Anthony Kastros: The American Fire Service Leadership Pandemic

BY Anthony Kastros

Leadership” is one of the most overused words in the fire service. There is no shortage of discussion, theory, books, articles, and philosophies on leadership. Unfortunately, there is a massive crevasse between all the information and true leadership in action across the American fire service landscape. Simply put, we are suffering a leadership pandemic.

Many fire departments across the country have excellent leaders. These individuals mentor; build others up; move their organizations forward; and serve with humility, skill, and integrity. The problem is that these individuals either came from the factory as good “natural” leaders or went out and sought the art of leadership on their own.  These exceptional individuals are becoming extinct, and most fire departments lack in-house, systematic, modern, realistic, effective, continual, and hands-on leadership training.

Don’t kid yourself. Reading a book, an article, or attending a workshop on leadership is just the tip of the iceberg. Firefighters learn by doing, not by simply reading. Leadership is an action word. We would never settle for reading how to stretch a line or cut a ventilation hole; we would follow up with hands-on training. The same should apply to leadership training. Yet, most fire departments relegate their leaders to attending antiquated state curricula or seeking training hundreds of miles from home.

When was the last time your department conducted serious, realistic hands-on leadership training on duty? Do you conduct conflict resolution role-plays for new and aspiring officers? How many hours of fireground simulation training do your incumbent officers complete each year? How often do you have communication drills? How many of your officers know how to write well?

Osmosis is not a good succession plan. Airlines don’t tell flight attendants to hop up in the cockpit because they have been on lots of flights, yet we do that to our firefighters every day. We see fit to give a perfect stranger a recruit academy of eight to 16 weeks, yet members of five or 10 years, who will be leading others into battle, must fend for themselves.

Paramedics can only kill one person at a time. A company officer can kill a crew, and a battalion chief can kill multiple crews! It is amazing that we give paramedics a semester of didactic classroom time, an internship in an emergency room, and a 10-shift internship on an ambulance in which they must attain 40 advance life support contacts, yet our officers have no such mandate.

To compound the pandemic, our job has become incredibly complex, beginning with those of whom we are leading. Newer generations of firefighters require bosses who have an array of leadership dialects from which to communicate. Gone are the days of rank-driven “because I said so” styles of changing behavior. Today, such leadership tactics would more likely invite a disparate treatment harassment investigation than result in a rehabilitated firefighter.

Ethnic and sexual diversity challenges of the 70’s and 80’s have given way to cultural, socio-economic, technological, lifestyle-choice, experiential, and political diversity challenges. The Great Generation and Baby Boomers have left and made room for Generation X, Generation Y, and the Millennial.

In addition, the ever-expanding mission is met with greater public scrutiny, more video cameras in the street, dizzying information speed, and tighter budgets. Meanwhile, our experienced leaders are retiring at an alarming rate, creating a vacuum of knowledge.

The symptoms of this pandemic are common, yet widespread. In short, there are no new mistakes, just new firefighters making the same old mistakes. Officers fail on a daily basis to stop bad behavior and inspire good behavior. Symptoms of leadership failure occur in the individual, company, battalion, and department.

In the individual, symptoms include buy-out, self-survival/preservation, contempt, acting out (badmouthing the department), abusing sick leave, increased attrition, early retirement, and poor operational performance. Some behavior is despicable, including sex in the firehouse, drug use, intoxication, driving while under the influence, violence, and felonies.

In the firehouse, symptoms include workplace conflict, character assassinations, citizen complaints, low morale, less accountability, lackluster training, and peer pressure overrides leadership (problem seeds are sown).

On the emergency scene, symptoms include an increase in close calls (do you have a system to identify close calls?), vehicle accidents, firefighter injuries, fire losses, and missed fire victims; decreased patient care; and ineffective, inefficient, or inconsistent operations.

In the administration, hypocrisy (real and perceived), feeling overwhelmed, broken relationships, bad public relations, crisis management, and failure to close the loop are commonly seen.

I have simply skimmed the surface of a severe lack of realistic hands-on leadership training, a more complex mission, a more diverse workforce, greater public scrutiny, shrinking budgets, and technological advances. Each of these topics could easily fill a book. We have several other factors that cause the perfect storm that is the fire service leadership pandemic. The root problem is much more exponential.

First, we were raised to be reactive. As firefighters, we do not get too excited unless something is bleeding or burning. We are the only industry to commonly have recliners in the workplace. We are coiled springs. We were taught to operate in crisis mode. Unfortunately, that crisis is upon us.

Second, we are task-minded. Firefighters like breaking stuff. Ask firefighters if they would rather spend a day in a leadership workshop or a day at a forcible entry hands-on workshop. What do you think is chosen most often? Leadership is too nebulous and esoteric for the average firefighter–not because of a lack of job intelligence but for a lack of emotional intelligence.


