Photo courtesy the Indianapolis Fire Department
Congratulations to those driving or riding in the Fire SUV. It indicates an important milestone in your career. It demonstrates a major milestone in your exemplary career beginning as a probationary firefighter; proceeding through the steps of advancement to First Class firefighter, eligible for a position as a Lieutenant, Captain and now Battalion Chief or Chief Officer.
Is this honor only achieved by time in grade? I think not. It is an accumulation of education, hours of learning, teaching or training and hundreds of hours of on-the-job experience obtaining street smarts. Large fires; small fires; cats in trees; rescues, drownings, birth and death and hundreds of experiences in emergency services.
Some of you have been faced with major fires, high rise fires, plane crashes and other catastrophic events in your communities including natural disasters – probably not as the command officer but as the firefighter or fire officer – learning and watching from the person in the Fire SUV. You yearn to be that person as a major milestone in your career.
It is a matter of your combined experience, education, desire and leadership abilities that puts you in that Fire SUV. It makes no difference if you are in a one station community operation or a forty station metropolitan area – the responsibility remains the same. Leadership is the key ingredient.
Now it is your turn – promoted to Battalion Chief or Chief Officer responsible for all of the emergent and non-emergent activities in your department. You are responsible for the welfare and safety of your firefighters under your command working in extreme conditions and in the station. You are equally responsible for the citizens affected by, hopefully, a once in a lifetime event in their lives.
What is your leadership style? Leadership takes many forms – Director, Coach, Supportive Cheerleader or Delegator and a great leader is a combination of those four leadership types at various times with various firefighters. Each firefighter is unique in their needs for direction and understanding. Your leadership style must reflect your understanding of those needs addressing the needs of each situation. You cannot cookie-cutter your leadership style for all of your firefighters in non-emergent times. However, the fire ground is different from a management’s perspective where the many firefighters are tasked with accomplishing one or more tasks. There is very little discussion or deliberation about those tasks and assignments. As you are aware, that training begins before the fire starts.
Your leadership style has been learned from many other leaders you interacted with, watched in action, read about or learned from. Many of you have adopted the best traits and rejected the worst traits creating a unique leader now sitting in the Fire SUV directing the emergency operations.
Leadership is also the ability to train and educate others especially, your followers, remembering a great leader has great followers. A solid and knowledgeable followership is important for successful leaders. Leading from the front requires people behind you to carry out those important tasks and assignments. Followership takes time and energy for leadership to cultivate in their organizations.
We are all in a leadership role in all points in our career. I was teaching a Leadership class a few months ago and asked the class what their super-powers were as a leader. Many of the older students stated their commitment to their department, their families or their communities in trying to improve safety or as a parent or coach for some sports team. One member of the class who was a probationary firefighter and when asked about his super-power, he indicated he did not have one as a probie. When pressed, he admitted he has worked with other probies on certain aspects of fire operations every time they are on shift. I pointed out his leadership super-power was to take on the responsibility to train and educate his fellow probies as a member of the organization. We need to recognize we all have something to offer to the organization at all levels of your professional development.
It seems the rookie firefighter has something to share as well as the most seasoned firefighter. All a leader needs to do is to listen to others; hear what they have to say and absorb that knowledge and wisdom – using all that information to improve your firefighter’s health and safety.
Your SUV Leadership does not end at the scene of an emergency. It is a 24/7 position that carries over to your family and community. The leader has to also remember the workplace needs to be a safe place for our firefighters. We do not condone discrimination of our firefighters. We have all too often seen a firefighter regardless of gender, race or beliefs, suing a department for discrimination because the leader failed to act on an observation or a report of discrimination. It is your obligation to create a safe and healthy workplace for all who report to you. Laws preventing discrimination have been in place for over sixty years to protect those who were discriminated against, yet departments spend millions of dollars related to discrimination litigation each year. It is up to you to respect those individuals who are different than the mainstream firefighters and to have your followers respect others.
Finally, one of the most important roles of your SUV leadership position is to share your knowledge with those moving up behind you. What started out as a career became a lifelong obligation by developing your leadership traits starting years ago when you where crawling around in a training tower as a rookie: now it is your turn to pass on those skills. A smart and effective leader surrounds themselves with individuals smarter than them. There is a collective wisdom in this approach. Surrounding yourself with many smart individuals provides a great resource base for you and trains future leaders in developing their leadership styles, mannerisms and compassion for those we lead.
Showing up in a red SUV, light flashing and siren blaring is only one aspect of your responsibilities. Be an expert in your profession and pass on that leadership knowledge to others. The hard work is in the station and at home.