By Skip Coleman
My dad was a good dad. When I was very little, he spent time with me, teaching me how to ride a bike, hit a baseball, and swing a golf club. I am confident that there were literally thousands of other things he either taught me or introduced to me. He was provider, protector, and disciplinarian. It was his house, and his word was final. (Don't get me wrong. I came from a two-parent traditional family and, truth be told, Mom ran the house, but from the sidelines. She was the solid steady foundation of the family; she never faltered and was always there to bandage the knee and kiss the cheek.)
I have had the good fortune to have read a lot of fire service management and leadership articles over the past 17 years. Most of them were very cerebral and filled with theories and litanies of dos and don'ts and steps required to attain the perfect fire company. But let's simplify things. Leadership in the fire service in its simplest form is like a parent/child relationship. It's truly a family affair.
At the head of the family is the parental figure. This, at the company level, is the company officer. He is the "provider" for the family (the crew). He writes the requisitions for the tools and equipment needed to perform the tasks. The parental figure also teaches valuable lessons to young firefighters early in their "developmental" years. "Stick with me, kid" has been said by hundreds of thousands of officers since Peter Stuyvesant, the New Amsterdam governor, appointed four men to act as fire wardens in 1648. The officer takes them under his wing and makes sure they know how to fly before kicking them out of the nest.
The parental figure is also the disciplinarian of the crew. Perhaps this is the toughest aspect of parenting. Most parents want their children to love them. Most officers want to be liked. But a parent's job is not only to provide for and teach--it is also to "correct" when needed.
From the articles I have read and by watching my parents, I have learned two things: (1) Discipline can be positive and negative and (2) progressive discipline works best (most of the time).
There is good and bad to almost everything. It's great to be an officer, have rank, and make a few more bucks every two weeks, but there are some responsibilities that go with the bars on the collar.
Almost everyone dislikes being the "bad" guy. Children dislike it when dad sends them to bed at 9:00 p.m. They don't like having to eat spinach or come in when the street lights come on. Firefighters don't like it when they are told to clean their fire gear or to polish the brass. There are ways to get children to eat spinach and ways to get clean, shiny brass in the station.
Personalities come into play here. Dan Kerr was an officer I worked with early in my career. We were both lieutenants in a double company near downtown. He could discipline and correct with humor. I tried it and fell flat on my face. We had a battalion chief who was always mean and snarly and enforced every rule to the letter. He actually was a pleasure to work for because you knew what it took to make him happy.
Speaking of "making him happy," here is another "family affair" lesson learned at a young age. Remember how it felt when you made your dad or mom happy--whether by picking up your room without being told or getting an "A" on a test. You did that, and the smile, pat on the head, or kiss on the cheek was way more than enough reword.
At a fire, in fact in any setting, your job as a firefighter is to make your officer happy. A company officer's job is to make the chief or incident commander (IC) happy. At a fire, the IC gives you a job (attack, ventilation, search, or something.) Your goal should be to do that job to the best of your ability and make the IC happy. Again, when the chief is happy, everyone is happy! When the chief is mad, there can be hell to pay!
Parents are also the protectors. For a non-officer, it is hard to fathom the depth of responsibility required to send crews into a burning building. As an IC--whether for five minutes until the chief arrives or for the duration of the fire--you must have a method of determining when it is safe and when it is not safe to allow crews to operate inside a burning building. You had better have cues or yardsticks in your mind as to when to pull them out if the fire or building starts to go south.
As a company officer, do you have any idea of the responsibility of leading crews inside burning buildings? As I teach across the country, I at some point ask the officers if they know what their fire gear is "rated" with regard to heat. What do they do to know if it's starting to get too hot inside? (The clothing manufactures will tell you that if you are getting "hot" inside your bunker gear, it's getting very close to being "too hot," and you and your crew are at that point officially "in trouble".) I usually follow this question with what are they doing to ensure that the floor assembly they and their crew are crawling on is still safe from failure because of heat or fire. In "scary" situations, children look to their parents to protect them and direct them out or away from danger (such as a situation in which they are being charged by an angry dog). Officer, guess who your crew members depend on to keep them safe?
Last, let's address the "F" word--freelancing! I remember watching my father "watch" my brother when we were out in the backyard. My brother is seven years younger than I. About that time, he was out and actually playing outside with neighbor kids. He was three, and I was 10.
Dad would give Kevin instructions on what to do and what not to do. He included where he could go and where he couldn't go. He taught Kevin how to cross the street to go play with the kids on the other side of the street by stopping at the curb and looking both ways and then "walking" across while scanning from side to side--all the little lessons of growing up.
I particularly watched my father's reactions when Kevin would not do as he was told or would go to the other side of the street when told to stay on our side. The first violation brought a gentle but stern reminder; subsequent violations brought more pronounced reinforcement of the rules. Kevin didn't like the rules, but dad knew the importance of following the rules; someday, Kevin would get it and understand the importance of living in an orderly world. Kevin learned there were always consequences for actions, whether they were positive or negative.
Company officers, too, must enforce the rules and not allow subordinates to violate rules, policies, or procedures--or engage in freelancing. Freelancing is one of the dirty little secrets of the fire service. We all know it goes on, and we rarely do anything about it.
You wouldn't let your child play with fire, leave the house without permission, or play on the computer when he or she was supposed to be doing homework. Then why would an officer allow a crew member to not wear the required protective clothing or leave the officer and other crew members and wander off alone in a fire building? Just remember that your crew doesn't really like you. You are a necessary evil just as a parent is to a 15-year-old. How many of your crew members sent you a Christmas card or said "Happy Birthday," let alone get you a card or small gift on your birthday? Your job is to provide for, teach, and protect your crew members, not to be liked. If you can do both, then you are an officer with a rare gift.
Regardless of rank, being an officer in the fire service is exactly like parenting. It's a responsibility that is not to be taken lightly. Maintaining order and discipline on and off the fireground demands commitment, consistency, and control. Lead as a parent. Teach, praise, encourage, maintain order, and reward. It's not complicated or filled with a lot of leadership theories. It's merely a "family affair" that requires a lot of parental guidance.
John "Skip" Coleman Fire Engineering; a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board; and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997), Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008) and Searching Smarter (Fire Engineering 2011) and 2011 recipient of the FDIC Tom Brennan Lifetime Achievement retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering.