For Officers, Failure Is Not an Option

By Christopher Pepler

Serving as an officer in the fire service can be a daunting task because it has changed in so many ways. Tactics, fire science, staffing, and personal protective equipment are the big items on the forefront of the minds of many officers. But, like it or not, much of our day is spent dealing with personnel issues and the fact that people have changed over the past 30 years.

Many current officers obtained their experience by working under seasoned officers on the fire scene and in the firehouse. We recall those who have left both positive and negative impressions on us since we started as rookies. To this day, officers all over the country sit around the dinner table and talk about their mentors and use quotes like, “I would go to hell and back with Lt. Jones.” Of course, that is the best compliment that any firefighter can receive after surviving a long career in the fire service. But when it comes to dealing with people, how many officers actually have been trained to deal with subordinates effectively?

Generally, promotions are based on a candidate’s knowledge and ability as a firefighter. This approach may miss critical components of dealing with subordinates and training them properly. Once again, we must ask ourselves how much time we spend mastering the art of fireground operations, command, and control vs. how much time we spend trying to deal with those under our command.

Comfort Zone

No one wants to leave his comfort zone. Difficulties come along with the territory of being promoted, and these difficulties are rarely spoken of. The firefighter with whom you sat at the dinner table last night might be the same firefighter you have to reprimand today. Many firefighters display great courage while advancing a hoseline down the long, hot hallway, but so many officers have a hard time transitioning to “the boss” who may have to make unpopular decisions or correct behaviors for fear of being perceived as “the bad guy.” When dealing with strong-willed firefighters, the easiest option sometimes is to ignore the problem.

The impact of ignoring problems can be 10 times more damaging than taking action to correct poor performance, poor decision making, or substandard performance. Of course “they” will talk about you. But, by not addressing issues head on, your credibility is at stake. This is especially important early in the officer’s career while trying to build a reputation.

Case Study: Dave the Driver

You are the newly assigned lieutenant and have been sent to Engine 101. You have nine years in the department and came out number one on the promotional exam. You are known as an aggressive and intelligent firefighter and on two occasions have been recognized for demonstrating dedication and bravery while performing your firefighter duties. You are well-educated in the fire service, and you are an instructor for a local fire school as well as the state fire academy.

Your crew consists of a driver and two firefighters. The driver, Dave, is a 25-year veteran of the department who is not motivated, does what he has to, and keeps to himself. Dave is a negative person and not into the job. He runs a successful excavation business on the side. He has always voiced his opinion that seniority is the best way to promote; he despises younger firefighters who have gotten promoted and refers to them as “bookworms.”

On the third tour with your new crew, you are dispatched to a call for a motor vehicle crash with injuries. Dave is driving too fast and does not come to a complete stop while proceeding through intersections. His former lieutenant warned you that Dave drives too fast and that he will “not listen to some kid who has nine years in the department.” Dave says he knows how to drive and has more time driving trucks than he has been in the department. You also know that Dave is an informal leader and the crew has been together for the past five years. He will be able to influence those on the crew. Dave is also about six months away from retiring. As a new officer, how do you deal with this dilemma?

  • Option 1: Hang in there; Dave will be retiring soon. You think deeply about this dilemma and think that as the new lieutenant, you need to settle in with your new assignment and crew. You know Dave is a seasoned driver and understand that if you talk to him about your concerns, he will work relentlessly to turn the rest of the crew against you. He will give you the silent treatment and pretend that he is not capable of doing anything and will ask you to make the most basic decisions as he plays dumb.

Decision: Dave is close to retirement, and you decide to do nothing. It is the best option to maintain your sanity and stay in good standing with your two other subordinates. Within seven months, you will have a new driver, and this will all get better.

  • Option 2: The counseling session. As the new lieutenant, you think this issue has to be addressed head on. You know Dave will speak negatively about you when you leave the room. You even know the former lieutenant who served with Dave addressed a similar issue with Dave and Dave did not talk to him for three months.

Decision: You decide to pull Dave into the office for a counseling session. You review department policy and explain your future expectations. You go ahead and print out the policies that dictate the expectations of a member of the department along with the policy on driving to calls. You then have a document ready for him to sign that states you discussed this issue with him and you are both clear on the future expectations.

  • Option 3: Call the chief. You are a good judge of character and good at analyzing scenarios. You know that Dave will make things difficult for you if you address the issue head on. You are thinking about seeking guidance on this and do not know where to go.

