Leadership

The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: Ownership

A firefighter on a ladder

By Tom Merrill

Photo courtesy of Tony Greco

Ownership is a word that seems to be thrown around quite a bit lately. Two current and very popular books have the word right in the title: Pride and Ownership by fire service veteran Rick Lasky and Extreme Ownership written by Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Obviously, Lasky’s book has connections with the fire service, but there are definite takeaways from both books that can be applied to the fire service and employed by professional volunteer firefighters everywhere.

Ownership is an attitude that can and should be embraced by volunteer firefighters of all ranks and all tenures. We should take ownership of our fire service, our home fire department, our firehouses, and even ourselves as firefighters. But what do we mean when talking about “ownership”?

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All of us should proud when we join the fire service. Along with the pride should come a sense of ownership for the great profession we belong to (yes, profession). Remember, once people know you are a firefighter, you are representing not just your department, but also the entire fire service. We need to be aware that we have to live up to certain community standards (and hopefully department standards, as well.)

Firefighters have a long-standing reputation for honor and integrity. Ownership means you understand, embrace, and uphold this fact. Being a professional firefighter dictates that we act accordingly, treat others with respect, and recognize the boundaries of good organizational behaviors. We do not tolerate bullying, harassment, or discrimination, and we defend the honor of our great fire service and those who paved the way to today by being truthful and reliable and by not partaking in illegal or unethical activities.

The professional volunteer firefighter takes ownership in the firehouse, as well. Remember, the firehouse is a second home and we should treat it as such. It amazes me to see a firefighter simply toss some trash into a garbage can than is already full. Can’t we simply empty the trash rather than ignoring it and letting it fall to somebody else? Sometimes we might have to hang wet tarps in the apparatus bay to dry out. If nobody takes ownership for putting the tarps away after they dry, they may remain there for weeks. Ownership means you take responsibility for the garbage, the tarps, or whatever else it might happen to be in your fire station. If you see a piece of equipment that needs attention while on scene of an emergency, or you use the last of some type of bandages in the EMS kit, ownership means you ensure the equipment is tended to and the kit is restocked when back at the firehouse.

Taking ownership might simply mean notifying the proper officer or firefighter, who has the ultimate responsibility, but it’s unacceptable to simply ignore what needs to be taken care of. When restocking that EMS kit, if we happen to notice that we used the last of the bandages from the EMS supply room, ownership means we take responsibility and notify the EMS officer or whoever is responsible for reordering supplies. If we are refilling the speedi-dry container and notice the main stockpile is getting low, ownership means you take responsibility for notifying whoever is responsible for ordering more. There is nothing worse than going to restock a consumable supply in the firehouse and finding out the supply is completely depleted. This applies to all sectors of the firehouse–God forbid you are responsible for making sure the coffee is stocked up and it runs out.

Now, obviously nobody would die if the tarps didn’t get put away or we run low on coffee, but think of the bigger picture. What if next time it’s the booster tank not getting filled, SCBA paks are left empty, or defibrillator pads aren’t replaced after use? Firefighters’ failture to take ownership can definitely lead to problems and dysfunction within our organizations both administratively and operationally. It’s simply unacceptable as well as unprofessional.

I was returning from an EMS run recently and was the driver of the vehicle. I rinsed it off and as I gave the vehicle a once over. I noticed an empty disinfectant container lying on the floor in back of our squad. The container should have been replaced with a full one and placed in a drawer in the back of the vehicle where it belonged, but here it was rolling around on the floor. Two firefighters had just been sitting in the back seat who must have seen this container. I went and found one of them relaxing in the clubroom of the firehouse. When I asked him about the container, he said he noticed it when he got in the squad to go to the call, but that was it. He simply went to the call and returned to quarters and figured “somebody else” would take care of this empty container. This is a very simple but real example of lack of ownership by several firefighters. Somebody placed the empty container on the floor and did not replace it with a full one. Other firefighters saw it lying there while responding to previous emergency calls. The firefighter I talked to noticed it, but he also failed to take ownership. Taking ownership means you are that “somebody” and you ensure it is taken care of. Ownership also means that you maintain some situational awareness and notice when things need attention. The firefighters sitting in the back of that squad not only should have taken care of it, but should have had the awareness that this empty container did not belong rolling around back there, not to mention the awareness that it needed to be replaced.

Officers need to take ownership for their duties and responsibilities, too. If you happen to be that firefighter or fire officer designated to fix the broken piece of equipment or stock the EMS kit, ownership means you are taking responsibility (ownership) for getting those required jobs done.

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Ownership applies to all sides of the organizations, not strictly the firematic side. If you are the department secretary, you must take ownership of the minutes by making sure they are completed accurately in a timely manner and filed according to your department guidelines. No role in the volunteer fire department escapes ownership responsibility.

A key aspect of ownership is consistency. Many jobs throughout the volunteer firehouse must be done regularly. Officers and firefighters might start off doing the job on a regular basis as required, but soon grow tired or bored and may begin taking short cuts or, worse, no longer doing the job as thoroughly as it should be. Ownership means doing the jobs you are responsible for in a consistent and regular manner.  

Professional volunteer firefighters also take ownership for themselves. You should work hard and dedicate the time necessary to be the best firefighter you possibly can. No matter what role you play in your volunteer firehouse, there is really no reason you cannot stay focused on being the best you can be.

