Apparatus & Equipment, Firefighting, Leadership

Core Values of Commonsense Leadership

By Jim Mason

Fireground leadership requires commonsense core values that should guide the officer’s decision making during the preresponse when the crew is preparing at the firehouse and on the fireground when the officer must make decisions. The leader’s ultimate goal must be the team’s safety and success. The first commonsense value is that an officer must be personally prepared to lead on the fireground.

What other commonsense values do we need to ensure that everyone goes home? I learned one of these a values several years ago from some very accomplished members of the Chicago (IL) Fire Department.

As a firefighter, I got together with a few other firefighters to break down and understand the mountains of paper referenced in an upcoming lieutenant’s test. In addition to test takers, two retired department members showed up for the meetings to keep us on track, Battalion Chief Dan McGowen and Lieutenant Ed Carone Sr. These two men were the best fire instructors that any student could ask for; both had many decades of firefighting experience and could always find an appropriate story to illustrate their answers to any questions about the job.

One day, Chief McGowen said to us: “You guys are good, but you’ll never invent anything-it’s all been done before.” He then told us an “old days” story about a firefighter he was assigned with many years ago who would not stop bragging about a new car he had recently bought. “This car is great. You guys should be so lucky to have one,” he would say. The other firefighters at this house finally decided to “fix” this endless chatter.

In those days, when the fuel truck came around to the firehouses, it carried both diesel for the fire apparatus and gasoline for the chief’s cars. Back then, firefighters stationed at the firehouses could buy gasoline from the deliveryman when he thought it would not all be needed on his trip.

For the first month or so, the other members of the company would buy a few gallons of gas from the fuel truck and secretly put it into the tank of this firefighter’s new automobile. Well, the bragging only got worse. “I’ve had this car for weeks and I haven’t even put a drop of gas into it yet. What a purchase I made!” the firefighter in question would say.

After this became old, every workday they would siphon a few gallons of gasoline out of his tank. When the culprits asked him how the new car was doing, the firefighter would rant, “I don’t know what happened to this damned thing! It used to get great mileage and now I need to fill it up every other day!” After hearing this story, we students all agreed that it was a very inventive payback for all the bragging, and we also admitted that none of us had thought of it before! Although the idea was new to us, it was not really a new idea.

The question is, do today’s leaders try to reinvent the wheel? Many modern fire problems are similar to ones faced years ago, for which a solution may already have been found. A good leader should know in a given situation, what has worked before and what didn’t. Even if we have never encountered this specific situation before arrival, our knowledge of past fires can aid us in assessing the scene and make effective decisions on what to do.

For example, consider the building with the classic bowstring truss roof that is exposed to fire. Even if you have never seen this before personally, with some understanding of how firefighters fought these fires in the past, wouldn’t your decision making be better informed? Of course! This situation is not much different today than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Studying past incidents of this type would be valuable.


(1) This bowstring truss-covered building is 100 years old. Is it possible it is any less dangerous when fire is exposing the roof assembly than when it was built? Officers must learn the dangers and be ready to lead for the 2 a.m. fire response. Photo by
Steve Redick. Click to enlarge

Avoid learning by trial and error, especially if lesson have already been learned. How? Talk to older officers who are still working in the department; ask them for the specifics of how they succeeded in past situations. What were the make-or-break decisions in certain fire responses? Remember, the classic priorities for the officers in those days are still the same today: firefighter safety; civilian life; and property.

But don’t end your studies there. Fires that occurred in other parts of the country may also resemble situations that you will encounter today; often, homegrown experience is just not enough to keep you safe. Younger officers should gather and read everything available concerning past fireground responses. In many cases, although training budget cuts will make this a self-study course, a dedicated officer will do it.

Some of these fires are so special (or could be described as so frustrating) that they have influenced today’s entire fire service. Others may have points that apply to just one situation in your district. History should be repeated only if it the outcome was successful; learn from past mistakes that resulted in losses.

In many situations in the past, leaders would use the attack mode to save firefighters’ lives. In the past, experienced officers could say with strong certainty that for “this type of fire,” the resources were available to win the fight, whereas with “that type of fire,” the operation should be a defensive attack right from the start. This has a lot to do with the frequency of fires in years gone by, but our studies of these incidents will teach us when to go in and when to stay out. Our leaders must develop this decision making ability if we are going to stop the traumatic incidents seen in today’s fire service.

Jim Mason is 21-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant with the Chicago (IL) Fire Department.

Subjects: Leadership, learning from past incidents and fire service history