this may even be after a short meeting with the supervisor doing all of the talking and the subordinate doing all of the cowering. The ultimate goal of this type of motivation is to intimidate and use the power of rank and position to get the firefighter back on track. After all, an experienced and knowledgeable firefighter should show leadership by being involved in fire department operations and the supervisor is the one who sees that happen. This approach works in the military as well as in the fire service.

Counterpoint: Something is going on in this firefighter’s life that has profoundly changed his level of commitment to the organization. Perhaps a family or personal situation such as an illness or a divorce is weighing heavy on his mind and consuming the energy that you want him to put into the organization. If this is the case, listening and providing support and understanding to this firefighter should be your priority. We would not expect this firefighter to re-engage in the organization until he finds resolution in his personal life. Perhaps the firefighter has grown beyond the realm of the organization and has found new interests (music, motorcycles, etc.) that have captured her interest and she is now consumed in the pursuit of new knowledge. Again, beyond communication and understanding, there may not be much that you’re going to be able to do to re-ignite this person’s verve for the organization.

However, there may be another explanation that’s well within your control and hits a lot closer to home. Namely, the problem may be the organization itself. Perhaps this firefighter has grown tired of an organization where his contribution to the decision-making process is neither solicited nor desired. Perhaps he doesn’t agree with the direction in which the department is moving. If this is the case, what is the firefighter’s motivation to promote further forward movement?

Finally, ask yourself what is the contribution you’re looking for from your veteran firefighters. Are you are looking for someone to help define the vision and goals of the organization or merely be a cheerleader to promote and sell your goals. If it’s the latter, you’re reaping what you’ve sown. In your search for the answers, make sure you’re willing to look as closely at yourself as you are at others. In all cases, open and courageous conversations between you and your people will provide the answers and begin to get the organization back on track.

Situation 2

Very few qualified fire personnel have applied for a lieutenant promotional. While there are multiple openings for lieutenant in the next several years, it appears most personnel are content to stay in their current positions. Your task is to rectify this situation and motivate personnel to enter the promotional.

Point: Career is the number-one priority and motivated personnel should strive to compete for promotions. Not only will they enjoy more pay, they will be responsible for supervising others and ensuring that the goals of the organization are fulfilled. As first-level officers, they will also be expected to follow the orders of their commanders and have a firm understanding of how the organization operates. All of these things should appeal to people who want to climb the ladder of success. Commanding officers must make these appeals to qualified personnel and motivate them to prepare for promoted positions.

Counterpoint: Because you grew up in a generation that puts career first, you’re asking yourself, “What’s wrong with these people? This is a prime opportunity to be a leader in this organization.” Who’s right and who’s wrong is all a matter of perspective. These people have seen the added stressors the organization places on today’s lieutenants and decided they want nothing to do with it. Their preference is to come to work, do their shift and leave the problems of the organization at the station, just as they do their fire gear. Sounds inviting, doesn’t it?

We recently finished our fourth year of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program. As part of our last class, we were challenged to look at the four spheres of our lives (career, family, community and faith) and how we balance our time between them. While it was easy to describe in great detail what we were doing to support and advance our careers, it proved difficult and eye-opening to do the same in the other three spheres. So, do we advocate everyone just sitting back and enjoying the ride? After all, when all is said and done, we need someone to lead the organization. The answer, of course, is no. Both sides must do a little soul-searching and take a long hard look at themselves and the organization to find the answer.

If you’re sitting back and letting others bear the load of leadership, consider this: the organization will have leaders regardless of your decision to lead or not. This is an important point to remember if you’re one of those enjoying life while your lieutenant toils. Keep in mind that if you don’t step up and lead, somebody will lead you and that somebody may be a person you’re not thrilled about following. When this happens, you’re going to be miserable, no matter what. And you can bet that those problems you’ve been leaving in your locker with your fire gear will no longer fit. They will be coming home with you and affecting virtually every facet of your personal life.

If you’re the chief of this organization, maybe it’s time to for you to take a look at your own spheres of life. Are you spending all of your time in the career quadrant and is that being reflected in your expectations of your people? Are you creating a work environment for your officers that firefighters envy and would like to be part of? Finding the answers to these questions is not easy, but the solutions will pay lifelong dividends.

Situation 3

A general malaise has fallen on your fire department and personnel seem to want to do as little as possible. Visible signs of their lack of motivation include ignoring housekeeping duties, slower turnout times and a reduced number of training drills. Your task is to reverse this situation and create a dynamic work environment with motivated employees.

Point: This situation is totally unacceptable and strong leadership will correct it as soon as possible. These employees are paid to do a job and they must understand this obligation, unless they don’t want to accept their paychecks. That should be enough motivation to reverse this dynamic and it is up to commanding officers to make this fact crystal clear. Company officers also must be held accountable and a rapid turnaround should be expected by commanding officers. After all, a tight ship entails clean equipment, stations and response vehicles along with personnel who are quick to do their jobs when duty calls. Anything less is a betrayal of public trust.

Counterpoint: If you’re the chief, here’s a little challenge for you – next time you’re walking through the station, ask your firefighters to explain to you (in their own words) what the department’s mission and vision statements mean to them. Our guess is that if the conditions above describe your department, you’ll be met with blank stares or maybe a canned statement like “to protect and serve.” What’s that you say? Your department doesn’t have a vision or mission statement? We just found your starting point.

Vision and mission statements are vital tools for all organizations. Just as it implies, the vision statement describes the organization’s vision or view for the future – where the organization would like to go. The mission statement is a statement of the organization’s purpose – what it will take to achieve its vision. Finally, a values statement outlines the organization’s core beliefs – the culture and behaviors that support the organization's vision and mission.

This is all pretty straightforward, right? Here’s the most important part. For them to be effective, they have to be a SHARED set of vision, mission and values. If you’re going to put forth the time and effort (and it is well worth the time and effort), make sure they are developed with input from all stakeholders – including your firefighters. It’s not enough to just hang a sign in the day room to communicate the organization’s vision, mission and values; they must be internalized by all members of the organization and used to drive all decisions (not a quick or easy task). Finally, specific goals must be in place to ensure the organization meets its mission and continually moves toward its vision. Make sure the progress toward these goals is being monitored and measured to gauge the organization’s progress. Just as in the other two situations, the journey begins with some open and courageous conversations between firefighters and management. Sense a common theme here?


Today’s workforce is motivated differently from that of a generation or two ago and the astute fire officer not only recognizes that, but takes action by making well-thought-out adjustments. In the strategies above, the “point” opinions take the traditional approach of “you will do as you are told.” This one-sided method of leading an organization has been used over the years exhaustively, and sadly is still being used too often. The “counterpoint” opinions take a more humanistic approach to employee motivation and behavior. This two-sided method relies on respectful communications where people strive to understand others first. In doing so, this method is most effective in getting personnel involved and contributing to the organization. People will respond if they are dealt with as partners, or collaboratively, when it comes to participating in the goals of the organization. The secret, then, for today’s modern executive fire officer is to look at personnel more as stakeholders and unleash their innate resources in the pursuit of your own organizational success.

The next article in this series will look at methods of employee motivation through the effective and appropriate use of sources of power, all while being true and consistent with your organization’s vision, mission and values.

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