Ownership in yourself also means you are regularly attending and participating in department training. You must be willing to learn every single day in your career as a professional firefighter. Don’t ever fall into the, “I have been doing this for 20 years now, I am done with training.” Training should be as important to you from the first day in the volunteer firehouse as it is to your last day. After all, you are volunteering for something that can kill you.  By taking ownership in yourself and attending training, you are also taking ownership for your department because you are part of such an important team. The more a team trains together the more proficient that team is. Professional athletes train together no matter how many years they have on the team. So do professional firefighters. You are an important member of your fire department team. Take ownership for that.

We all know them most challenging aspects of being a volunteer is time. There is never enough of it. And, while it’s understandable that a volunteer firefighter might not be able to attend every drill session—whether because of to work, family obligations, and other reasons–there are still plenty of things a firefighter can do to remain sharp and focused on the job.

Subscribe to the fire service publications, check out the many online training and resources available, and read a fire service book from time to time. These are things you can do on your own time, in the comfort of your own home, and they allow you to take ownership in yourself and make you a better-educated and well-versed professional firefighter.

Strive to find time to be physically fit and up to the job. Nothing looks more unprofessional to the public than firefighters who are not sharp on the job due to lack of on the job training and not up to the job physically due to lack of physical fitness training. Stay fit!

Show what true ownership is to yourself, your department, firehouse and our great fire service by leading by example. Even if some members of the department are beyond help when it comes to the ownership mentality, hopefully new members coming on board will notice how you lead by example and take ownership. You may not be able to reach everybody, but new members will take notice and maybe a bit of it will wear off on them.

You alone are responsible for your attitude and striving to do what is right. Ownership in yourself means you don’t compensate your integrity for anyone.

Ownership is also key component for being an effective fire service leader and officer. In Extreme Ownership, Willink and Babin constantly remind us that good officers exercise ownership for absolutely everything under their command. It might be hard for some to embrace, but as they point out, there are no bad units, only bad officers.

This “extreme ownership” approach is directed at the leaders and officers in any organization. With this type of ownership, the organization leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame when things go wrong. As they describe it, on any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader. The leader must own everything in his or her world. The leader must acknowledge mistakes, admit failures, take ownership of those failures, and develop a plan to overcome them.

A leader needs to have the humility to admit and own mistakes and develop a plan to overcome them. It’s imperative for the team (or department) to succeed. Leaders embracing extreme ownership are   not driven by ego or personal agendas. They are simply focused on the mission and how to best accomplish it.

The best leaders don’t just take responsibility for their job, they take extreme ownership in everything that impacts their mission. This is not limited to the battlefield–the concept is number one characteristic of any high-performing winning team, in any military unit or sports or business team in any industry. The same holds true for any professional volunteer fire department!

How does this apply to our fire service leaders? Simple. Take responsibility for your team, your engine, ladder, squad, or group. Take ownership for your designated responsibilities. Maybe that means being in charge of your personal protective equipment. The hose. The Motorola Minitor pagers. Perhaps you are responsible for leading the team into the fire, or even out on a community detail. Maybe you are the one simply in charge of making sure the coffee is kept stocked up. Whatever it is, own it!

It’s too easy for leaders to blame subordinates when things go wrong or something isn’t done. But remember, it’s not the hand you’re dealt but how you play your hands. Extreme ownership means you learn to work with your team. You must mentor and motivate and clearly outline team expectations and how the team will work together to accomplish the department’s goals. An accomplished leader helps underperformers rise up and achieve success.  Each member is made to realize that they play an important role in the department’s overall success.  

If that EMS kit we talked about earlier was not restocked and was embarrassingly empty on the next run, we have a failure of ownership by the officer who is responsible for checking the rig and equipment over. Yes, the firefighters who used the last of the bandages did not practice ownership, either. However, if the subordinates are not doing their job, leaders exercising extreme ownership do not and cannot blame them. The leaders must look in the mirror and recognize it is them alone whose responsibility (ownership) it is to educate the firefighters under them how to exercise ownership (responsibility) for the mission. The officer takes ownership for training, mentoring, and empowering the firefighters under his or her command.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? For all the definitions, descriptions, and characterizations of leaders, there are only two that matter – effective and ineffective. Effective leaders lead successful teams that accomplish their mission and win. Ineffective leaders do not.

With this mindset of extreme ownership, any person can develop into a highly effective leader. If leaders exhibit extreme ownership and develop a culture of extreme ownership within their teams and organizations, the rest falls into place. Soon a leader no longer needs to be involved in the minor details (refilling the EMS kit) but instead focus on other larger-scale matters (reordering needed supplies).

This proves important to the organization in terms of succession management, as well. When the leader (chief, president, commissioner) exercises extreme ownership and expects the same from junior officers (who in turn expect it from the rank and file), the mindset develops throughout the entire organization. It creates a winning attitude and it certainly creates a more professional culture.

We all know the volunteer fire service is facing some tremendous challenges today. However, if department members of all ranks and all tenures work together and embrace the ownership philosophy in everything they do, it will certainly help their department operate in a more organized, efficient, and professional manner.

THOMAS A. MERRILL is a 35-year fire department veteran and a former chief of the Snyder Fire Department in Amherst, New York. He is a fire commissioner for the Snyder Fire District. He served 26 years as a department officer including 15 years in the chief officer ranks. Merrill recently completed five years as chief of department. He has conducted various fire service presentations throughout the Western New York area as well as at FDIC. He also is a fire dispatcher for the Amherst (NY) Fire Alarm Office. He can be reached at [email protected]

 

 

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