By Joseph Bostic
I am an engine captain who has the honor to serve as the station officer. I believe the station officer has the most influence in the firehouse and that this officer’s leadership, or lack thereof, will play the most important role in setting the culture in your firehouse.
We have seen all types of leaders in the fire service—some great, some not so great. Two types come to my mind: the “Results Officer” and the “Nice Officer.”
This is the old school fire officer who has a ton of experience under his belt, is tactically sound, knows his job through and through, and yet treats his people as if they don’t belong. It’s almost as if he is too good an officer to deal with “common folk.” He is salty and condescending. You may say, “Good morning.” He will walk right past you as if he didn’t hear you. You know he heard you. When he is first-in at a fire, he does everything tactically sound and makes a stop on the fire. Then the next morning, he brags to the oncoming shift about the tactics he performed. There’s never any credit for his crew.
This officer is super nice and cares more about making sure everybody is comfortable than about owning his profession as a fire officer. He may talk about dinner the first thing in the morning instead of checking out the truck. He may bring in movies and donuts so that his crew can watch movies and relax throughout the shift. You may even see him hop out of the rig improperly dressed as far as personal protective equipment is concerned when first-in to a fire. His crew is severely undertrained, and they make a cluster out of what should have been a bread-and-butter residential stop. Sound familiar?
The Resulting Cultures
These fire officers are totally different and on opposite ends of the spectrum. The key point is that the environment over time will become their culture. One definition of culture is “the sum of attitudes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group of people from another.” It is interesting to note that the word culture does not pertain to one individual; it defines a group of individuals. So, what is the culture that these two officers may cultivate over time, intentionally or not?
The Results Officer’s Culture
He is in a busy house. He has been there for years. He hand-picks his crew, and they are all well-trained. They have to be well-trained, or he will have no use for them. Over the years, his crew has watched him brag about his accomplishments and experiences and has noted his unwillingness to pass any of the credit to others. He trains them only on his strengths and on what he wants them to know. He holds on to the rest of his knowledge as if it were some type of power. He rarely listens to their suggestions, and it is his way or the highway. He knows and has seen it all. He is also quick to talk trash about anybody, regardless of rank, if he thinks they are not up to speed or if he feels threatened by them. Of course, he would never admit to feeling threatened.
Over the years, this trash-talking culture has seeped into his crew. They are now the veteran firefighters who will label weaker firefighters as “slugs” instead of trying to help them. They believe that since they have been under the tutelage of such a leader for so many years, they are now the cream of the crop. They have an unhealthy ego, and they talk negatively about other crews in the department regardless of rank. They stick together and never branch out. The members of this crew will eventually become fire officers who will lead the same way and create an even bigger culture of division.
The Nice Officer’s Culture
He is in a slow part of town. He does not handle weak officers just as some officers do not handle weak firefighters. He is not physically fit and probably couldn’t define what the term “combat-ready” means. He leads from his office chair and the recliner. He is not up to date with tactical operations or department policies and standard operating guidelines (SOGs). A normal shift for him would be to come in, drink some coffee, and have some breakfast with his crew. They would binge-watch the newest Netflix series until they fell asleep on the recliner, only to wake up to eat lunch and dinner. They, too, would joke about other crews, but not because these crews were not up to speed but because “these self-proclaimed fire gods would train so much when the department doesn’t require it.” They are the cool kids on the block who go out and drink beers together on their days off and bring nothing to the table while they are on shift. Over time, this crew had seen the weakest form of leadership in our profession, but somehow they think that it’s acceptable and right. This crew not only has no idea of what to do on a fire scene, but they are a major safety issue to themselves and those operating around them. If members of this crew somehow passed a test to become officers, they would lead future firefighters down this same path of destruction.
The station officer has a tremendous amount of influence. As children observe their parents, the crews are always observing their officer. Actions will forever be the best teacher.
Results Officer. He put results in the forefront. In our profession, we must have the mindset of ownership. We are professional firefighters who took the oath to perform during the most stressful of situations. We who take pride in owning this profession know that performance does not just happen. We have to work at it. Training is the fundamental element of our profession, and so we train! To become proficient at our craft, we have to do it repeatedly, and we have to do it together.
One firefighter is no more important than the next. Firefighting is a team sport, and we are all on the same team—even that weaker firefighter others want to trash and forget about (we’ll get to him a little later).
Nice Officer. This officer puts personal relationships in the forefront. Leaders must form a personal relationship with their crew. It is their responsibility to look after them and to help them become better assets to the fire service. If leaders want to take that relationship to the next level and have beers together on their days off, so be it. I have created very tight bonds with the people I have worked with over the years. Some of my best friends and the greatest people I know came from our service together. Unless you are a firefighter, it is hard to describe the brotherhood. I have recently experienced that this brotherhood is alive and well. (See “My Experience with My Fellow Firefighters.”)
My Experience with My Fellow Firefighters
What’s Your Culture?
