The Difference Between Leaders & Title-Holders in the Volunteer Fire Service

Todd Branche explains the difference between officers who want to lead and officers who just want the title.

Branche Head Shot

I started my official volunteer career on June 17, 1982, with the Poquonnock Bridge Volunteer Fire Company #1 in Groton, CT, although I had been around the firehouse as a child with my father, so my real entry into the fire service started much earlier. In the years since then, I have been a member of two other volunteer departments and held numerous positions within the companies, both as line officers and in administrative positions. It’s been through the course of these experiences that I have observed the differences that people bring to their respective positions.

Leaders vs. title-holders

Many of those accepting or being elected to a position do so with good intent and a desire to make things better. These are the people I refer to as “Leaders.” They accept responsibility with eyes wide open and work to improve things along the way. They listen to the people they serve, the members, and respond to whatever they face. At times, they are required to handle tough issues and do so with the good of the department in mind. These are the people who act selflessly and give credit along the way. No one person can be successful on their own making true changes and improvements for the overall good. It takes a team, and a true leader is also a good team-builder. They seek out the strong points of those around them and utilize those people to produce a strong department both around the station and at emergency scenes.

Then there are the “Title-Holders.” These people can be dangerous. Title-holders are only looking for recognition and respect, with no real intentions to make positive changes. These people may have gone through formal training, been around the department a few years and usually participate just enough to be noticed. Once in a position of authority, you will see them fade and not be as vocal, as they actually don’t have the real ability or true desire to fulfill the position they accepted. They got there with a “check the box” type of attitude and may have even met the minimum criteria for that position. They only wanted to SAY that they are the lieutenant or captain or chief. Respect does not just get bestowed upon anyone by simply accepting a spot. It must be earned, and once they figure that out, they are usually done and ride out the term of position or resign.

There are a select few title-holders who, after seeing the light and with a good mentorship, can be brought over to the “good side.” They may have only taken the positions for a title, but later discover that they do, in fact, want to be an effective leader. It’s true that some people are born leaders, but leadership can be learned and developed. For those people, it’s OK to accept the fact that it’s a hard road with speed bumps and pot holes along the way. Once they grasp the idea of self-improvement and follow through on becoming a better officer, they will start to become effective and, even more importantly, accepted as an officer.

Standards matter

It’s the duty of every volunteer firefighter to ensure that your department has minimum standards for officer positions. If your company, like most volunteer fire departments, holds elections of officers, make sure you vote for the candidate most likely to make positive change and, more importantly, have the safety of the members as a top priority. 

Nearly every department in the country requires their members to hold a National Standard Firefighter 1 certification as a minimum for structural firefighting. Similarly, require that your officers attain a level that your members deem acceptable for your department. While we look to the schedule of our local academy or fire school for training, it would be beneficial for those who wish to lead to obtain some management training as well. Things that relate to business also overlap into the fire service (e.g., harassment in the workplace, discrimination, how deal with difficult employees). Many fire officers do well operating at emergencies; it’s the non-emergent personnel and paperwork side that are their undoing. 

Keep learning

If while reading this, some sort of light went on, I hope you will follow through and make it brighter. The simple fact that you are reading it means you care and are looking for ideas to improve your craft. Always keep learning, attend seminars and read articles from those who are already walking the path you wish to follow.

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