Character, Attitudes, and Values: Defining the ‘Good’ Firefighter

by Tony Correia

You get a new firefighter who joins your organization with a portfolio of classes and certifications that would be the envy of a 30-year veteran. He’s also been in four departments in the past three years. Within six months he becomes unbearable; regularly creating dissension, arguing with officers all the time, and freelancing on the fireground.

Then, there’s the other new firefighter who has no training and has never been in a fire or emergency services organization. She also volunteers with Habitat for Humanity and at the senior citizen home two evenings a week. She has been in your department now for three years. She was assigned a mentor when she first joined, and now is the model firefighter. She attends classes, listens, and learns from the senior man, and performs proficiently at emergency incidents as part of a high-performing team. Sound familiar? 

It’s been estimated 10 to 15 percent of what firefighters do involves hoselines, halligans, and hydraulic tools. One-hundred percent of what firefighters do involve character, attitude, and values, yet we mostly emphasize tactical skills, not the people skills we use most often. Although having the tactical knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA) to do the job is critical, without the affective domain, firefighters with KSAs will lack the interpersonal skills that are integral to being a good firefighter. According to retired Chief Ed Kensler,

“Although there are three specific domains that we identify as our KSAs (Knowledge or cognitive domain, Skills or psychomotor domain, Ability/Attitude, or affective domain), we often neglect the importance of evaluating the person’s affective domain. As a result, although the individual may have the highest test score, and the fastest time performing skills, they still may not be a good fit for your organization unless you also consider the person’s affective domain (character, attitude, values).” 

I will bridge the gap between tactical and interpersonal attributes and provide a framework to proactively implement plans and processes to improve interpersonal skills and the attributes that go with them. We’ll discuss what happens if you don’t address these items in firefighter development. Chief Dave LeBlanc of Harwich (MA) Fire Department notes the following regarding a lack of interpersonal skills:

“Most of our problems result from this lack, whether on or off duty, at the firehouse, or on the fireground. Since the majority of our time is not spent fighting fires, we need to focus on our people and use the time we are with them to our advantage. This will pay off on the fireground, as well as when they are off duty, hopefully avoiding the litany of newspaper articles that start with “firefighter arrested” for crimes related to lack of ethics.”

Recruiting and retaining the right people for the work we do requires understanding the characteristics of a high-performing, functional fire service member, as well. This doesn’t come by osmosis, it comes from a multi-pronged approach that starts with understanding and recognizing the character traits of a good firefighter which are based good character traits in general, and those that make a good firefighter in your department. In this article, we will stick with a more general and holistic perspective.

What’s a “Good” Firefighter?

Regarding the traits of a good firefighter, there is no general consensus or set of standards, but in fire service journals, the following qualities are noted most often: integrity, trustworthiness, ethical, honorable, team player, collaborative, emotional control especially under stress, flexible, adaptable, has good interpersonal communication skills, commitment, has a passion for the fire service, and is mentally and physically fit.

Emotional Intelligence

How do we objectively measure these traits? Sure, we have our opinions and intuition. They may or may not be right, but how do we validate our assessment of a new firefighter objectively? One widely accepted, reliable method many industries use is measuring emotional intelligence (EI), also known as the emotional quotient (EQ).  The following is a brief outline and definition from Psychology Today of EI:  

“Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.” Further description is broken down in these four skills:

Self-awareness – The ability to recognize your own emotions and how they affect your thoughts and behaviour, know your strengths and weaknesses, and have self-confidence.

Self-management – The ability to control impulsive feelings and behaviours, manage your emotions in healthy ways, take initiative, follow through on commitments, and adapt to changing circumstances.

Social awareness – The ability to understand the emotions, needs, and concerns of other people, pick up on emotional cues, feel comfortable socially, and recognize the power dynamics in a group or organization.

Relationship management – The ability to develop and maintain good relationships, communicate clearly, inspire and influence others, work well in a team, and manage conflict.

Figure by author.