So, my question to you is this: “What’s your culture?” Is it one of results, or is it one of relationships? To answer this question, you will have to ask yourself what is important to you. If you want my answer, it’s “Both.” You are the station officer! You set the tone! As an officer, it is your duty to leave individuals better than the way you found them. To do this, you must continually challenge them to become better and challenge yourself to do the same. It’s necessary for an officer’s success. You must provide the tools and knowledge for your crew to become a strength within your department. To do this, you must have the tools yourself. Do you? Or, are you ill prepared to lead? Being ill prepared, in fact, sometimes is the primary reason some officers become the Nice Officer: The officer never molded himself to be combat-ready.
The same holds true for the Results Officer. You may get the results you want out of your crew, but do they really respect you? The key to results is not only getting your crew to do what you want them to do but also getting them to do what you want them to do because they want to do it for you! For that to happen, they must know that you have their backs as an officer, and they must feel it. I have observed that people want to become better. They like to be challenged if they know they will improve because of that challenge.
Officers who want results in their subordinates’ performance and in a personal relationship need to honestly evaluate their intentions. Intentions will make or break an officer and the organization’s culture. This may come as a punch in the gut to some. If you act in a certain way because you feel threatened by the idea that one of your crew members may surpass you, you have the wrong intention. If you do a task to get the recognition, you have the wrong intention. Your intentions must remain pure.
You intend to build, but you must realize that intentions without the work involved will equate to failure. Your intentions must be in line with building a solid foundation for your crews so they can succeed. Build from the ground up, and work side by side. Always do what is right by your crews. If the students surpass the teacher, so be it. They should, and it should make you proud that you were able to be a part of it! My intention is to build my crew.
The Weak Firefighter
Remember that weak firefighter everybody talks about and dismisses? Successful officers don’t forget people. They look forward to the challenge of helping weak firefighters assigned to their crew. Get to know them. Ask them questions: What are your goals? What can I do to help you reach those goals? What kind of training are you interested in? What are your weaknesses? What can I do to help you strengthen those weaknesses? How do you want to be challenged? How do you want to be rewarded? Do you have any strengths that can benefit our crew?
Instead of ignoring these individuals and using the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” approach, do the opposite. See what makes them tick, and when you find out what it is, build on it. If officers accept the opinion that an individual is weak without finding out for themselves, they have failed that individual. On the other hand, officers must be honest, no matter how hard it might be to voice that honesty. If you recognize that an individual is weak, have the courage to have an honest conversation with that person to help him get up to speed. It is your duty not to harbor weakness. People appreciate honesty, no matter how hard it may be for them to hear the truth. What they won’t appreciate is your saying something to them and then saying something totally different behind their back. Always be honest and have pure intentions.
It’s not the easiest thing to go into a fire station full of alpha males and alpha females mixed with some “lazy” individuals and lead that group. How in the world are you supposed to lead this group to a point where you create a wholesome culture? Every situation is fluid, and there is no blueprint on how to create a culture of results and relationships. Below are pointers that have worked for me in achieving crew buy-in. Anyone with experience knows that if you don’t have buy-in, the crew will “sell out.”
Six Steps of Buy-In
1. Know your job. As the leader of your crew, if you do not know the tactical aspects of your job as an officer, shame on you. If you took the promotion for money, without knowing your job, shame on you. I’m not here to pass judgment, but if you did not prepare yourself for the front seat and still took the promotion, your crew will see through you sooner than you might think. Your career will begin to slowly die with that type of reputation. Your most important job is to make sure that you and your crew go home to your families safely. If you are not prepared for that, you don’t belong in that seat.
2. Mind your reputation. If you are walking into a station as its leader, whether you know it or not, people have already bought in or sold you out based solely on your reputation. The fire department is like high school, and it has all the gossip that goes along with it. You know what I’m talking about. Think about the best firefighter you have ever worked with, whether a leader in rank or not. Now, think about the worst person you have ever worked with. Do you have those two names in mind?
Imagine this scenario: Your crew was first in to a single-story residence with smoke and flames showing. You pulled up, nailed your arrival report, did your 360° walk-around, met your firefighter and rescue crew at the front door, and went interior attack with your smooth bore nozzle flowing 185 gallons per minute. Smoke was banked down to the floor as you made your push. Hose management went beautifully, and you got to the seat of the fire in the back bedroom within seconds of entering the structure. You put water on the fire as your rescue crew broke off and did search and rescue, and they pulled a dog out from the structure. All in all, you rocked this fire.
After the incident, your crew is packing up the hose; you are all flying high. The best person you’ve ever worked with came up to you and said, “You and your crew did a great job, but I noticed you guys had a little trouble pulling the red line.”
What would you think? I mean you are all feeling good, but then this legend comes up and tells you something that you can work on. No doubt, you would think to yourself, “Huh, he’s right. We could have done that a little more smoothly.” So, over the next couple of shifts, you work on it.
Now, imagine this same scenario. However, now the worst person you ever worked with comes up to you and gives you that message. Now, what would you be thinking? Be honest! No doubt, it might be something like this, “Get the heck out of here and help us pack this hose.” Can you see the importance of a good reputation? It is the most valuable thing you can hang your hat on in this profession.
