Dennis Compton: Exceptional Fire Officers Are Accountable Leaders

By Dennis Compton

Have you ever heard someone in your fire department complain about the lack of accountability in the organization? It comes to life in statements like, “What we need around here is more accountability. Nobody’s held accountable for anything in this fire department.” They make it sound as if accountability is something that exists separate and apart from the day-to-day leadership, management, and supervision within the department. In reality, accountability exists (or is lacking) in a fire department because of the quality of leadership, management, and supervision throughout the ranks. Accountability is not an issue that exists in and of itself. It exists because there are individual and organizational expectations that require it–of their leaders and all members of the department. 

An Emphasis on Accountability

     The dictionary defines accountable as “subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible for or answerable for.”  I have developed a model intended to walk leaders through key accountability issues. This “Fire Officer Accountability Model” is made up of the following elements designed to define and measure each individual fire officer’s commitment to positive leadership and accountability:

  •  Understanding the roles and responsibilities of fire department executive team members and all other officers in the organization: This includes developing open lines of communications and participating in departmental planning exercises and other processes when opportunities present themselves.   
  • The personal leadership capabilities and approach of fire officers and how they impact the officer’s effectiveness: This is also referred to as “command presence” and includes issues such as managing one’s ego, showing respect for other people, maintaining composure in difficult situations, displaying a positive attitude, and always looking the part of a leader as far as personal appearance is concerned.  
  • The role of “opinion leaders” within an organization and how they can impact the effectiveness of leaders: This again involves maintaining open lines of communications and truly valuing the input of others regarding decision making.  
  • Maintaining one’s personal competence: It’s hard to compensate for incompetence, so participating in training, valuing formal education, and displaying a high regard for diversity become important aspects of developing accountability within oneself.   
  • Challenges to overcome when dealing with difficult situations and difficult people: This includes being aware of heightened levels of emotion that might be present, planning the approach that will be taken, and getting help from fellow supervisors when needed. 
  • The consistent review and enforcement of performance requirements for all members in the department: This includes important aspects of accountability such as communicating performance and behavior expectations up front; leading by example; never rewarding unacceptable performance or behavior; consistently enforcing rules, values, and procedures; and avoiding favoritism and micro-management.
  • The relationship between leadership and management responsibilities of fire officers: This involves the importance of developing fire officer management and leadership skills in a way that demonstrates their interrelatedness and the value both have to organizational effectiveness and accountability.

     In addition to the items identified above, there are also some other important elements the organization needs to provide to all members to enhance the quality of leadership and accountability throughout the fire department.  These additional organizational requirements include the following:

·         A clearly defined mission and a planning document that provides direction to the members.

·         A consistent set of expectations for performance and behavior that includes organizational values.

·        The training and resources needed to perform the mission of the organization.

·         A well-known system of rewards and consequences that are equally applied.

·         Strong first level supervision at all levels in the department.

An Emphasis on Leadership

The leadership, management, supervision, and overall job performance of fire officers impact the members of the fire department every day and in all aspects of the department’s work. What they provide to the fire department through their technical competence, people skills, attitude, and commitment has a direct effect on performance outcomes, morale, and the work environment.

It’s not difficult to develop a list of positive fire officer traits, skills, and characteristics. Taken together, they would certainly be important to evaluating fire officer performance. However, exceptional and accountable fire officers demonstrate the following characteristics–which may or may not be on our list:  

·    A positive and productive work atmosphere is the order of the day, and the fire officer creates and nurtures it. Members of the department clearly understand what is expected of them regarding their performance and behavior, and this is communicated by the fire officers up front but never in an “in-your-face” kind of way.

·    The fire officer always leads by example, building a sense of mutual trust and mutual respect among the members of the department. The fire officer knows the job, does it well, and expects the same from others. The members have pride in themselves, each other, and in the fire department.

·    Self-discipline is a shared value within the fire department. Expectations are clear; standard operating procedures are followed; and when self-discipline breaks down, the fire officer takes appropriate action to correct the situation and put the members back on course.

·    The fire officer stays competent and ensures that the members receive the appropriate training to stay competent as well. In all that they do, exceptional performance, serving the needs of the customers and the members, as well as emphasizing the importance of safety are always priorities. In doing so, the fire officer advocates that prevention, public education, and emergency response are equally important in protecting the lives and property in their community and that each of these responsibilities requires the department’s commitment to be effective.

·    Work is planned and completed under the supervision of the fire officer, and appropriate leadership, supervision, and management are provided throughout the fire department by the fire officers.

·    The willingness to communicate, mentor, coach, and counsel on a regular basis helps the fire officer maintain consistently high levels of performance by the members of the department. When problems occur, they are not allowed to fester; they are addressed in a constructive way by the appropriate fire officer.

·    The fire officer maintains a positive, productive, and healthy approach to the fire department and is open to change. He doesn’t build himself up by putting other fire officers down.

·    Maintaining control of their happiness and their future, as well as having the ability to let go of negative things from the past, are key traits of exceptional fire officers. They have an incredible capability to maintain perspective in a balanced way.

     We know that there are many traits, skills, and behaviors that contribute to (or hinder) fire officer leadership, management, supervision, and overall performance, all of which have an impact on accountability. This article provides a template for developing exceptional fire officers who are also accountable leaders. Fire officers have a lot of influence on the people in the fire department and on the mission. Bottom line: Exceptional fire officers and leaders are organizational treasures and should be recognized as such.


Chief Dennis Compton is a well-known speaker and the author of several books including his most recent title, Progressive Leadership Principles, Concepts, and Tools. He has also authored the three-part series of books titled When in Doubt, Lead, the book Mental Aspects of Performance for Firefighters and Fire Officers, as well as many articles, chapters, and other publications. He is a past recipient of the George D. Post National Fire Service Instructor of the Year Award presented by the ISFSI. He was chief in Mesa, Arizona, for five years and assistant chief in Phoenix, Arizona, where he served for 27 years. He is the past chairman of the Executive Board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) and past chairman of the Congressional Fire Services Institute’s National Advisory Committee. He is chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Board of Directors.