Commentary, Leadership

Starting Them Off Right: Building the Foundation for a Successful Organization

Firefighter at a recognition ceremony

By Chad Costa

Hiring in the fire service has changed drastically over the years. Many organizations have upgraded their services to Advanced Life Support and hired paramedics. Along with this increase in our medical services and requirements, the fire service has seen a generational change in its workforce. According to PowerDMS, by 2025, millennials will occupy 75 percent of the workforce. Millennials are roughly defined as those born between 1982 and 2000 and are now the largest generation in the workforce. For this reason, now is a great time to think about how to retain our newest generations of firefighters.

Combining the increase in certification, education, and competition with the technology industry, the fire service’s pool of firefighter paramedics has dwindled. Additionally, our greatest workforce, the Millennials, tend to approach the workplace with the mentality: “What’s in it for me?” The millennial generation has no qualms about switching jobs and are constantly on the lookout for new opportunities. 

This generational and cultural change has created difficulty for departments to find qualified firefighter-paramedics to fill the massive amount of turnover. Fire service leadership, now more than ever, needs to increase the focus on the members that choose our family. It is imperative that we support and build the members from the first day of the academy. We need to embrace our members and do everything we can do to make them successful. Below are some key points to our long-term organizational success.

Welcome Them to the Family

The fire service is our second family as we spend a large portion of our life on the job protecting and serving. Being a firefighter is the best job in the world and the individuals that make up our organization’s will determine our internal happiness. We need to remember that entry level recruits are wanting to join our family. If they are successful, then our organization will become theirs. They need to understand the role of a probationary employee, but they also need to know that they are welcome and wanted. They should be aware that their work ethic is what earns the respect of the family, but they also need to know that the organization is excited to have them and that we will support them through a difficult probationary process. Once members feel supported and have a purpose, you will see a measurable difference in their heartfelt effort to succeed and give back. 

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I have found that the most cohesive organizations are ones where members attend events off duty. When friendships and relationships in and outside of the firehouse are formed, members will respect and treat each other on another level. Leadership, both formal and informal, should set up off duty department events such as camping trips or attending sporting events. These types of off duty get-togethers will rapidly pay off for the future of building your team. Our entry-level recruits are our future and will someday informally or formally lead. Welcoming them to our family on and off duty will help build a culture of teamwork, self-motivation, and success.

Set a Positive Example

Academy instructors and informal and formal leaders need to set the example for success. Members who witness dedication, self-motivation, and a high level of performance will naturally raise their own standards. The influence these leaders have on our newest members is substantial and will set foundational principles for our recruits. Agencies need a regimented academy and probationary process that sets obtainable tasks and performance, accompanied by a group that is positive and supports is a key to success. When our members are exposed to a motivated workforce that is aligned with our mission and values, they too will follow suit. 

Organizational leadership needs to show sacrifice. Examples of sacrifice are showing up when it’s not expected. That is not to catch people off guard but to show that your culture embraces sacrifice at all levels. When your members see chief officers or department leadership showing up off duty they will buy into that positive culture. At the very least, lead by example by jumping in with your recruits and complete skills alongside them. Be humble and show them that this service is not about the “I,” it’s about the “we.” Chief officers should make their presence seen and felt as much as possible and additionally make efforts to walk in those shoes that they once wore. Your membership will respect and follow when you lead with these examples. A toxic, disgruntled environment will surely discourage growth and success and will eventually lead to the departure of our members looking for an organization that provides positive support or better employee benefits.

Be Hard and Tough—But No Hazing

Probation should be tough as our recruits need to prove that they belong amongst our family. The firefighter job is hard, and our decisions and actions can have drastic outcomes on the public’s lives. However, hazing or treating people unethically is not the answer and has no place in our service. By no means am I advocating for letting our probationary employees slide. I believe everything is earned and no one should be allowed to pass probation without meeting the standard. However, our newest members should not be eating in the apparatus bay or be completely segregated from the crew. Spending time at the table or in the team environment allows them to express who they really are, and it allows their mentorship to truly evaluate them.

Treating people the wrong way and bullying them will destroy culture. If your department still employs these tactics, break the chain. If the chain is not broken, then it’s the leadership’s responsibility to break it.  If it is allowed, then your up-and-coming leaders will not know any better. Being tough and making people work hard is important as it instills work ethic and pride. We just need to ensure we are doing it the right way by instilling work ethic but not discouraging our members to be open and honest about themselves and their needs. It is important that our recruits give 100 percent. Establishing this positive and welcoming culture will produce successful members that are self-motivated and give everything they have.

Keep an Open Mind Regarding Change

Our newest generation of firefighters is looking for an organization that embraces positive change. The adage, “that’s how we have always done it,” will cripple your younger workforce and have them seeking other opportunities. Creating a process for your membership to provide input on change will empower and instill trust and organizational ownership. Our newest generations are looking for a purpose and a connection to the organization. Creating purpose and supporting their ideas will significantly increase your overall team dynamic and productivity. Once you have created a process and embraced change you may find that some of your greatest ideas will come from the lowest level. Our current generations are data driven and are highly skilled in research and development. Allow them to open their mind and bring information to your decision-making process. 

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Technology and science drive our most important decisions and we are blessed to have generations that are skilled in those areas. Use the amazing brains that are entering our service and empower them to create realistic data that supports positive and successful change. Progressive and successful organizations embrace these data-driven decisions and use their workforce to create and carry out positive change. 

