PROMOTION TO OFFICER: THE RIGHTS YOU LOSE

BY BILL LOWE, EMT-P, Ph.D., AND
BILL BOLTON, EMT-P

Sometime in their careers, firefighters will eventually assess the advantages and disadvantages of pursuing promotional opportunities. Some will quickly dismiss their promotional options: “I like fighting fires and hate paperwork, so I’ll just stay a grunt.” Others are intoxicated with the many opportunities that exist to control events by directing subordinates to accomplish assignments. However, most firefighters considering a promotion to an officer’s position view themselves as competent professionals possessing the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities to improve their department’s emergency response capabilities. When making their own promotional size-ups, firefighters should consider what rights they may lose as officers.

Climbing the fire service career ladder generally offers the highest climbers increased institutional perks and privileges, such as higher salaries, more traditional work hours, a take-home vehicle, and more discretion over daily activities. However, the downside of the many advantages are the increased responsibilities and ultimate accountability for operational and personnel performance. Achieving organizational objectives demands officers understand the rights they lose when pinning on the bugles.

AS A FIRE OFFICER, YOU LOSE THE RIGHT TO …

•Lose your temper. We have all experienced numerous occasions dealing with life’s everyday little frustrations: getting a driver’s license renewed, getting a check approved, or supervising a chaotic emergency scene. The good news is most of these events are handled without having a meltdown. Firefighters will view their officers as possessing quick tempers when they have a propensity to become easily angry or irritable. Firefighters functioning at emergency scenes should not have to deal with the additional anxiety of the arrival of quick-tempered officers.

Officer development solution. On arrival and before getting out of your vehicle at an emergency scene, take a deep breath, and make a conscious decision to remain calm. Conduct a comprehensive safety assessment, identify the tactics being implemented properly and areas of improvement, calmly communicate corrective orders, make some mental notes for a post-incident debriefing session, and then provide positive reinforcement for how the incident is being managed. Do not allow events to cause you to lose your composure during emergency operations.

•Be one of the gang. Being an effective fire officer is not about making friends and then directing your friends (subordinates) to complete assignments; it’s about directing subordinates to complete assignments while remaining friendly. Striving to be one of the gang instead of serving in a leadership role might create an intimidating workplace for some employees and result in a career-endangering incident. From our professional experience as career fire officers, we know that the more difficult personnel decisions involve disciplining subordinates. Being “one of the gang” may eventually result in compromising conduct by the officer that will be revisited when aggrieved subordinates file merit board grievances.

Officer development solution. Never engage in or tolerate unlawful or unethical conduct from any subordinates on your watch. Establish a work environment where all employees are treated politely and professionally. Keep employees occupied with professional developmental tasks such as prefire planning, drills, specified formal independent study periods, and structured lesson plans. Make sure your supervisors hear bad news faster than they hear good news to ensure that no surprise issues develop. Never engage in conduct that you would feel uncomfortable sharing with your mother, your spouse, your chief, or the media. Be an officer who possesses a friendly personality instead of a friend who happens to be an officer.

•Share your personal problems with coworkers. Although it is difficult sometimes not to talk about life’s many frustrations (involving finances, relationships, children, car expenses, or broken furnaces), habitually griping to a captive audience of subordinates is a right officers lose. Don’t create a situation whereby subordinates will find tasks to do rather than risk getting trapped listening to “another one of the captain’s sob stories.” Eventually, firefighters will question your professional fitness to command if you as an officer can’t manage your personal life.

Officer development solution. First, ensure you proactively address your finances, car and home maintenance issues, and retirement plans. Take courses at a local college on topics related to your personal issues. Seek professional assistance from knowledgeable community experts, and do not whine to your subordinates. Developing awareness of and successfully dealing with your own personal issues allows you to offer insights and advice to subordinates when they bring their concerns to you. Helping subordinates address their own personal problems demands officers who have quietly and professionally resolved their own personal issues.

•Express professional frustrations/personal opinions with subordinates. The fire service is a work environment filled with numerous opportunities for complaining. There are always going to be legitimate reasons for complaining about salaries, benefits, promotions, politicians, station/shift assignments, or overall government or judicial policies on topics such as immigration, abortion, civil rights, and lifestyle choices. Don’t make it a habit to have a controversial position on every social and department issue. Fire departments led by officers who vent their frustrations to subordinates are institutionalizing a negative organizational culture. Officers who gripe down the chain of command to subordinates will eventually diminish their own influence with their supervisors, resulting in career stagnation.

Officer development solution. Don’t publicly vent professional frustrations to subordinates. Do take the opportunity to prioritize and communicate utmost concerns/suggestions on specific topics to the command staff. Discuss the operational impact or implementation issues from your positional perspective as a subordinate officer. Keep emotions, threats, and personalities out of the discussion by remaining focused on issues. Offer reasonable alternatives for addressing or minimizing the concerns you have identified. Be very careful when making ultimatums that can have a profound impact on your career and future abilities to positively influence events.

•Advocate the status quo. When firefighters consider the tremendous vocational changes that have occurred and are now occurring, officers must develop a preference for always questioning the status quo and be advocates for better, faster, safer, cheaper, and simpler approaches for delivering quality emergency services. Resisting change because officers are just comfortable/complacent with their regular habits of checking the equipment, eating breakfast, relaxing until lunch, lunch, relaxing until supper, supper, and then going to bed with a few interruptions such as alarms, details, and training is not a recipe for professional or organizational development. We acknowledge the “pains of change” in-volved with questioning traditional methods of operations and then developing alternatives for making fire station life safer, smoother, and more satisfying.

Officer development solution. The best approach for officers to develop a change-ready philosophy is understanding the change process by taking a self-study, technical school, or college course on change strategies. Knowledge and experience of the change process serve as valuable tools for viewing change as a neutral or positive word instead of a four-letter word. Change discussions should be embraced instead of banned around the nation’s fire station dayrooms.

•Delegate unpopular tasks to unprepared subordinates. The hectic pace and demands of contemporary fire officers require they develop good delegation skills. As officers increase the number of bugles they wear on their collars, invariably they will have to delegate more often-and more complex assignments-to junior officers. However, the challenge is to ensure that officers are not abdicating the responsibility for difficult or politically sensitive tasks to junior officers, especially if an unfavorable outcome is likely.

Officer development solution. In their quest for bugles, firefighters should gradually develop their delegation skills by serving on intradepartment committees or seeking elected/appointed positions with fire service organizations. Serving in leadership positions with community service organizations is an excellent method for developing the prerequisite delegation skills needed for achieving results. Delegation skills involve a commitment to strengthening the leadership and decision-making skills of subordinates. People learn by doing, and they learn more quickly from their mistakes. Ensure a strong safety net is established so the consequence of profound errors is minimized.

•Pursue adversaries and competitors. It can be mighty tempting when securing a sought-after promotion to want to give a few people a “little payback” for their actions, lack of support, or just because we dislike them. Officers must rise above the pettiness and focus only on job-related competencies when making decisions regarding performance, disciplinary actions, or exercising the considerable discretionary authority most officers possess. Officers with a pro-pensity for taking every disagreement or conflict personally may eventually suffer health-related problems or create a silent underground of suspicion within their span of control.

Officer development solution. Understand the distinction between disliking some people and having to work with all coworkers. Put personalities aside and focus strictly on job-related performance when making assignments or resolving performance issues. When officers acknowledge that just too much conflict exists with an individual, then ensure that a more objective person is delegated the authority for addressing issues. We appreciate the complex emotional reality of dealing with some of the personalities who occupy today’s workforce. Be polite, be objective, be calm, and delegate control to more objective officers when dealing with adversaries.

•Treat preferred people differently. This is one right that is extremely difficult for many officers (including the authors) to fully address. In principle, it seems easy and simple not to “play favorites.” However, officers generally prefer to surround themselves with like-minded and like-motivated individuals. Fighting fires and risking life and limb serving with coworkers will generally result in respect and admiration for those who produce and perform consistently well. When employees start to complain or joke about those employees who never get sent out to fill in at other stations, review whether this right is being violated without your being aware of it.

