Suburban Firefighting: Two Powerful Leadership Tools, Part II

By Jerry Knapp

Leadership is a major topic in the firefighting community these days. In this pair of articles I deal with two important tools for leaders in the fire service. In Part I, I discussed the need for leaders to lead by example.


This is the second absolutely critical leadership task.

The officers of my company meet regularly and have generally productive meetings. We follow a written agenda pretty closely to ensure that we use the time wisely, don’t get off the track, and accomplish the goals we set.

A meeting not long ago, well, let’s say just got off the track. It was derailed actually, and I’ll spare the details. The bottom line is that the train (meeting) was derailed and burning furiously. The issue was that one officer had one priority, another officer had another priority, and a third officer had still another priority. All of these tasks were similarly important and needed to get done. In essence, we all had our pet rocks in the room. Since they are our pet rocks, ours is the most important and we’ll defend it to the “death.” In the end, nothing got done at the meeting, and as you may imagine, there was some other fallout from the meeting. None of us had any bad intentions, We all had good ideas, but we did not have a common course with priorities established for the organization that we could all agee on and help make it happen.

If you use the following process, you can chart a clear course, establish priorities, and get all of your leaders in agreement and pulling the same direction. At least once a year the senior leader at whatever level you are at--company, department, district--must get all his subordinate officers together for a brainstorming and prioritization meeting that will result in prioritizing actions for the organization. This charts the course for the next six months or year for the organization. The process then becomes easy.

Step #1.  Brainstorming

On a large piece of paper like a flip chart or white board, the leader or his scribe writes down everyone’s ideas for the goal of the next year (or half year). All ideas are written down without criticism.

Step #2. Ranking

The ideas or goals are then ranked. Each participant ranks them with a 1, 2, or 3 priority. The idea with the lowest score becomes the top priority. In the end, you have a simple chart that looks like the one below.

Table 1. Priority Chart































According to Table 1, goal A is the top priority--it has the lowest score; goal C is second priority; and goals C and D are the last priorities. You can obviously increase the number of leaders/people having input and the number of goals. 

The advantage to this simple process is that all those you want to have input into goal-setting and charting the course of the organization can do so. They will perceive, and rightly so, that their ideas were listened to and given a fair shot when competing with other ideas.

STEP #3. Adjust the priorities.

When the ranking is done, you may need to adjust the priorities based on funding or other issues. The rankings are not cast in concrete; they are guides to help you sort out what needs to be done first. 

When the final ranking is done and adjusted, the senior leader needs to make clear that these are his and the organizations goals for whatever period you select. The goals can then have time frames, budgets, and personnel assigned to them to make them reality.

Step #4. Publish the Results for Everyone 

For “doers” this process clearly defines the road ahead. It is a clear path to success that everyone can buy into. For leaders it is a great tool for establishing short- and long-term goals for the organization and to get input from subordinates, making them feel as a part of the process, and for effectively leading and supervising the organization in the short and long term.

JERRY KNAPP is the assistant chief for the Rockland County (NY) Hazmat Team and a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He is a 35-year veteran firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department, has a degree in fire protection, and was a nationally registered paramedic. Knapp is the plans officer for the Directorate of Emergency Services at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.

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