Dane Carley: The Silver Bullet for a Successful Fire Department

By Dane Carley

Is there a silver bullet, a single answer, to being a successful fire department? The answer is, “No” when we look at individual details of what makes a successful fire department. However, the answer is, “Yes” from a very broad perspective. A fire department is what is efficient, effective, myopic, or unskilled because of the people within the department. A department is what it is, in particular, because of the officers’ ability to be a good role model.

So, what is a good role model? That question dives into many realms, but here is a summary. A good role model is someone who defends tradition when it is appropriate, which means the answer does not include, “because we’ve always done it that way”; instead, it includes sound logic. A good role model is someone who crewmembers or subordinates are comfortable approaching, someone who encourages others to speak up. A good role model is someone who is willing to try something different. That does not mean the idea is adopted whole-heartedly without critical thought but that the role model approaches the idea with an open mind and gives the idea a fair chance. A good role model is a teacher who wants to share his or her knowledge with others while also being respected by the crewmembers, causing them to want to learn from the role model.

Every fire department has good role models; the “go-to” people others in the department seek out. Every fire department has people others are comfortable approaching with new ideas. How can a fire department consistently put these people in the right positions? How can a fire department promote these people to put them in an increasingly influential position (keeping in mind that being an officer does not automatically make a person influential and that a firefighter can be very influential)?

Hiring and Promoting

One place to start is with the hiring and promotional testing processes. Many fire departments continue to use a civil service process that in some variation contains a requirement to pass a written test. The written test consistently contains technical information and is designed to assess a candidate’s emergency response knowledge and management knowledge. The sources are often firefighting and fire officer books with which we are all familiar. The content in these books is technical whether it is the firefighter or officer book. This knowledge is critical because officers need to make sound technical decisions at an emergency scene consistently since the repercussions of poor emergency scene decisions can be catastrophic. However, this type of decision making – what is essentially management – is only used about five percent of the time because that is the percent of time most fire departments spend working at an emergency on a given day.

That means our testing processes pass and fail candidates based on an assessment of skills they will use only about five percent of the time since passing the written test is often a required step in the process. If we add in training and fire prevention inspections as a time when technical knowledge is also critical to success, then the process assesses their abilities for about 30 percent of the typical day–in other words, the process does not begin with, nor does it typically assess at any point, a candidate’s ability to perform successfully the other 70 percent of the time.

Abilities for 70 Percent of the Time

What abilities does an officer need the other 70 percent of the time? The other 70 percent of an officer’s time is spent working with the personnel and modeling successful behaviors. The abilities that best support this are leadership abilities. How many fire departments assess their candidate’s leadership potential? Are there fire departments that believe leadership cannot be assessed? Contrary to popular belief, leadership potential can be objectively measured. Private industry has become so reliant on the concept of measuring leadership potential that many promotions are made on leadership potential alone because they feel they can teach a good leader the technical skills. Leadership assessment is a science that has existed for many decades. It has been shown to be valid and reliable around the world in many different cultures.

The Five Factor Personality Assessment

One of the tools most commonly used to assess leadership potential is the Five Factor Personality Assessment, and there are now many other assessments based on this original system. Research has also shown that of the five factors—openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, and neuroticism–openness to new ideas and agreeableness (approachability) are the two strongest indicators of leadership potential.

Why is leadership important to a fire department’s success? Leadership is a component of emotional intelligence, which has been shown to be important for individual success and for organizational success because of an individual’s ability to contribute to the organization. Therefore, identifying and supporting a department’s leaders improves the department’s ability to succeed.

Behaviors That Build a Higher-Reliability Organization

There are also eight behaviors critical to an organization’s success–eight behaviors that build a higher-reliability organization. These behaviors cannot exist without good leaders because leadership is the foundation of the behaviors. These behaviors are

            • Being situationally aware

            • Using effective communication

            • Showing initiative

            • Being adaptable

            • Working together

            • Improvising

            • Learning

            • Educating.1

These behaviors are based on good leadership abilities. For example, effective communication is supported by being approachable. A person who is not approachable because of his management style and persona cannot communicate effectively with subordinates (especially), peers, or supervisors.

Not having effective communication with those around you reduces situational awareness and your ability to educate and prevents you from working with others. A person who is not open to new ideas affects the behavior of others. A closed-minded person is not adaptable and will not easily improvise and is often opposed to learning new ideas. This person will show initiative only in relation to existing programs or services because it is about managing the status quo. This is not really showing initiative although some may interpret it as initiative.

Instilling these eight behaviors in a department’s culture can lead a department to success. However, for these behaviors to be present in an organization, there must also be in place leaders who support individuals demonstrating these behaviors and leaders who model these behaviors.

Therefore, a department that focuses on the quality of its people by assessing its people for leadership potential creates an environment that fosters consistent success.

However, leadership ability alone does not make a department successful. A fire department that also focuses on its people and instills the eight behaviors has laid the groundwork to ensure the leadership environment is used to its fullest potential. Focusing on the people in the department is the silver bullet because it multiplies the department’s opportunity for success for every member engaged through this process.


1. Ericksen, J, & Dyer, L. (2004, March 1). Toward A Strategic Human Resource Management Model of High Reliability Organization Performance. Retrieved February 18, 2010, from CAHRS Working Paper #04-02: Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies: http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cahrswp/9


Dane Carley has been in the fire service since 1989. He spent 24 years pulling hose, throwing ladders, and cutting line in a variety of capacities and places before promoting to battalion chief in 2013 for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department. He has served in urban, suburban, rural, and wilderness areas working for city, county, state, and federal agencies. He co-writes for Fire Engineering magazine, co-produces a radio show for Talk Radio, and co-teaches leadership classes that support higher reliability organizing in the fire service.