In the “old” days, prior to the 1990s, job skills were mostly attributed to IQ (intelligence quotient). In fire service terms, if someone had a good job IQ (was a good firefighter), he would make a good leader.

Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence – Why It Can Matter More than IQ, published in 1995, argues that emotional intelligence (EQ) is a more significant factor to success and leadership than simple job IQ.  In other words, the ability to communicate, manage emotions, and foster relationships is far more critical to modern-day success than job skills.

The four main components of Emotional Intelligence are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Simply put, “people skills” are more important than job skills to modern leaders. This embodies communication skills like active listening, conflict resolution, and patience. When is the last time your department conducted training on any of the above?

In the fire service, we cannot afford to have our officers be less than excellent at the “job” of firefighting. Size-up, tactics, incident command, fire behavior, and building construction are just some of the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) of the job. The challenge is to develop officers who have both the job skills listed above, IQ and the people skills, EQ.

Let’s put communication and conflict resolution into a more familiar setting like the fireground. Communication and accountability (easily correlated to conflict resolution) are the two most commonly cited problems on the fireground. In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health lists them among top five causal factors in line-of-duty deaths. Communications and accountability are more emotional skills than tactical skills. Remaining calm under pressure and being able to track resources necessitates the ability to control emotions.

The task-oriented mindset is not limited to the line. Chiefs often become task saturated as well, and fail to step back from the tasks to lead the people. Following are the tasks that prevent a chief from stepping out from behind the desk and leading:

·                     Budget

·                     Board/Council meetings

·                     Phone/text/email

·                     Reports

=          “I don’t have time.”

Third, we were mentored by old salts (good and bad). We learned leadership skills from our forefathers, who learned from theirs and so on. Many antiquated and now illegal techniques have been handed down from generation to generation. Just in my short 26-year career, things have changed dramatically. I am sure that the leadership techniques my first bosses used would be grounds for dismissal today. Unfortunately, some bosses never got the memo that things have changed and so must their skill sets.

Finally, we have big egos. “Egos eat brains,” quipped Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department. The resistance to change increases as the experience level and the rank of the person increase. “The adult ego is a greater obstacle to learning than sheer stupidity” stated one prominent observer. Unlike private industry, our egos are not tempered by the bottom line. We have a thousand opinions on how to cut a hole or stretch a line. In business, you either make money or you don’t. Your ego is backed only by the dollars you make the company, not your “version” of what an awesome stop you made on a fire.

If opinions can vary about ventilation, command, and fire attack, how much more can they vary about what exemplifies good leadership in today’s fire service? All too many “leaders” are bewildered at the lack of followers.


We have identified the symptoms and underlying problems that have come together to form the American fire service leadership pandemic. What are the solutions?

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them.” Albert Einstein

For the Organization

Defined core values are cliché, and often the mention of them is met by rolled eyes of the rank-and-file. Core values are commonplace in effective companies around the world. Two keys will make or break the effectiveness of your core values. First, have as many stakeholders of the organization participate in constructing the core values as possible. Management and Labor must be represented and participate. This buy-in will pay dividends as you roll out the values. The roll-out must have live training attached. Second, the administration of the department must embody the core values in the eyes of the troops. Many chiefs feel that they are doing a great job in emulating their department’s core values. Ask the troops what they think.

Second, it is essential to have a cultural document that outlines the vision and mission of the organization and how the core values look in daily life. A video may also be an effective way to convey the message. The video should be part of annual training.

Third, each year, adequately communicate a well-organized strategic plan. Firefighters may not want to be micromanaged, but they want to know the plan. An administration cannot over-communicate the plan. Firefighters do not always listen, but they are always watching. Give them something to chew on.

Finally, establish Strategic Planning Teams (SPTs) to run your fire department. At Metro Fire, Sacramento, we have more than 25 SPTs that manage everything from engine and truck operations to recruitment and community outreach. If there is a need, we have a team.

The teams are a derivative of Relationships by Objectives used by Brunacini in the Phoenix Fire Department. Each team has cochairs, one from labor and one from management. The team members are solicited from the whole organization; anyone is welcome to attend the meetings. The team is absolutely empowered to meet its objectives and work within the parameters set by the chief. Team members do not have to worry about the chief coming in at the last minute to change their plan or a decision.

Management shares authority, and labor shares responsibility. An incredible transference of knowledge and experience takes place between labor/management, young/old, line/staff, operations/administration, and so on. It’s a great mentoring, succession planning, and professional development tool. Best of all, the teams are empowered and very motivated.

