by Jonathon Steed
In this day and age, the face of leadership in the fire service appears to be changing. It seems to be getting younger. Why is this? I don’t know. Potential explanations include older members are retiring earlier, the turnover rate is increasing, or recent trends regarding fire science education make the younger officer candidate with a college degree more appealing on paper. Regardless of why this is happening, it is affecting more and more departments across the nation.
Is this a bad phenomenon? Possibly. It has some clear disadvantages. First, a younger officer will inevitably lack fire experience, which translates to a nearly unavoidable less-informed decision-making process. The good news is that the young officer probably achieved this position by being a well-informed decision maker as a firefighter. Ideally, this young officer should recognize his potential slight lack of experience and seek the help of a senior or chief officer before executing a decision he is unsure about.
Is a young officer a potential “plus” for a fire department? Absolutely, if the candidate possesses the characteristics to positively influence the members and behavior around him. Before I list the characteristics a successful young officer possesses, I must explain how I came to these conclusions.
I was fortunate enough to be made a lieutenant in a combination fire department one month after my 20th birthday. I accepted the position while recalling a friend’s advice: “Never turn down an opportunity to advance in this life.” I was ready to make a difference, and I halfway expected to be a respected and accomplished leader overnight. As I write this article now, I can tell you that that was the farthest possible expectation from reality. I did not expect all of the change that was about to occur, and I absolutely could have prepared for it better. However, I needed to learn some lessons the hard way to understand.
As you read this article now, keep in mind it is always better to learn from other people’s mistakes. To make things more difficult, at the time of my promotion, I was a live-in firefighter at the firehouse while I attended Penn State University. For me, this meant no escape from any hardships. I could not go home to escape any stress–I was home. I needed to learn to become an effective officer quickly.
My first few months as an officer were some of the most difficult I have had in the fire service. The career crew I worked with was very difficult. Do not misunderstand: The seven career personnel at this firehouse were among the most knowledgeable, brightest, and fun guys to work I have worked with to this day. However, with the senior man having 30-plus years in the service and the junior career guy having 15, sometimes, being a kid, I had a hard time keeping up with that kind of experience.
The personnel I worked with were also substantially varied. I had volunteer high school kids, who knew nothing about the service, as well as guys who had been on the job substantially longer than I had been alive. There is nothing more awkward than seeing a 30-year senior guy give up the front seat for you while he sits in the back for the first time. If I was not completely on my game for a second, these guys could sense it. They were reasonable in giving me time to adjust to my new position, but they expected my transition to be fast, as did I.
If you choose a promotion as a young officer, prepare to make mistakes. Some mistakes, however, can easily be avoided. The ideal traits of an officer I will share with you come from my experiences and mistake after mistake of learning. Consider these traits, which came to me as “hard lessons learned.” Don’t make the same mistakes I did; learn from my mistakes.
- Stay humble. No one likes a newly promoted officer who gets “too big for his britches,” especially a young one. Don’t get cocky. Being a young officer is an uphill battle under the best of conditions. Being promoted feels like starting over, as you are now the junior officer. You must learn an entire new set of skills and knowledge. Don’t make it any harder on yourself than it has to be. Do not walk into the kitchen with your sparkling new shirt on with an imposing posture. Everyone knows you were promoted, and there is no need to advertise it.
- Lead by example. Train more than anyone else. Even if you go to fires every day, make time to train while on shift or off. If your crew takes an operations level course, you had better take the technician level. Instill the urgency of continued education in your people; they will respect that you go the extra mile. Create a friendly competition among your people to see who can undertake the most training or build a new training prop as a group. This builds morale, makes the day go quicker, and makes everyone better firefighters.
- Empower your firefighters. Encourage projects that they want to undertake, and put them in charge. Allow the up-and-coming leaders to separate themselves from the masses. Pay attention to who shows leadership abilities, and take them under your wing. One of the huge advantages of being a young officer is the ability to galvanize the morale of even younger leaders.
- Keep good rapport with your senior officers and chief officers. They will be watching you closely because you are young and they are understandably cautious about your new role. Report back to your senior officials regularly, and always give them something positive to hear about, such as your crew undertaking a new project in the firehouse or a training session the crew attended that was not mandatory.
- Enlist the support of the senior firefighters. Do not sit them down; sit down with them and explain what you expect in a respectful manner. These firefighters may be required to obey orders from you, but you are doomed without their respect. Remember, it is often the informal group leaders who have the most influence in a fire department. This was a huge help to me my first day of my new role. Once the senior firefighters know what kind of leader you plan to be, they will likely feel more comfortable about following you. Before my first day as an officer was over, one of the career members told me not to screw up and that I’d better not make a decision that results in his not being able to go home to his wife and kids. The weight of this position got real very fast after that. Talk to your crew about what kind of officer you will be, and do not skip out on this step.
- Stand up for your crew. Always remember what it was like for you when you were a firefighter before you became an officer. Firefighters want an officer who will listen to what they have to say and who will have their back. Keep their best interests in mind, and be ready to defend them if they come under the gun. However, also keep in mind that the fireground is not the proper place to take input from your crew. Take charge of your crew on the fireground and make a decision.
- Stay consistent. For example, if you make it clear to your crew that horseplay is not to be tolerated when you are on shift, do not allow it one day and then not allow it the next. Your crew will notice the inconsistency and interpret this as weakness on your part. Have fun with your members, but do not create an environment in which they feel they have to test their boundaries with you often.
After you have taken these few steps, find yourself a mentor. Hopefully, the process of finding a mentor should not be difficult; enlist the wisdom of an officer you have looked up to as a firefighter. There may be times when you will doubt yourself and need positive reinforcement. This officer can help guide you and answer the many questions you will likely have about the job or your new responsibilities.
One of the best qualities of a young officer is the potential to bring a new level of creativity, vision, and diversity into the command structure. Younger members are often more in touch with new developments in the industry, new tactics, technology innovations, and new ideas. Also, younger officers are much more known for accepting input on company decisions from lower-ranked members. This can be incredibly beneficial in establishing a more progressive department.
One of the best potential effects of gaining a young officer in the department is a general morale boost for the younger firefighters. If you share the same age range as your crew, they may find great potential in themselves after your promotion. If you are promoted, other aspiring officers may become motivated by seeing that being an officer at a young age is possible and will increase their training and studying. The ideal result of this occurring is a new higher morale among the young firefighters in your department. Everyone needs to have goals; achieving your goal may make their goals seem more achievable. Facilitate this positive morale.
Young officers can be a very positive or negative influence on a fire department. A newly promoted officer displaying the right characteristics can bring fresh visions, ideas, and a new sense of morale to the department as a whole. If you as a young firefighter find yourself in a position to become promoted, think long and hard about why you want this position. If you want it for the right reasons, it will be difficult. If you take this spot for the wrong reasons, it will be impossible. If you join the ranks as a young officer, follow the above steps; you will likely find the path to success and happiness in your new job.
About Jonathon Steed
Jonathon Steed is 21 years old and a 5 year member of the fire service. He currently is the assistant training officer for the Woodlawn Fire Department in Allentown, PA. Previously he served as a lieutenant and live-in for the Wyomissing Fire Department in Reading, PA. He currently attends the University of New Haven in Connecticut and is working towards a fire administration degree.