Decision: You decide to call in the battalion chief (BC) and explain what is going on. The BC knows Dave and understands the situation, and you are relieved. He gives you two options: deal with the matter head on, or he will deal with him. You decide to have the BC deal with the issue because you know Dave will work relentlessly to undermine your capabilities as an officer. The BC calls Dave into a counseling session.

All three options are real-life solutions that can be used in any fire department. If we refer to Newton’s Law of Physics-for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction-we would realize there are many pros and cons to all of the options. Keep in mind that every action or lack thereof will have opposite reactions that can be damaging to your reputation. Let’s look at them.

Results

  • Option 1. Dave continues to drive aggressively. He sees nothing wrong with it and continues to be what you consider reckless. He jokes around and has even helped you build your new deck. The two firefighters on the crew have limited communication with you because they are smart enough to know that you are afraid of Dave. They realize that you are a highly educated officer and make great decisions in the field. They know you are not addressing the issue, and it has destroyed your credibility on the shift.
  • Option 2. It has been three months since Dave attended the counseling session. Immediately after the counseling session, Dave went into the kitchen and told the other two firefighters in your company that you are no good and have no experience. He further goes on to say, “Watch out, the lieutenant is a head hunter and wants to punish us all.” He barely talks to you unless it directly involves work, leaves the room when you walk in, and drives 15 miles under the speed limit. The two other firefighters see you as a leader who knows what he is doing, and they are eager to learn from you. You have gained credibility with them because after five years as a crew, an officer is finally addressing Dave’s arrogance. In fact, one day, in the kitchen, Dave rants about your being no good, and one of your firefighters defends you and tells Dave that if he is so miserable, maybe he should retire sooner rather than later.
  • Option 3. It always helps to have a superior to bounce ideas off. Communicating up the chain of command is a way to get advice from those who have wisdom and experience, and it is what makes the fire service so great. However, passing problems up the chain of command can identify weakness that can hurt your career for years to come. It is important to remember throughout your career that people in all of the ranks are watching and judging you. This option can be as bad as not doing anything at all. You have given the impression to the BC that you are unable to resolve conflict, and he has lost confidence in you. Dave now knows what you think of him and will continue to push you to the limit because you are viewed as weak and afraid. Dave then goes on a rant and speaks ill about you to the firefighters. He even goes so far as to say, “If the lieutenant had a problem with me, why didn’t he tell me himself? Instead, he went to the BC? What a loser.” Your firefighters have been talking on the side and both agree that this maneuver has definitely made you look bad professionally.

All officers must remember that they are being watched. The focus should not be on worrying about our superiors watching over us but that our peers and subordinates are watching us. It takes years to build a good reputation and only minutes to destroy it.

Failing to take action or deferring the responsibility to take action can be as damaging to an officer’s career as freezing at a fire or not extinguishing a fire.

For the past 200 years, the fire service has prided itself on being like a family. This includes not only the family within the organization but also the families of the firefighters and retired firefighters. This family atmosphere makes it more challenging for the officer to do his job because of the closeness of a crew. Once again, today’s officer must realize that although you are a family, you still have a job to do. Officers must realize that they must draw the line between staying loyal to their subordinates and getting the job done. It’s possible that subordinates will not like your decisions. It’s possible that subordinates, who once liked you, will not speak to you anymore because they view management as the enemy. It’s also possible that subordinates you used to be on the line with are jealous of your promotion and their attitudes have soured because of it. These are the things that come along with the territory, and officers need to have the tools to effectively deal with subordinates and continue to perform the job.

CHRISTOPHER PEPLER has more than 24 years in the fire service as a career and volunteer firefighter and officer. He has been a career firefighter for the Torrington (CT) Fire Department for 17 years and is the deputy chief of operations. He has been a certified instructor since 1997 and has worked for numerous agencies as a fire instructor. As an instructor for the National Fire Protection Association’s Electric Vehicle Safety program, he delivered the Train the Trainer program across the country. He is the director of training for Emergency Training Solutions, LLC (ETS), coordinating on-site training for customers. He instructs also in rapid intervention, vehicle extrication, and hybrid vehicle incident response. He was part of the ETS team that produced the PowerPoint® companion training materials for Fire Engineering’s’ Handbook for Firefighter I and II. He coauthored the Tactical Perspectives video series Fire Attack for Fire Engineering. He is the co-host of Fire Engineering’s Blog Talk Radio show “Politics & Tactics.”

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