When Failure Occurs, Build Them Up 

We all fail and make mistakes and our newest members are no different. At some point they are going to struggle, and it is important that we accept this and allow for these instances without destroying their trust and drive. When mistakes happen, hold them accountable, but do not forget to build them up. Most members beat themselves up for mistakes. Build them up by embracing and encouraging a culture that never quits and strives for perfection. Perfection may not be obtainable in every situation, but the culture of the organization should strive to get it right every time. Accepting mistakes and learning from failure is what ultimately leads to perfection. Combine this individual drive with a team effort and your organization will soon have a positive, highly effective culture.

Ensure they have the training necessary to succeed and give everything you can to ensure their success. No member should fail without being given every opportunity to succeed. The last thing we want to do is lose a good employee for something that was fixable. Once a member has been given every opportunity, then your leadership will need to decide on his or her future. In these cases, it is important to have both the overall mission of the organization and the individual in mind. Overlooking failures during your entry-level process is a major mistake and could potentially affect the individual and the organization for the span of entire career. 

Empower and Encourage Informal Leadership

The informal leader is the most important position in the fire service. Formal leadership sets the direction of the organization, but the informal leaders are the ones that dictate the speed of the ship. Your informal leaders will affect dedication and devotion to the department. These informal leaders have a direct connection and will lead when the formal leadership is not present. A successful dedicated group of informal leaders will do wonders for your organization and keep your newest members on track and focused on the mission and values. 

To build an organization with an ingrained informal leadership group, formal leadership needs to embrace this model. By allowing ownership throughout your organization, members will gravitate to these roles. Ownership entails responsibility and these responsibilities need to be empowered amongst every rank. From firefighter to officer, your membership should be allowed to have department or mentorship responsibility. When you have members that have responsibility and a purpose, they will give another level of dedication to the organization. Examples include teaching in your academies or teaching skill sets to your membership. When you give purpose, your organization will empower informal leadership and your ship will double its speed. Successful organizations have strong informal leadership that understands the mission and helps support the leader’s intent.

Career Succession and Opportunities

Our latest generations have different needs than our older generations. Career opportunities are a major contributor to the recruitment and retention of our modern fire service members. Opportunities for promotional growth combined with diverse career opportunities will encourage people to apply and keep your members engaged. Providing opportunities for station movements and opportunities to learn multiple skill sets (ladder trucks, rescues, hazmat, wildland, etc.) will assist on this front. Our newest generations tend to seek these changes and challenges. Allowing for change and opportunity for new challenges will help with recruitment and retention of members.

Many smaller organizations will struggle with providing these opportunities as there are limitations to what is offered. These organizations are successful by providing a positive supportive environment where each member’s contributions have direct effects on the department. Amongst smaller organizations you will find members that have large administrative responsibilities. This empowering tactic works extremely well if it is embraced by leadership. Spreading workload and delegating responsibility is a key to success for these agencies. Small or large, all organizations need to build off their strengths and support their members as much as possible.

Encourage a Healthy Workforce

Change in the fire service is ever evolving. There have been many significant changes over my career. Two monumental changes in the health of firefighters are the renewed focus on physical fitness and caring about our members’ mental health. Early in my career I saw a rapid change regarding physical fitness. Through many studies, it was determined that heart attacks were a leading cause of death amongst our members. The switch to embrace physical fitness and make it a priority for our day has encouraged a healthy workforce. Firefighter fitness and exercise is an important factor in not only our lives but the lives of the family fighting next to us. Allowing for an hour a day and embracing and encouraging fitness has done wonders for our service. Our newest generations believe in a healthy lifestyle and are looking for organizational support to make that happen.

Mental health has thankfully been another major positive change in our service. The mental health revolution was slower to evolve but has made an enormous leap within recent years. The September 11th attacks, active shooter incident, and devastating California wildfires are among some of the traumatizing events that have launched mental health to the front of the line. We are losing brothers and sisters at a rapid pace, but by embracing our mental health, we are fighting back. I can say with certainty that the development of our peer support team was one of the most important additions in my fire service career. I believe embracing mental health and peer support will save a tremendous amount of lives and keep many of our members healthy.

Celebrate Success

Not everyone needs a pat on the back but being recognized is important. Starting in the entry-level academy, leadership needs to encourage the affirmation of their members. When your members are producing and excelling, academy staff ought to acknowledge their achievements. When your newest members see or receive these affirmations, it instils an internal drive for success and encourages competition. This informal competition will drive your members to continually raise the bar of performance and in turn elevate ownership and pride.

Creating commendation awards and celebrating success is imperative to the organizational commitment. We as first responders do amazing things on a day-to-day basis. However, when a member acts on or off duty, we should praise them for their efforts. These commendations need parameters and processes established for such recognitions. Taking the time and making the effort to celebrate actions or good decisions will build strength and institutionalize those behaviors. Do not just focus on fire department-related items; our membership does many amazing things like community service or helping others in need. A member that serves on a school board or consistently gives off-duty hours to community service providers should be recognized and acknowledged as they emulate who a true professional firefighter really is. We are about service and integrity on and off duty.

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It is extremely important to place a high level of dedication to your entry level process and academies. Our newest members are the future and we need to do everything we can to support and encourage their success. Celebrating their success but holding them accountable for their failures will build character and culture. Welcoming them to the family while ensuring that they earn the right to wear the family patch will build dedicated members that contribute to the overall organizational success. Empowering and encouraging informal leadership will contribute to the success of your organization and ensure the mission and values are supported and followed. Ultimately, providing opportunities and supporting our members with achieving their goals will build a dedicated organization from the ground up. Organizations with strong foundations will live prosperously for many years to come.

Chad CostaChad Costa is a battalion chief for the City of Petaluma (CA) Fire Department.