SPTs have the following benefits:

  • Empower individuals
  • Decentralize authority
  • Share responsibility
  • Improve succession planning
  • Increase morale
  • Build strong labor/management relationships
  • Reinforce the core values

For the Chief Officer

First, walk the walk. Firefighters respect a chief who “remembers where he came from.” Be a servant leader. Put your troops ahead of yourself. Regardless of the size of your department, you must be visible. Have the integrity to do what you say and say what you do. Send out 360˚ evaluations and strategic planning surveys.

Second, listen! Listen twice as much as you speak. Although the job of chief is very political, do not be a politician with your troops. Listen, and be sincere. Make time for face time. “I don’t have time” is not a good excuse.

Turn off the cell phone when you speak with someone. There’s nothing more annoying than being triaged by your chief when he gets a phone call. He is essentially saying, “Hey, this person is more important than you, so I am downgrading you and putting you in mental staging.” If you expect a call, tell the person that you are expecting a very important call that may require you to interrupt your conversation but that you will only be on the phone for a moment. Otherwise, don’t answer the phone, or don’t get into a conversation.

Get out from behind the desk. Some of the most effective executives set aside downtime each day or time to get around each week. This must be scheduled to be done consistently. Don’t wait for your schedule to free up, make time in it.

Visit your company officers with your BC. Do not go to stations without calling the respective BC to alert him/her to your visit. It shows respect for the chain of command, and you may get a chance to show solidarity in front of the troops if their boss is with the chief.

Third, give away the power. The previously discussed SPTs are a great tool for doing this. You give away power in a clearly delineated way. Once the parameters have been established, get out of the way and give the power to the team. Your troops will be emboldened, have ownership, and exceed your expectations.

For the Company Officer and Engineer

Task books are routinely used in the Incident Command System Red Carding program to outline a job and list the required KSAs for the position. To become certified, an individual initiates a task book, attends required classes, and acquires the necessary KSAs through experience on an incident, hands-on training, or discussion. The KSAs are signed off by a qualified individual who meets or exceeds the position’s requirements.

Metro Fire, Sacramento, uses several task books to assist our members in beginning the journey to the next step in their careers. Probationary firefighters, truck company firefighters, rescue and hazardous materials company members, engineers, captains, and BCs all must complete a task book during their probationary periods. This legitimizes the position through national, state, and agency standards and gives the member a career guide to success.

Academies are performed for members who successfully complete a promotional process. For example, members of newly established promotional lists for engineer, captain and BC complete academies shortly after the list is established to give them hands-on training for the position for which they are about to embark.

Mentoring takes place at all levels. Probationary firefighters are mentored by firefighters who have recently completed their own probation. Probationary engineers and officers are encouraged to find mentors, and incumbents are required to mentor at all times. Mentors are not limited to the probationary member’s boss. Often, a more senior member in rank takes on the role of mentor for day-to-day inquiries.

Most of today’s new officers learn by video and gaming. Realistic simulations are an excellent tool, especially when they incorporate radios and tabletop simulations. We have used them with tremendous success for our BCs and captains.

Ongoing annual officer and engineer rank-specific training is crucial. For officers, role plays that mimic current trends in member behaviors are priceless. Just as a paramedic would accrue continuing education hours (CEs), officers should be required to annually fulfill a CE requirement in leadership, management, and emergency operations.

Incident reviews are an excellent tool for sharing individual and organization lessons. In Metro Fire,  our policy is comprehensive and has multiple tiers and an algorithm for appropriate levels of review. A nonpunitive Lessons Learned review is a common tool that outlines the task and the tactical and strategic lessons learned at our fires.

I give my captains books on leadership and tactics annually. We discuss them at officer meetings. If I read a good book, chances are that they will get a copy. This keeps the brains engaged in the softer, EQ stuff.

Please email me at [email protected] if you would like a copy of any of the aforementioned materials.

The American fire service is facing a new normal, and it is being redefined daily. We are in the midst of a leadership vacuum of pandemic proportions fueled by a mass exodus of veterans; an influx of new generations of firefighters; a lack of hands-on leadership training; sweeping changes in mission; decimated budgets; and the genetics of task-oriented, reactive forefathers.

The greatest and perhaps only area we can impact directly is that of hands-on, inspiring, realistic and useful training for our aspiring and incumbent leaders. We also have an array of other tools and systems that have been proven to bridge the gap and ensure that our future is bright and left in the hands of leaders being developed today.

This exponentially complex problem cannot be solved with linear thinking. Speeches and emails are not enough. Today’s leaders must establish a multifaceted plan that incorporates hands-on training, enlightened systems, and exemplary leadership to develop tomorrow’s leaders.


ANTHONY KASTROS is a 27-year veteran of the fire service and a battalion chief with the Sacramento (CA) Metro Fire District. He is author of the book and video series Mastering the Fire Service Assessment Center and DVD series Mastering Fireground Command, (Fire Engineering). He has a B.S. degree in business and human resource management and an A.S. degree in fire technology.