Firefighting, Leadership, Officer Development

Captain’s Corner: Three Questions

By Michael Hennigan

I begin every management class by asking three questions.

1. Do you love your job? If so, raise your hand.

I have taught management for the past 10 years to firefighters, lieutenants, and captains; eight to 10 classes per year; 20 to 35 students per class; students were from volunteer departments and large city-paid departments. I have never had any students who did NOT raise their hand. This is a pretty powerful statement regarding our profession. I would challenge anyone to find another occupation with half the job satisfaction. Don’t get me wrong. This does not mean that every firefighter will behave as though he loves the job. Any officer will attest to the fact that some firefighters act as if they are doing hard time, especially if they are asked to participate in a drill. It has been my experience that those who ought to be most grateful for this job are those who protest the most.

2. Why would anyone want to be an officer?

I ask this question to remind the officers why they made the effort and, hopefully, to give firefighters in the audience some reasons for seeking the promotion.

We then proceed to make a list:
 • Money: You will make more money when you are promoted because you will have more responsibility. Surprisingly, this is usually the last reason students give.
 • Control your own schedule: If you are the boss, you get to control the day’s schedule–inspections in the morning or afternoon, drill time, workout, and break for Oprah?
 • Prestige: Your family will be proud of you, and you should be proud of your accomplishments.
 • Challenge: You have learned your trade by continuously increasing your knowledge and expanding your experiences, and you are ready to accept the leadership challenge. Most officers will tell you that it turned out to be more of a challenge than they expected.
 • Fear Factor: This occurs when a firefighter finds out who is studying for a promotion and decides the effort of preparing for a promotion is less painful than working for that individual. Hopefully, you are not the person inspiring others to study.
 • Make things better: Fortunately, this is usually the number one reason students give for making the effort to get promoted. This does not mean the individuals are not proud of their department or don’t respect the leadership. It simply means they have identified things they believe they could make better.

3. What are the characteristics/traits of a good officer?

Following are some of the traits firefighters consider essential in an officer.
 • Integrity: Integrity means always doing the right thing, not because it is in the rules and regulations, but because it is the right thing to do. In fact, the right thing may run contrary to your department’s rules and regulations. If you choose to take this route because you believe it to be the right thing, you must also be prepared to pay the price.
 • Consistency: Your crew needs to know that they can count on you to show up with the same enthusiasm and positive attitude every day, and that they can count on you to enforce the rules consistently and fairly for all.
 • Calmness: If your crew is going to follow you with any confidence, they need to know that your head is clear and capable of making responsible decisions. Leaders that bark orders or give conflicting orders do not instill confidence.
 • Knowledge: Knowledge is power. You must continuously add to your knowledge (bag of tricks). If the leader is not the most knowledgeable member, others will tend to follow the one who is. And instill in your crew the importance of increasing their capabilities by increasing their knowledge.
 • Ability to Communicate: This is important in so many ways. You must be able to communicate by radio the emergency conditions you encounter. You must communicate clearly, concisely, and without ambiguity to the public, your crew, and your supervisors. Being a good communicator also means being a good listener. Members want to feel that they can come to you when they have issues, and that you will listen honestly and openly.
 • Ability to Motivate: Going to work with the same personnel every day can get boring. Challenge your crew to improve their skills and develop their teamwork. Remind them that their work has purpose; consistently praise them for their efforts. Create a positive work environment for everyone.
 • Crew-centered Priorities: Your decisions must always be selfless. Looking back on my career, almost every poor decision I made was caused by my ego getting in the way so I could not clearly and objectively evaluate my choices.
 • Being Supportive/Empowering: Your crew may, on occasion, fall short of your expectations, but you should always be supportive of their efforts and their accomplishments. Empowering means demonstrating your belief in their abilities.
 • Fun: If you are going to demand a lot from your crew, don’t lose sight of the “fun factor.” Encourage them to have friendly competition with the other crews–theme nights for dinner (i.e., a luau with Hawaiian shirts or spaghetti for Columbus Day.) One of my crew members loved rock and roll. He brought his record collection, and we had “Rock and Roll Sunday.”
 • Experience: In my first column, I emphasized the importance of acquiring diverse experiences. Work for a variety of officers, and respond to a variety of different calls: medical, extrications, water rescues, high angles, within different types of buildings, and others.
 • Trainer/Mentor: The first step in creating a positive attitude is increasing your knowledge. This means training. To keep your crew safe, you must train them to be safe.
 • Decisiveness: Demonstrate your willingness to make decisions–appropriate decisions, the decisions that a captain should make. There is a time to be democratic and a time to be autocratic. Learn the difference. You will not always make the right decision, but your crew will respect you for your decisiveness, and this decisiveness will carry over to the fireground, where it is most important.

So what do these exercises achieve? First, they help make the students realize that they have the opportunity to lead a very rare group of individuals, a workforce that universally “loves” their job. Second, they remind the students why they made the effort to become an officer in the first place–to make things better. Third, crews will expect a lot from the officer. I have found that virtually all firefighters believe that the qualities on the above list are essential for officers. Check your character traits against the list. If you fall short in some categories, work to improve them. If you’re an aspiring officer, check your character traits against the list and work to develop them.

Is there such a thing as a “natural born leader?” There are people who naturally exhibit these traits. The rest of us must consciously work to develop them. Firefighters have told us what it takes to be a good leader. Let’s meet those needs and be the best leaders we can be.

Michael Hennigan retired as a battalion chief from the San Francisco (CA) Fire Department after served 35 years with the department. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in business from the University of San Francisco. He is certified by the California State Fire Marshal to teach management and tactics. For the past 10 years, he has taught numerous fire departments througout northern California and is a part time instructor for City College of San Francisco. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].



Subjects: Fire officer development, leadership