Supervision 101

By Carl Meyer

There are two phrases that, when I hear them come out of a supervisor’s mouth, make me cringe: “Because I’m the boss” and “Sometimes you have to remind the men who the boss is.” Usually, nothing good comes before or after one of these declarations. Of course, a list of these statements can be greatly expanded. Supervision is neither easy nor is it for everyone. Being the responsible one is not always a bargain, but it is why you get the “big bucks.”

You will have to make some very difficult decisions that may have serious consequences on the fireground. Although this fireground decision making is vitally important, most of your decisions will be made back at the firehouse. These decisions range from deciding the days training to helping a firefighter get through a family emergency and everything in between. You have to be the go-to guy for your company; expect that to be your role and accept it and you will be headed in the right direction.

I have been on both sides of the supervisor/subordinate relationship during my career in volunteer and career settings. An old-timer told me years ago that it if I aspired to be a supervisor, it would serve me well to pay close attention to my own supervisors. Take note of the qualities that you respect as well as those with which you may not agree. Emulate the good qualities, and always do your best to make sure not to repeat the bad ones. This was great advice, and I practice it to this day. Everything in life is a lesson, good and bad. Some good old common sense is all that is required. 

When deciding what exactly to write about regarding to supervision, I wrote down the following words: reasonable/levelheaded, consistent, fair, realistic, and concerned. These are the qualities that I believe make a good supervisor. They aren’t listed in any particular order, as situations may vary. Let’s look closer at what each word means and how it pertains to quality supervision.

Reasonable/Levelheaded. These are defined as “having or showing sound judgment.” Be the voice of reason. Make sound judgments and decisions to the best of your ability. Don’t yell and scream on the fireground; many bad things come from yelling and screaming because, first and foremost, you are not instilling confidence in the members of your company. If their leader is hooting and hollering, they may not believe that you have it “together.” It’s unprofessional. The public doesn’t need to hear a rant, and it doesn’t lead them to believe things are going to work out for the best. Remember, we get called when things aren’t going well. When we arrive on scene, we want to give the public a feeling of relief.

Back at the firehouse, when dealing with supervisory issues, maintain the same decorum. We’ve all had the type of boss that likes to scream. I always kept them in the “never act like him” category as I came through the ranks. To me, yellers and screamers seemed to be trying to overcome their shortcomings by being abrasive and loud. They tried to lead by intimidation, and I’m sure we all can agree that that probably is not the best way to supervise.

Another time-tested adage that should always be used by supervisors is “praise in public, criticize in private.” Along the same line, try not to make important decisions when you are angry. In this line of work we don’t always have the luxury of sitting back and pondering the situation before you react but when we do we should. I don’t usually make great decisions when I’m angry and I always try my best to calm myself before acting. “Serenity now!” as Frank Costanza said; it usually serves me well.

Consistent. This is defined as “Marked by harmony, regularity, or steady continuity: free from variation or contradiction.” Always try and be consistent in your behavior and decision making. The members of your company will work more efficiently if they know how their boss rolls. Although this may seem simple and obvious, it is not always the case. Here, your own personal state of mind and well being may come into play. This is one of the tricky parts of being the boss. You need to control your personal feelings as best you can and keep them in a place so they don’t interfere with your ability to lead. If this becomes too difficult for any one of a multitude of reasons, deal with it in a safe and beneficial way. Don’t let it effect you’re ability to make reasonable, sound decisions. This may not always be easy. You owe it to those in your charge to be consistent. It sets the rules and lets them know what is expected.

I’m a huge baseball fan. Umpires have different strike zones. If the umpire is consistent in his strike zone, you really can’t complain. If low and away is a strike throughout the game and you don’t adjust, shame on you. Be consistent as a supervisor and it will serve you well.

Fair. This is defined as “Marked by impartiality and honesty, free from self interest, prejudice, or favoritism.” This should be self explanatory. All members of your company should be treated the same way. Another negative catch phrase may come into the picture here, “Do as I say, not as I do.” This counterproductive, poor supervision mantra usually manifests itself in an action or inaction rather than a statement. Always remember that department policies and rules apply to all. If the members of the company see their supervisor taking shortcuts and not following department policy, they may do so as well. It is important to lead by example.

Another valuable piece of advice I received was that, if you’re going to be a “stickler” for the “small stuff,” make sure your own “stuff” is in order.

Realistic. This is defined as “Concern for fact or reality and rejection of the impractical.” Be realistic in your expectations. When you assign duties, realize your member’s capabilities. Know the members of your company and know what they can or cannot do. In departments where staffing is an issue, don’t expect a two-person crew to do the work of a five- or six-person crew; that’s just not being realistic. Train realistically and stick to the basics. Realistic goals can be achieved.

Concerned. This is defined as “Interested.” Care about your people! The fire service is unique because we live together; getting along is vital. Some may not feel that this is a priority, but I strongly believe that it is. If we don’t, it will make for a long shift. It also may carry over to the fireground and prove to be counterproductive.

A good supervisor cares about those in his charge. He knows all about the members of his company as well as their families and their interests. He cares. Subordinates notice this. When subordinates know that their boss cares about them, they may be inclined to work harder and be more conscientious in approaching their duties. It makes the unit more cohesive and therefore more effective. Again, this just seems to make sense.

A boss that cares is more approachable and easier to communicate with. Both of these factors are tremendous assets and go a long way to making a cohesive unit. It can help in preventing mole hills becoming mountains. It also helps company members that may be experiencing personal problems to reach out for help.

With all this being said, supervisors still must be supervisors. They are personally responsible for the operations of their assigned company. When a part of their unit is not operating properly or at full efficiency, something must be done to correct the malfunction. The typical supervisor/subordinate relationship doesn’t really exist at a company level. As I stated previously, the fact that we live together adds a dynamic that changes the situation drastically. Good supervisors must learn to operate within this unique relationship. They must be able to balance the relationship effectively.

Find a role model. Find that boss that you respect and understand. Model yourself after him. It may be just one person, or you can take from several supervisors and use those lessons for yourself.

It’s 2013; there probably isn’t much reason to reinvent the wheel. If there are supervisory techniques out there that are working, use them. Develop your own style, but take some assistance when you can; it may very well make the transition to supervisor easier. Welcome dissenting opinions. This may be a bitter pill for some to swallow, but think about I; if you listen to dissenting opinions with an open mind, one of two things will happen: You might learn something or your original thought may be reinforced. Neither one of these results is bad. Be humble and don’t take yourself too seriously. Never forget where you came from. Think before you speak. Once it’s out there, you can’t take it back. Be a mentor to new firefighters. Use your senior members and encourage them to mentor new firefighters as well. Most of all, keep learning! If the point ever comes (and I hope it doesn’t) that you feel you know everything there is to know, it’s time to throw in the towel.


Carl Meyer is a 32-year fire service veteran and a lieutenant with Horry County (SC) Fire Rescue. He is a former 2nd deputy chief at the Nassau County (NY) Fire Service Academy and a former chief of the Seaford (NY) Fire Department.

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