Developing Leadership in Fire Officers

To ensure a positive future for the fire service, we need to develop capable fire officers and other fire service leaders, Chief Dennis Compton said at “Developing Leadership in Fire Officers,” an eight-hour workshop he presented today. Compton explored critical leadership, supervisory, and management behaviors that make fire officers and those they lead more effective.

Individually, such officers display a positive attitude, maintain their composure, restrain their egos, manage their time, and plan work effectively.

Click to EnlargeEffective fire officers always lead by example, building mutual trust and respect within the team, and avoid favoritism and micromanagement. In leading their crews, they tell their members up front what they expect. When performance or behavior is out of balance with those stated expectations, these leaders use coaching and counseling to address these situations.

Whether there is a single fire culture among the 31,000 fire departments in the United States is debatable, according to Compton, because fire service culture differs from department to department; even from station to station. Although there may be some agreed-upon fire service values, they are not all defined or acted out in the same way everywhere.

He offered some healthy definitions of fire service values. The focus on service, for example, is built on training that respects fire and life safety systems. A strong sense of identity as a firefighter should be positive, productive, and healthy; not self-aggrandizing, arrogant, and infallible.


Compton said that reducing the annual number of line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) depends on strong leadership in several areas. Heart attacks and strokes account for a significant number of firefighter deaths; strong leadership must insist on annual physicals and emphasize the importance of rehab at the emergency scene.

Vehicle safety and requiring firefighters to wear seat belts is another area of where leadership is needed. Compton recalled one department that was more concerned about whether a firefighter wore a stud earring than whether that person wore a seat belt. “I never heard of a firefighter die from wearing a stud earring.”

Strategy is another area where change is needed, Compton said. Offensive tactics where defensive tactics would be more appropriate; firefighters are being placed in situations that they should not be in. “They’re inside of structures they should be outside of, and too close to structures they should stand back from,” Compton asserted.
Another life safety issue is maintaining crew integrity. A number of LODDs have occurred as a result of firefighters getting separated from the rest of the crew and getting lost. Compton said firefighters should maintain contact at all times by voice, vision, or touch.

Good leadership practices must be applied consistently overall and within specific areas of responsibility. The quality of leadership impacts everything a fire department does. Regardless of the fire department type—career, combination, or volunteer—members of these and other fire organizations can be trained to be better leaders. Whether at the emergency scene, in the fire station, or in the office, an organization cannot outperform the capabilities of its leaders. Creating better leaders, managers, and supervisors benefits these members, their organizations, and thus the fire service as a whole. “It’s the greatest contribution we can make to the future of our fire departments,” Compton asserted.

Dennis Compton served as the chief in Mesa, Arizona, for five years and as an assistant chief in Phoenix, Arizona for 27 years. He has served as chairman of the IFSTA executive board and of the Congressional Fire Services Institute’s national advisory committee. He is chairman of the board of directors of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and of the Home Safety Council

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