By Dave Murphy
The role of a fire service officer is very complex. The typical fire department workplace is unlike any other. While we are assigned a designated duty station, we may be called to action at anytime and anywhere. The fire service deals with many different types of people and situations. The potential for “people” problems is ever-present. It is valid to say that the demands of a fire service supervisor are far greater than those of the average supervisor. Unlike most professions, many fire service supervisors (officers) are housed directly with or otherwise share a much closer association with those whom they supervise. In addition to normal supervisory problems, situations “not covered by the book” can and do routinely present themselves during the course of a tour of duty. These situations can tax the expertise of even the most seasoned supervisor.
Most fire departments are regulated by written policies that specify general actions as dictated by standard operating guidelines. While these policies may offer some direction, it is the actions of supervisory personnel that actually enforce policy. Fire officers are often “on their own” as they learn to adapt, while relying on upper management to back them. In addition to constant management support, supervisors must have the adequate tools and training to perform their jobs.
At the very least, every fire department should provide minimal supervisory training that integrates departmental policy with the following list. In his book Common Sense Supervision, Roger V. Fulton identifies the following twenty-five traits of excellent supervisors. I will attempt to align these traits with the complexity associated with the American fire service. A training program that incorporates the following twenty-five traits of desirable supervision would be a good beginning in the quest of supervisor preparation.
An excellent fire service supervisor:
1. Has set goals – His personal mission will closely align with departmental goals. A goal-setting supervisor increases his own personal worth and the abilities of those entrusted to him, while promoting the overall mission of the department.
2. Is fair – He will treat every one in the same manner. A fair supervisor may not be the most liked, but will be among the most respected. This type of supervisor most likely subscribes to the golden rule of “do unto others” and will not tolerate unfairness in his command.
3. Gives positive reinforcement – He will provide constant encouragement to those around him. This type of supervisor will not miss the opportunity to provide positive reinforcement when the opportunity arises.
4. Is knowledgeable – He exhibits a mastery of the profession, and is confident – but not arrogant. Enlightened people tend to listen when a knowledgeable supervisor speaks.
5. Respects subordinates – He can remember how it is at the bottom of the food chain. The respectful supervisor makes an effort to know you by name, and will acknowledge you on or off the job.
6. Is interested in subordinates – This type of supervisor displays a genuine concern of those entrusted to him or her. He tends to know his subordinates’ strong points and will include them in matters where their expertise will make a difference.
7. Is honest 100 percent of the time. – The honesty and integrity of this supervisor is never questioned. There is no doubt how this officer will answer the question – regardless of the situation.
8. Sets the example – Others wish to emulate this type of a supervisor. This officer may not be liked by everyone, but he is usually admired by friend and foe alike. He is often known as an officer’s officer.
9. Has common sense – He maakes sound decisions based on knowledge and previous experience. Common sense and the excellent fire officer go hand in hand. This type of supervisor will usually make the right call.
10. Is decisive – He will make a timely decision based on available information and stand by it. Fire officers do not usually have the luxury of extended time in the decision making process. An excellent fire officers will initiate an immediate plan of action and is willing to change it if necessary.
11. Is a teacher – He always strives to convey knowledge and become an enabler to those around them. A wise officer will always strive to teach insight that will translate into the overall mission and efficiency of the fire department.
12. Supports subordinates’ decisions – He openly demonstrates faith in those around him or her. Subordinates take comfort in knowing this type of supervisor “has their back,” realizing that unintentional mistakes are made from time to time.
13. Is a good listener – He listens to the problems of others and offers sound advice when it is requested. An officer with good listening skills will be “in the know” and can defuse many problems before they escalate to the next level.
14. Delegates work – He realizes he cannot do it alone and allows others to contribute. The delegating officer actually permits learning to take place. He is not threatened by teaching others needed future skills.
15. Doesn’t “Monday morning quarterback” – He does not publicly criticize actions of another. Does not elaborate on issues about which they have little or no knowledge.
16. Is available – He has a true open door policy and welcomes the input of others. An available officer will seek you out, not make you find him.
17. Communicates well – he speaks and writes clearly and effectively. It does not matter what you know if you cannot communicate it. An excellent fire officer communicates well and often with those in his command.
18. Is responsible for his own actions – He takes responsibility for personal mistakes and the directed mistakes of others as they are made. A responsible officer will also realize this is the time to correct obvious personal or system flaws.
19. Is consistent – His treatment of subordinates is not affected by personal problems or moods. A consistent officer maintains the “big picture” and remains focused, resulting in a more efficient workplace.
20. Is willing to help – He will do his share and does not run from obligations. He realize sthat “many hands make small work” and that total employee involvement is key to the success of any organization.
21. Takes command – He will assume command as needed and will relinquish it when it is proper to do so. A fire officer’s ability to manage an emergency scene is an absolute must in the fire service.
22. Doesn’t hold grudges – He allows bygones be bygones, conducts business as it should be conducted. This officer quickly shelves personal differences and moves on for the good of self and the department.
23. Shows enthusiasm for his work – It shows in his daily actions, on the job and off. He arrives at work with noticeable energy, ready to meet the tasks at hand.
24. Gives constructive feedback – He offers advice in a non-threatening manner. This officer has a knack for giving subtle advice and letting others figure out problems on their own.
25. Doesn’t over manage – He resists the urge to micromanage and supports the efforts of others. This type of officer assigns a task, gets out of the way, but remains available for assistance if needed.
In summary, a proficient fire officer wears many hats and must develop, maintain, and exhibit many of the preceding traits in order to be effective. Many fire departments do provide some form of officer development training. This is not always the case. In many cases involving promotion, you are simply “knighted” with the gold badge and issued your new assignment. The next year or so is very educational as you take your “licks” and develop that thick leather skin. There has to be a better way to graduate to a supervisory position. There is a better way – prepare them for the challenges that are sure to come.
Dave Murphy retired as Assistant Chief of the Richmond (KY) fire department. He currently serves as an Assistant Professor in the Fire and Safety Engineering Technology program at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is a Certified Fire Protection Specialist and a principal member on NFPA committee 610 – Safety at Motorsports Venues. He also serves as the Health & Safety Coordinator with the Harrisburg (NC) Fire Department.