The validated traits outlined in the chart above fit with what most of our opinions are of a good firefighter. Additionally, Gondahl and Husain research found, “Whereas, emotional intelligence is found to have significant relationship with employees’ performance signifying that emotional intelligence is more important than Intelligence quotient at (the) workplace.”(1)  EI is one tool that is fairly reliable in helping you assess if a person will be a good fit for your fire department. Research found in “The Measurement of Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review of the Literature and Recommendations for Researchers and Practitioners” (2) provides an analysis of multiple EI assessment tools that can be integrated into fire service organizations. Multiple research papers indicate a strong connection of the benefit EI as one part of developing high performing firefighters.

EI not only provides us a process to measure whether a potential firefighter has the traits related to the fire service, it provides us parameters to incorporate in our recruitment process. We can use the EI traits to promote the qualities we are looking for in potential firefighters so they understand a fire department’s expectations upfront. EI is not just a process to be one and done. It is a tool that is part of the ongoing human resource evaluation and feedback process.

Instilling Organizational/Personal Core Values

Another part of developing a new firefighter, as well as retaining veteran firefighters is promoting and instilling organizational and personal core values. What are your organizational values? Why are they important? How do you and your department identify or create them towards developing a cultural ethos that is the hallmark of successful and high-performing fire departments?

Firefighters must have personal core values and align them with the organization’s core values. Let’s start with individual values. Katherine Dean describes the importance of aligning personal and organizational core values, (http://www.valuesbasedleadershipjournal.com/issues/vol1issue1/dean.php) (3)

 “The Earmarks of Ethical Leadership – Because values play such an important role in our lives, being able to recognize, understand, and articulate one’s own values set becomes critical in sound decision-making. Additionally, the ability to identify an employer’s corporate values will assist in determining an employee’s job performance and allegiance. Consequently, when an individual discovers genuine and meaningful alignment between his or her own personal values with those of his or her employer, a powerful connection is created. This connection creates numerous possibilities for both individual growth and company productivity, manifested in myriad ways.”

The above analysis provides impetus to not only understanding  but developing personal core values that will align with our fire department organization. The following are a set of personal core values found in the following article “ https://acorr1954.com/2014/08/20/firefighters-gotta-have-heart/

  • Honor
  • Ethics
  • Accountability
  • Responsibility
  • Trust / Integrity

HEART provides generally accepted values for humans as firefighters, but they’re not the end-all, be-all. You have to do self-reflection to find what’s really important to you. This helps you figure out what drives you, what helps create your character.

Organizational core values are integral towards developing a culture of success and high performance in an organization. Gorenak and Kosir in their 2012 (4) work found a correlation between how organizational values are stated and how well an organization performs. Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright also developed the Tribal Leadership, (in a text of the same name) concepts with more than 10 years of rigorous research, interviews, and studies that clearly demonstrate the relationship of organizational performance to being aligned on core values.

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Another key component of the relationship between a firefighter and the fire department is based on the alignment of personal core values with the organization’s core values/culture. The following research outlines the importance of this alignment.

Berkhout and Rowlands (2007) conducted research on personal and organizational values among employees of organizations that specialize in alternative energy sources (solar electricity, wind electricity, smaller hydro-electrical plants, etc.), they determined that those organizations that focus their selection procedure on matching personal values with organizational values tend to be significantly more successful in their work because of the fact that employees have a higher level of job satisfaction.

How many fire departments take the time to create valid, functional, and relevant core values? How many departments engage all their members in developing organizational core values? Or does management find four or five cool words and create a document that has no buy-in? That has very little chance of aligning and connecting members to support and live by? How many firefighters critically examine their own core values and expectations and how they align with their department’s culture? Chiefs and station leaders take note–your people will create their own core values and culture if you don’t do it together! Often, this ad-hoc station culture is at odds with the organization’s intended and expected core values, which could lead to a dysfunctional fire department. As we connect the rest of the dots towards developing firefighter character, attitude, and values; the importance of values becomes even more pronounced.

