Stepping Up: Initiative

By Ron Hiraki

Initiative is a quality we look for in people when we are selecting, training, or evaluating, especially when looking for people who will be in leadership positions such as instructors, coaches, or fire officers. Initiative is frequently a rating category in probationary or annual performance evaluations. Initiative is something we value in the fire service.

What is initiative? There are several good phrases from dictionary definitions that are applicable to the fire service. For our purposes, let's define initiative as taking action without being told. That action must be appropriate, done correctly, and welcomed by the organization, other members of the organization, or the public.

Think about the firefighter who believes that moving EMS kits from compartment #3 to compartment #7 will make it easier and faster to grab at an emergency call. The firefighter may be right and takes the initiative to move the EMS kits without communicating the idea or getting approval. For other firefighters, there is a delay and confusion as they "find" the EMS kits and question the change. The move may have been appropriate, but it was not done correctly or initially welcomed by the other firefighters.

A room and contents fire in a single-story house is quickly extinguished. There is no immediate urgency, and light smoke lingers throughout the house when a fire officer takes the initiative to get a ladder, enter the attic by way of the scuttle, and checks the attic for extension of fire on his own. However, the fire officer was not wearing self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and did not have a partner when he went inside. The fire officer's initiative is negated because he violated safety and fire department regulations.

These examples show initiative on the part of the individuals. However, if their actions create another problem, more work, or more explanation, the "cost" outweighs the value of initiative.

Some individuals learn or think of initiative as having the courage or drive to take action. Sometimes initiative does require courage. This is particularly true when one takes the initiative to lead or support something new, a change, or to be in the minority of a group or fire department issue.

Tread lightly around individuals who proclaim that they have the courage to push the limits, bend or break the rules, and "sell" this as initiative. These individuals may have more knowledge or experience and may also be willing to take a greater risk in terms of their career or reputation. If you are uncomfortable or know it's not quite right, then it is you who must take the initiative and have the courage to make changes or corrections. For these reasons, "appropriate," "done correctly," and "welcomed" must be part of the definition of initiative.

Probationary firefighters: Many probationary firefighters are instructed on the first day in the station to stick by the officer's side, observe, and do as the officer says. At some point, the probationary firefighter will learn the routine, demonstrate competency, and earn everyone's trust. Until that is achieved, many probationary firefighters are stymied from exercising initiative.

How can a probationary firefighter demonstrate initiative without violating the officer's first-day instructions? Probationary firefighters should learn the routine and then do tasks without being told or prompted. They should observe veteran firefighters doing their tasks. One of my coaches told me to be the first to start work and the last to quit. Additionally, he told me to demonstrate initiative by choosing to do the more difficult or least desirable task, such as picking up the heaviest equipment that was the farthest away or the biggest hose.

I used to tell the probationary firefighters that there was always some equipment or compartment on the apparatus that could be straightened or cleaned. If they saw something that needed to be done, do it. If they were not sure about doing it or how, they could always ask. Probationary firefighters can also demonstrate initiative by making an effort to learn or find an answer, and then ask for help if needed. Examples: "Cap, I've looked in all of the manuals and I still can't find how the xyz works." Or, "Cap, I have some questions about the use of foam." Or, "Cap, I was wondering if we could go look at some sprinkler systems so I could see some installations in person." 

Company Officers: I worked for a captain who did a lot to train and drill me. I learned a great deal from him early in my career. What he did for me could be considered normal duties or even an expectation. However, he made me feel like I was getting a little extra training. His initiative certainly motivated me to put forth a little more effort in my work.

Even when he wasn't engaged in some activity with the fire department or firefighters, he spent a lot of time in his office "cleaning house." He would go through all of the records and files, destroy those that could be destroyed, and move older records and files to the basement. The captain's initiative had a practical benefit. After a few months, it was a lot easier to find records and files and to file documents because the file drawers were not packed full.

For the company officer, initiative can be global and long-term like helping your firefighters get better at their jobs or prepare for the promotional exams, or it can be simple and mundane like clearing out the files. Company officers are "on stage" with their firefighters most of the working hours. Therefore, company officers can do the most to foster or stifle initiative. Company officers are often challenged to be leaders, yet still be part of the work group. Demonstrating initiative by helping the firefighters can be a wonderful way of accomplishing both.

Chief Officers: When I was an assistant chief, I had a young battalion chief who asked me if the fire chief told me what to do, or gave me orders. I told him "yes," of course, the fire chief assigned work to me or asked me to certain things. However, I explained that at this level, it was incumbent on me to take the initiative to look at our operations, programs, or functions and make changes to reduce problems or make improvements.

Chief officers working in administrative or divisional assignments have plenty of e-mails, phone calls, and meetings. Still, they have to take the initiative to examine operations, programs, or functions and make changes. Here initiative is leading and helping to make the change, not just finding a change to be made and delegating the work.

Battalion chiefs have the challenge of living in two worlds: 1) Their emergent world is to wait for a call, respond, and direct emergency incidents; 2) doing everything that's on their desk that day. The "waiting" and "doing" are conflicting actions and can be confusing. Even so, battalion chiefs have to take the initiative to be proactive and accomplish additional objectives. Those objectives do not have to be tangible items. Example: Battalion chiefs need to spend some conversational time with company officers and firefighters to get to know them, be the link in communications between the top and bottom, learn what's going on, support and help individuals.

Initiative is something we look for as subordinates, peers, supervisors, leaders, and as an organization. The practice of initiative requires some definition, discussion, and even training. Step up and set the example in demonstrating and role-modeling initiative. Look for, recognize and support initiative demonstrated by other people.

Ron Hiraki began his career as a firefighter in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, working in a variety of operational and administrative positions leading to his final assignment as assistant chief of employee development. Completing his career as an assistant chief for a small combination fire department, Hiraki has nearly 30 years of fire service experience in urban and suburban settings. He holds a Master of Science degree in human resources development, and is a consultant to number of public safety agencies for their selection and performance evaluation programs.

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