Officer development solution. Officers should not allow their personal friendships with subordinates to result in overlooked departmental infractions. These “favorite” coworkers should never create situations whereby their supervisor has to resolve a significant occurrence by listening to their pleas for consideration based solely on their friendship. Create a professional atmosphere whereby all employees understand your decisions are based on achieving organizational objectives, and then commit to this self-imposed standard.

•Ask others to do what you wouldn’t do. This right seems fairly straightforward to understand and apply, but there are a few officers who cannot seem to grasp the concept. If you cannot control your emotions when involved with critical issues/incidents, then do not expect your subordinates to control their emotions. Most subordinates will feel more secure working for officers who during their careers served in subordinate positions, and these officers don’t ask subordinates to perform tasks they have never performed themselves. Leaders should acknowledge the vast advances in firefighting equipment/technology and possess empathy for this new generation of warriors who regularly face a more complex and occasionally hostile environment.

Officer development solution. One excellent method of maintaining firsthand awareness of today’s fire operations is regularly spending an occasional shift working a line position as a “grunt” serving on one of the department’s busiest engine, truck, or medic units. Allow the officers to run their stations/units, and perform your “new” role as a follower and not as the leader. Officers get to maintain the equipment, clean the station, pull the lines, perform CPR, or extricate a trapped victim. Obviously, some of the more technical skills are best performed by those who do them every day, but officers can still serve in a support role to improve their awareness of how departmental policies are actually being applied on the line.

•Expect immediate recognition and reward for doing a good job. Forget it! Fire officers should not expect to be immediately recognized and rewarded for doing a good job. Officers have the privilege of accepting and acknowledging the heroic sacrifices their subordinates accomplished in serving the public’s safety needs. Accepting an officer’s position involves directing subordinates to function at a competent level of expertise that requires subordinates to train harder and study more.

Some subordinates will resist or perhaps rebel against an officer’s initiatives to improve performance, so the short-term feedback may be less than favorable. However, the cumulative impact of weeks and months of progressive skill development will make employees more proficient and give them more motivation and pride. Consequently, long-range prospects are extremely favorable that progressive and dedicated officers will receive accolades acknowledging their outstanding job performance at saving lives, protecting property, and being dedicated to subordinate development.

Officer development solution. It takes planning, reflection, commitment, communication skills, and tenacity for officers to develop the prerequisite knowledge, skills, and abilities to ensure their policies and operating practices generate more positive returns than negative consequences. Examples of achievement-based skills that officers must possess include the following competencies: written, verbal, and Internet communication skills; problem solving; conflict resolution; mentoring; strategic planning; human resource development; and strong technical firefighting, emergency medical service, hazardous materials, and incident command skills. Developing these skills early in your career will pay huge dividends when competing in promotional examinations.

Candidates for officers’ positions need to acknowledge there is more to being an officer than issuing orders, commanding incidents, and keeping subordinates motivated to learn. Of-ficers must realize there are some behaviors they lose the right to perform once the bugles get pinned on their collars. This article has reviewed some fundamental missteps many officers make when climbing the career ladder. Just as officers have to be patient when subordinates are learning new performance standards and practices-these same subordinates need to be patient while their officers learn the new rules and roles they now occupy. Perhaps this article will help both sides acknowledge the dynamics of learning development and transformation.

Reference

Archer, Ernest R. “Things You Lose The Right to Do When You Become a Manager.” Supervisory Management, July 1990, 8-9.

BILL LOWE, EMT-P, PH.D., is a captain/shift supervisor with the Clayton County (GA) Fire Department, where he has worked for 23 years. He has a doctorate in human resource management and a post-doctorate specialization in marketing management and is pursuing the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. Lowe serves as a public administration university professor and was EMS Magazine’s 1998 “National Paramedic of the Year.”

BILL BOLTON, EMT-P, is a captain/shift supervisor with the Clayton County (GA) Fire Department, where he has worked for 30 years. He has a bachelor’s degree in human resource management and is an adjunct university instructor of industrial safety and management courses. Bolton was selected by his fellow fire department employees as the “1992 Paramedic of the Year” and the “1995 Firefighter of the Year.”

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