Recruiting, Interviewing, Introducing

Now that we’ve addressed EI/personal character traits and values, how should you recruit, interview, and introduce a new firefighter to your department? All of these practices have critical impact  on the character, the attitude, and the values of your firefighters and how well they integrate with your department.

Aim for the Right Recruits

Design recruitment to improve your chances of aligning your organization with the right potential recruits. Describe your organization and what you do transparently, and tell them what you really do, not what just sounds cool. Successful recruitment campaigns use a positive but realistic message to connect with the people who would be a fit with your organization. Whether career or volunteer, messages such as “Can You Fill These Boots?” “You Have the Power To Serve,” or “Do You Have What It Takes?” are broad and challenge the potential recruit.

Describe what your organization really does. If you don’t fight fire frequently, don’t make your campaign all about fighting fire, and doing extrications. Show how your serves your community by doing public education, installing smoke detectors, and show the camaraderie of your tribe. Don’t create a false image of the department or portray cultural dysfunction you are trying to cure.

Provide a positive, engaging, and challenging message, but be transparent and accurately portray your department. A probie working a toilet brush might not be the best picture to show. People who join fire departments want to be challenged. You don’t want a mismatch of expectations. When you indicate you do fires, extrications, and high-angle rescues every week and haven’t had a fire in six months or an extrication in three months, your new firefighters will become disillusioned and disappointed, which will show in their behavior and performance.

“Recruitment is the absolute foundation for success in any organization. If the recruiter is simply selling a shiny product and trying to get someone to sign on the dotted line, the agency will suffer. By starting the conversation before someone joins or is hired that the skills you are looking for include physical, task-level ability and an empathetic heart and mind that understand what public service truly is, you have already begun a process that ensures your expectations as a department are being met.”  Davidson

Initial Interview

In the initial interview, I beg you, don’t start with, “So why do you want to join the fire department?” This will lead to a canned answer. Start describing your department, including a clear expectations of the duties, the responsibilities, and the performance. Detail your mission, your vision, and your values. Why your organization is a good place to belong/work? If your organization has challenges–low staffing, poor funding, or poor governmental support, don’t sugarcoat it. Instead, describe what you’re doing to improve the situation, ask how the interviewee can be part of the solution. Then ask about the person about himself, his family, his hobbies, and his current job. Ask, why is he a good fit for “THIS” fire department, not FDNY, not Johnson County, Missouri, where he may have come from, but your department. Ask him what he brings to your department, where he sees himself in a year, and in five years. Measure all these questions and the ensuing discussion against an EI assessment. Jaqueline Smith provides 15 interview questions related to emotional intelligence in the 12/17/2014 issue of Leader magazine (https://www.the-leader.com/article/20141217/BUSINESS/312179976)(5). You should be assessing whether they are service-oriented, get along with people, take criticism well, and are open to change and progress. These are just some of the questions to ask to see if they are people and community-centric.

Onboarding/Orientation

 Once they’ve been offered membership or employment to your fire department, your onboarding/orientation/indoctrination process is critical. At this point, you’ve set them up for success or failure, and whether they will become a good fit with your department. This is where you provide new recruits with the organization’s history, its culture, and its expectations. Most recruit programs concentrate on becoming proficient with hoselines, halligans, and hydraulic tools. While extremely important; this is a key period where it is important that you detail character, attitude, and values expected in your department. They should’ve already heard about these perspectives during the recruitment and the interview processes. Here you make sure they know who you are as an organization and provides crystal-clear expectations of them as team members.

A novel way to make sure they know and remember this process is to have them study your oath and write a paragraph or two about what it means to them. What, your department just uses a generic oath? You don’t have one specific to your organization? Then go back and work on that before bringing new people in. You have them swear to some generic set of words that has little relation to your organization, yet you want them to swear allegiance to it? Here’s a good article from FireRescue to provide some perspective on the oath and how it can help your organization day in and out.