3. Bring a good work ethic. “Cooking and a broom” …. Your crew will follow your lead. This is true whether you bring a good work ethic or zero work ethic. If you are the officer who comes in and goes straight to the recliner, guess who will follow you? If you are the officer who comes in and checks the truck, checks your equipment, talks about seat assignments, and sets training for the day, guess who will follow you? There should be no such thing as engine vs. rescue drama. I may be going against the grain on this but, engine captains, take care of your rescue or medic unit. It doesn’t matter if seasoned veterans are on the engine and a new employee is on the rescue. If they are getting hammered by calls, jump a call, pick up the broom, knock out some reports. You will be amazed at how harmonious the house will be when you put your best foot forward and do the right thing by your crew. That extra 20 minutes of work that you did for that rescue crew will come back to you tenfold.
Case in point: When I first got promoted, I went into a station where the rescue hated the engine and the engine hated the rescue. They were calling each other lazy, and they wouldn’t lift a finger for one another. I observed the behaviors over the first two weeks and I tried to figure out what was wrong. It was the engine. The rescue was running about eight to 10 calls per shift, and the engine was running only two. The engine had a lot of time on, and they rarely cooked or were involved in station duties. Their biggest question for each day was what time the workout would occur. Nothing was being done as far as fire training, and the engine company wasn’t holding its own in my opinion. I picked up a broom and swept. I went shopping for dinner and cooked. I also knocked out some reports along the way. In six months, we were a harmonious group who trained together, worked out together, ate together, and had each other’s back. Bring a work ethic with you wherever you go because it will go a long way.
4. Empower your people. Empowering can be your most powerful tool. Only secure leaders give power to others. If you truly want to see your crew members succeed, give them responsibility. Challenge them with tasks, and help them along the way. This does not mean that they do your job while you do nothing.
As a newly promoted captain, with about two years in the seat, I recognized a weakness. I was sent to an area that was extremely busy with medical calls and had a very low fire volume. Firefighters and officers were on a rescue more often than on an engine because of the way staffing was run. This area ran so many medical calls that our station and the surrounding stations rarely trained because it was difficult to get out of service. On top of that, we were weak on fire tactics.
We decided to put this whole battalion through a series of fire training sessions, teaching each discipline to every unit in the surrounding area. This was going to be no small task and certainly something one person could not handle alone. We made some calls and put interested people in charge of instructing a single discipline to all the crews in the area. Some people who had never taught even a small group of people were teaching the entire area. Granted, this took some time and effort on everyone’s part to make sure that the lesson was appropriate and the instruction was up to speed.
After the six-month training program was completed, the confidence of the instructors, especially those who had never taught before, skyrocketed and they came to feel that nothing was too big for them, that they could do this type of work well. It sparked many in the area to do training on their own no matter how busy their shift was. The results were awesome. Empower your people! They will forever benefit from it and, more importantly, will pass it on!
5. Reward your people. Firefighters normally do not like the spotlight. Our joy comes from knowing that we did a good job, and there is no better feeling in the world than knowing you are doing right by your crew. With that being said, almost everyone likes to be recognized for a job well done.
I was named “Operational Officer of the Year” for my fire department a couple of years ago. It was an honor, but that was not the best reward I have ever received. The best reward was an unofficial Employee Development Form (EDF) we give to employees stating areas in which they need improvement or are given recognition for a job well done. The EDF I received was from my own crew. It stated: “To Joe, for being the officer you are on and off the court.” It was waiting for me on my desk after a long day of training and running calls. At that moment, I felt as though I had finally arrived as a station officer. That EDF is still taped to the inside of my locker in my office at the firehouse.
One reward I give my crew is FatBoySunday! It occurs every time our shift falls on a Sunday. When that day comes, we pig out! We come in, check out our trucks, make sure we are ready to run calls, and then do whatever we want to do—and eat. I cook some extravagant meals for my crew. We have a “food wall” at the station that has all of the pictures of the dishes we have made and eaten together. This is Man vs. Food type of food (we eat healthy every other shift so that we can enjoy this day). Reward and recognize your crew for their hard work. They will appreciate it!
6. Keep your people involved. Make your crew feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Get their phone numbers. Get a group chat going with them (keep it professional). Let them know what is going on with the station, the surrounding stations, and the department as a whole. Make them feel like they are a huge part of the forward movement going on throughout your department. We need each other in this profession. Make them know and feel that.
Following these suggestions can help you create a culture of excellence for your crew, station, and department. It is amazing how contagious these actions and the good feelings they create can be! You will be a Results Officer and a Nice Officer.
Update: While this article was being prepared for publication, we learned that my sister finally was medically able to receive the kidney transplant. I am scheduled to donate my kidney to my sister on Thursday, March 14, 2019, at New York Presbyterian Columbia Irving Medical Center. By the time you read this article, the transplant surgery will be over. Thank you, my brothers and sisters at Palm Beach County Fire Rescue; you played a huge role in helping to make this possible!
Joseph Bostic is a captain of Engine 24 A shift and the live fire training instructor for Palm Beach County (FL) Fire Rescue, where he has served for 16 years, six as an officer.