Commentary, Leadership

Remembering Where You Came From

Firefighter geared up

By Michael DeStefano

We all know the people within our organization who seem to immediately turn on the people they once stood beside when brass is added to their collar. We see the firefighter who was the worst offender when it came to horseplay within the station becoming the officer that now condemns the action and disciplines all who take part. We watch the rookie firefighter make mistakes on the fire scene who, as time progresses, becomes a chief who yells and screams at the new guy for mistakes. When is a behavioral change upon promotion justified and when is it disgraceful?

Many behavioral changes occur as a child matures from adolescent to teenager to adulthood. When we watch the defiant teen spend all his or her money on their car, we say that’s just what teens do. When we watch that same teen begin to save for college or to buy a house, we say they are just growing up. When that same adult gets married and has kids and begins to budget him or herself to provide food and shelter for their family, we say that’s just what happens with responsibility.

The fire service is no different. The firefighter who takes part in horseplay is that same teen being a teen. However, when that same firefighter promotes to officer, he has now been given a certain level of responsibility that he must live up to. The officer now has a crew that he must look out for and provide for. To fulfill this officer role, he must condemn many of the same behaviors that he once took part in. This is a justifiable behavior change upon promotion.

The other behavior change that is unfortunately seen is that brass often makes the person suddenly perfect. Not just perfect at the point of promotion, but it’s as though it retroactively justifies that person’s career up to that point. Every mistake he made is suddenly erased and he has now become the model of what the firefighter should look and act like throughout the ranks.

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Once promoted, this firefighter quickly loses his memory and forgets where he came from. He forgets that he was once in the same shoes as those he must now manage. We can see this officer yelling at his firefighters for making mistakes. Perhaps the new officer makes comments like, “I expect perfection,” or “If you can’t do the job, get off my crew.” These “leaders” are dangerous and typically lead to lack of morale and more dangerously, lack of trust among the crew. You will find everyone walking on eggshells around him, afraid to express ideas. This behavior change is disgraceful.

So how can officers stop from this disgraceful behavior change upon promotion?

  • Train! Training is the ultimate equalizer within the fire service. The officer who trains with his crews creates trust within the organization. We know that each respective rank within an organization has a specific task they are to complete. However, every rank is more than capable of training their task with the tasks of their crews. A company officer should perform with their crew, teach their crew, and mentor their crew. The battalion chief should train from a command level with their crews, teach his officers, and mentor those same officers. The administrative chiefs should show presence during training events and help to teach and mentor his or her battalion chiefs.        
  • Never belittle others for making mistakes. The fire service employees people and people may make mistakes at every level or rank. Make note of mistakes made by crew members you oversee and take each mistake as an opportunity to help train your entire crew. So far in the fire service I have yet to see any organization hire someone who was perfect in every meaning of the word. This can afford the officer the chance to mentor and mold his crew the way he would like them to be. Remember, at one point in our career, we were the rookie making mistakes as well.
  •  Be the officer that you always wanted to have. Whether you worked for a great company officer like I did (Thanks Lt. Joe Matta) or one that you hated, learn from that experience. Take lessons from those who possessed the talent to help individuals grow and learn. Also, take lessons of various ways not to treat people or run a crew from poor officers. Every experience can lead to personal growth by the officer. When you are making a decision regarding a personnel issue, think, “How would I have reacted to this decision when I was in his shoes?”
  • Make it a point every single day to remind yourself where you came from. I recently had a conversation with a friend who told me of a local department where firefighter receive a different colored helmet upon promotion. He told me that many of the guys would paint the underneath of their helmet black, the color of the helmet for rank of firefighter, so that when they were on a call they could look up and be reminded that they were there once, as well. In my own organization, I have begun keeping an old PAR tag from when I used to be at the rank of firefighter on my helmet with my lieutenant tags. This way every time I update my accountability board in the morning, I remind myself of where I once sat. Whatever way you decide to remind yourself, make it meaningful and one that will remind you daily.

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Nobody is perfect; be wary of those who claim to be. Promotion in the fire service will lead to behavior change; ensure that your change is one of responsibility, and therefore justified, and not one of arrogance, which is disgraceful. Remembering where you came from and how you wanted to be treated while in that position will help you to become a better leader, a better teacher, and a better mentor, leading to a better overall fire service.

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Michael DeStefanoMichael DeStefano is a lieutenant assigned to the training division with Brevard County (FL) Fire Rescue. He began his career in 2004 at a small three-station paid department in Winter Springs, Florida, as a firefighter/EMT-B. In 2005, he moved to Brevard County, taking on the role of firefighter/paramedic in 2006. He has an associate’s degree from Eastern Florida State College in fire science and a bachelor’s degree from Barry University in public administration.