This is where you spend time to provide a clear understanding of your organization’s mission, vision, and values. If these three foundational principles are not strong in your organization, these impressionable new members will be influenced by your station’s culture; if it is not good, you’ll see the undesirable  results in no time. Just like the candidate, the department has only one opportunity to make a first impression. Is your department prepared? Is your organizational culture something you’re proud of, does it foster teamwork, personal and professional growth, and serve its community with distinction? Does it have a fire family atmosphere that people want to be part of? Culture makes or breaks an organization. Take the time and effort to cultivate a high-performing culture.

Mentoring

Once you’ve onboarded your new people with a positive attitude and fire in their bellies to be the best firefighters they can be, a formal mentoring program is crucial. This is key to them becoming long-term, valued, and productive members of your tribe. It is not field or skills training, although that may be part of the mentoring. You take what they learned in recruit school and take it to the next level. According to http://www.mentorsupportnetwork.com.au/ (6)“Mentoring is sharing knowledge, skills, and life experience to guide another towards reaching their full potential; it’s a journey of shared discovery.” Mentoring is taking a firefighter or three with a passion for sharing their journey in the fire department and in life to help someone else succeed.

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Successful mentoring programs require proper understanding, planning, implementation, and evaluation. Mentoring is key to developing a new member to becoming an asset or lifetime liability to your organization. How to mentor, who mentors and how to interact with the rookie are all key to success or failure.  Mentoring doesn’t just benefit the recruit. In research outlined in the following article – The Chronicle Of Evidence-based Mentoring – October 21, 2015, in “New Mentoring Research” by Jean Rhodes; the following was found;

Results: Compared to colleagues who did not mentor, individuals who served as mentors within their workplace reported greater job satisfaction and commitment to the organization. In addition, higher quality relationships were associated with even greater benefits. The multiple benefits of mentoring cannot be understated. The research is clear on its benefits.

The following link provides additional details of what a successful mentoring program looks like. https://acorr1954.com/mentoring-resources/

As part of the above processes, cover the following critical subjects, which are all important to the development of the behaviors you expect in your new firefighters.

  • Mental health – proactive processes, as well as how to deal with stress
  • Commitment to diversity
  • Openness to change, being flexible; openness to progress, to adaptation, evolution
  • Developing confidence, not being cocky
  •  Developing resilience, not just talking about it, but putting them through challenges that develops resilience and growth
  • Developing Emotional Intelligence – Working with others/understanding interpersonal communication and dynamics
  • Effective communication, including listening skills (listening to understand)
  • Commitment to ongoing personal and professional development;
  • Holistic health and wellness
  • Problem-solving/critical thinking
  • Commitment to excellence
  • Planning and implementing; situational awareness.
  • Political and organizational awareness
  • Organizational culture/firehouse etiquette
  • Promoting a positive image of themselves and the fire dept. – Integrity/ethics

It’s a long list, however, these are the skills, practices, and issues you will deal with the most. Take the time to cover them at the beginning of their careers and it will provide a strong foundation of expected behavior in new recruits. The organization’s cultural values and expectations are introduced and reinforced through a formal onboarding process that includes integrated, organized orientation, field training, and mentoring. Create a detailed roadmap to successful professional development and fire service career.

“We are in a trade which requires continuous improvement of strategic, tactical, and interpersonal skills. It takes courage to hold others to a standard of excellence both in the firehouse and on the fireground.” – Hannah Elliott

To make all the above happen requires planning, persistence, and promotion. Developing a plan is not as simple as a chief officer writing down their personal perspective of what develops character, attitude, values. It takes a team, it takes a village. Here are the key principles that all department members should clearly understand. Your fire department exists solely to provide service to others. Those you serve allow you to provide those services– your residents, your elected officials, and your community in general. Your fire department is a reflection of all your members, not just one or two. With those perspectives in mind, you can start planning.

Developing character, attitude, and values in a new firefighter in large part comes from an organization with a mission, vision, and values that are embedded in your department’s culture and lived every day.

