Four Ways to Build Firefighter Confidence and Self-Esteem

By John M. Buckman III

Above photo by Tim Olk

Having firefighters with high self-esteem and confidence has a direct correlation with job satisfaction and performance. Leaders and managers can significantly contribute to this process through authentic communication and encouragement. Here are four ways you can support your firefighters so they can be their best.


Listen closely with the intent to understand what is being said. Listening is a practiced skill. Remember, we have two ears and one mouth…which should we use more often? You always listen to someone you value, but you must also listen to those you don’t value with similar intensity. When you listen to someone and they want action, take that action quickly. They will feel appreciated when you listen and act (when necessary.)

Listening shows respect, empathy, and value in the person who is talking with you.

Coffee Stains: Marks of Leadership Lessons Learned


Be nice, Chief Alan Brunacini taught us many years ago. Treating people with dignity is a very important skill for leaders. People should not be insulted or degraded in any way by others. Giving and receiving respect is important because it helps those around us feel secure in our relationships. Respect is a way of treating others consistently and fairly. Some of us may have grown up with fire station ribbing—ridicule designed to see how thick somebody’s skin is and whether or not they can take it. That is not an appropriate tactic in communicating with others and enhancing relationships. When we ridicule others, it hurts. They might laugh at the joke, but the reality is it hurts our self-esteem and creates social anxiety with those who are around us.


Help your firefighters realize that setbacks happen to everyone. It is how they react to the setback determines their ability to succeed in the face of setbacks. The key to self-esteem is to learn from mistakes. Mistakes are opportunities to improve.

Often, when self-esteem and confidence are low, people automatically look to themselves as the reason they failed when that may not always be the case. A debriefing may be in order so that firefighters can learn to look at these situations more objectively. It is during the learning that might take place during the debriefing that their self-esteem and confidence can continue to grow.

Mistakes Even Happen to Firefighters: A Preoccupation with Failure

For the most part, mistakes are not made on purpose or with a malicious intent. Firefighters don’t intend to get their officer riled up by making a mistake. Mistakes happen for a variety of reasons but most often they can be attributed to a lack of training or competency. Accept the reality of mistakes and use coaching techniques to make the changes needed to not make a similar mistake again.

The key to a good coach is using the talents of the person to help them get better.

Coaches need a toolbox of resources to use. Like most of our human-resource issues, there is no one method to successfully manage these issues. As a new coach, avoid sticking to familiar techniques as people are different and a technique may work for one does not always work for others. It doesn’t matter what technique works as long as the desired outcome is achieved.

When someone makes a mistake or uses poor judgement it is critical that they learn from the experience. Learning from a mistake should be taken as an opportunity to better yourself and the decisions you make.

Sometimes as a coach, we first need to look at the cause.

Everyone wants to please, but often frustrated firefighters may feel that they’re not doing it right and they can be verbal about this. Dig into the issue and look for the root cause of the event. What made the person make the mistake? Sometimes being lazy may be a reason, but other times it might be that the firefighter isn’t familiar with that particular situation. This isn’t a time to panic. Remain confident.

Patience is an important skill in coaching. Look at a sports coach. How many times to the players execute a skill in order to become proficient? Repetition is the key to competency. A coach doesn’t yell. The coach uses positive encouragement to motivate the player to do it over again and learn from this failure. Attitude and tone of voice have a lot to do with successful coaches. The person being coached can pick up unconsciously on your emotions and nerves, which affects their belief about the situation.


We all want to be appreciated by friends, co-workers, and superiors. I believe this is very important component to building self-esteem and confidence. The appreciation must be earned and the acknowledgement genuine. If firefighters receive appreciation and acknowledgement for their hard work, their productivity, self-esteem, and self-confidence will increase significantly.

Learning from Past Mistakes: Leadership from the Other Side of the Desk

When a certain task or a project is completed, recognize the accomplishment. Recognition will help significantly to increasing self-esteem and improve productivity and motivation. It’s also important to give recognition evenly and consistently. Strong leaders will find something to recognize in each firefighter based on their daily job performance and contributions to the overall company goals.

It is also important for firefighters to recognize their leaders’ accomplishments. When you are promoted, the leader needs to have a similar appreciation for a job well done or a task completed.


Part of the role of a leader is to foster an environment in which members strive to succeed in their tasks everyday. One component of that is having competent and confident firefighters. Train your people, be attentive, and acknowledge their successes. This will help develop a culture in your department that will get the job done when it comes to helping those we are sworn to serve.

JOHN M. BUCKMAN III has served 47 years as a volunteer firefighter and 35 years as chief at the German Township (IN) Volunteer Fire Department. He was president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs in 2001-2002. He has presented in all 50 states, Canada, Dominican Republic, Mexico, and China.

This commentary reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fire Engineering. It has not undergone Fire Engineering‘s peer-review process.

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