Once all stakeholders, especially your firefighters, understand and accept your mission, vision, and values, you can use them to develop character, attitude, and values in new recruits and reinforce it in the fire department and among veteran firefighters daily. Take a cue from Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries. Father Boyle’s Homeboy Industries, (https://homeboyindustries.org/ ) provides jobs for people who have been in prison or who have other similar challenges in life. Every morning before work Father Boyle has someone new read Homeboys Mission Statement, every day it’s reinforced. It’s actions like this that establish and sustains a high-performing fire department culture that develops an environment where morale is high, relationships are strong and collaboration is the norm.

Doing the work on the front end to build an environment that supports a high-performing culture that delivers high-quality services with pride and in a harmonious manner is well worth the work. With a few key processes in place, it will be self-sustainable. It’s much easier to teach skills and tactical competence than it is to develop character, attitude, and values. However, successfully performing tactical skills–operating hoselines, halligans, and hydraulic tools–is totally predicated on behaviors that character, attitude, and values influence. We joke we can teach a monkey to be a firefighter or a medic, then we all laugh. However, take this for perspective. The monkey won’t argue with the officer because he thinks he has a better way. The monkey won’t freelance because he doesn’t like his assignment. The monkey will carry out the task as directed. But the monkey won’t have the character, attitude, and values to be a service-oriented team player. Someone who is respectful, compassionate, and seeks continuous improvement in dealing with the community and fellow firefighters. All of these combined makes a successful firefighter, one who can perform the duties as required and also positively  influence the organization as a whole.

“Just as important, if not more so, as what someone knows, is how someone thinks, how they react, and ultimately, who they truly are.” – Nick Ledin

Operating hoselines, halligans  and hydraulic tools is the basis of our business. It’s at the core of the fire service’s existence. They don’t operate on their own. We haven’t yet recruited furry primates to operate these tools of the trade. It’s humans who use their cognitive and affective domains to perform tactical skills. It’s firefighters who have the right character, attitude, and values that we develop by recruiting emotionally intelligent people for an organization that values people first.

References

  1. Asian Journal of Business Management. 5(1): 153-162, 2013 ISSN: 2041-8744; E-ISSN: 2041-8752 © Maxwell Scientific Organization, 2013 Submitted: September 14, 2012 Accepted: October 09, 2012 Published: 15 January, 2013 Corresponding Author: Uzma Hanif Gondal, COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Lahore, Pakistan 153 A Comparative Study of Intelligence Quotient and Emotional Intelligence: Effect on Employees’ Performance Uzma Hanif Gondal and Tajammal Husain COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Lahore, Pakistan.
  2. Frontiers in Psychology. 2019; 10: 1116.; Published online 2019 May 28. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01116; PMCID: PMC6546921; PMID: 31191383; The Measurement of Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review of the Literature and Recommendations for Researchers and Practitioner. Peter J. O’Connor,1,* Andrew Hill,2,3 Maria Kaya,1,4 and Brett Martin4 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6546921/http://www.valuesbasedleadershipjournal.com/issues/vol1issue1/dean.php
  3. “The Importance of Organizational Values for Organization.” Mitja Gorenak International School for Social and Business Studies, Slovenia mitja.gorenak@issbs.si Suzana Košir International School for Social and Busines  https://www.issbs.si/press/ISBN/978-961-6813-10-5/papers/ML12_117.pdf
  4. The Chronicle Of Evidence-based Mentoring. – October 21, 2015/in New Mentoring Research /by Jean Rhodes; https://www.evidencebasedmentoring.org/new-study-highlights-the-benefits-of-serving-as-a-mentor
  5. The Leader. Jacquelyn Smith 12/17/2014    https://www.the-leader.com/article/20141217/BUSINESS/312179976

Anthony Correia has 43 years of fire and EMS service. 30 of those years in senior leadership positions, rising to chief, in both career and volunteer organizations. Tony is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and currently an officer with the New Jersey State Fire Chiefs Association. He is also a National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Advocate and LAST member. Tony has presented several times at FDIC International and written articles for FireRescue Magazine and FirefighterNation. You can find more at acorr1954.com

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