Effective and Simple Performance Evaluations for Fire Service Personnel

By Peter Bryan

Performance evaluations are extremely essential to any fire service and public safety agency. It is no secret these days that acceptable to excellent employee performance and behavior are critical to the effective operation of the fire department. There is no reliable means to ensure such performance without some means of reviewing employee performance. Employee performance review should include a few components.

There are four simple steps to performance evaluations, but getting organizational buy-in; acceptance; and implementation may take some extra effort and at times can be difficult. The steps are:

  1. Develop clearly understood job expectations
  2. Use supervisors notes to catalogue behavior
  3. Implement periodic reviews and dialogue
  4. Keep formal documentation

Employee performance evaluations, appraisals, or reviews are much more than the “forms” used to document the performance. The process used should be consistent and used by all supervisors in a similar manner.

The process may contain any or all of the following components:

  • Develop job expectations.
  • Reviewing and understanding supervisors’ expectations of employees.
  • Supervisor “notes”
  • Regular or periodic review and discussion of employee performance.
  • Performance documentation.
  • Review of the supervisor’s work (by the supervisor’s boss).
  • Performance evaluations used in coaching, counseling, and discipline.
  • Special use of evaluations

Some agencies have a clearly defined process, others are more flexible and still others may be willing to change and improve their process.

Any options that include the changing and improving of a performance evaluation process should include the input and suggestions from the affected employees. Employee acceptance is important if the process is to be of benefit to employees and the agency alike.

Step 1: Develop Clearly Understood Job Expectations

Job expectations are significantly different from the “job description.” Job expectations include what we can “observe” in an employee’s behavior and performance. Performance is how well we do the job; behavior is how much we want and attempt to do the job. As an example, behavior expectations could include a positive attitude, a can-do attitude, and the ability to work with other co-workers as a team. The job description will often focus on the performance expectations, which can also be included. They include displaying the skills necessary for the job classification and, often, the skills of a more seasoned and experienced employee. Some expectations may appear to include both performance and behavior such as a supervisor’s demonstrating good behavior as well as the ability to think ahead and to perform the job of the next higher classification.

Expectations are from the supervisor’s perspective of the job. Generally, they are not developed in an employee-supervisor collaborative fashion, but they can be developed in conjunction with the supervisors so that there is commonality and consistency. It would not be beneficial for an organization to have some supervisors with the “halo” effect style of expectations while others are so tough and difficult to please that only a superhuman person could do so. Expectations should be developed with the job description in mind and directly in front of the supervisor. It can be beneficial to have the employees (the subordinates) review the final draft to see if any revising is necessary.

Anytime there is a change in the employee-supervisor relationship that is intended or expected to last longer than a few “cycles” or weeks, the supervisor should call a meeting to discuss expectations, help employees to understand them, and to answer any questions that arise.

Step 2: Purpose and Reasoning for Supervisors Notes

To help supervisors remember details for a performance evaluation discussion, they should keep notes that include specific instances and examples of observed performance, dates, other persons involved, positive performance, and areas that need improvement.

These notes can be handwritten, electronic, or copies of memos/emails/documentation that provide specifics. Each supervisor will have used his preferred method. Using Word to keep notes can greatly simplify the documentation process narratives with “cut-and-paste” editing.

Supervisor notes are generally destroyed once the performance evaluation period is over. There is no reason to keep notes from one period to another if they are not included in the evaluation; often, they are not relevant after the evaluation period. Use them or forget them. Not all notes a supervisor keeps will be necessary, but the supervisor notes should provide clear examples of performance and behavior.

Supervisor notes may be “required” of the supervisor, “mentioned but not indicated in any policy,” or not used. The agency should determine the level of use. Many agencies permit employees to review the “notes” if desired, which often scares off the agency from requiring that supervisors keep notes. This should not be a worry as long as the agency clearly defines the use of the notes and if the notes are either used or destroyed once the performance-evaluation period has been completed.

Step 3: Implement Periodic Reviews and Dialogue

Periodic reviews seldom extend past a year (some on the calendar year, but most on the anniversary of some job action such as hiring, promotion, and so on). There are other job actions that can initiate performance evaluation also. Some agencies have implemented semiannual or quarterly reviews in an effort to ensure personnel know how well they meet work expectations. Some of the more frequent schedules are used for persons in the “first year” after a job action. The schedule is important but not as important as the quality of the review.

If you take a poll of your personnel and ask them, “How often would you like your supervisor to let you know how you are doing at work?” they will often choose a greater frequency than annually. If your agency is developing or improving the performance-evaluation process, determining the schedule will often be a very “active” discussion and important to them.

Whatever the schedule, the review should be a discussion or “dialogue” between the supervisor and employee talking over the observations in the supervisor’s notes. The dialogue should produce an agreement of what has been observed and the circumstances. This is a great use of the notes, providing details such as dates, times, occurrences, and what was observed along with any other persons present. Observations should be limited to what the supervisor or a co-supervisor has seen or heard; observations should be observed rather than inferences and hearsay events.

Much has been written about setting aside time to conduct the review. If the notes are used and the employee is encouraged to discuss the observations, it will take longer to perform a quality review. Don’t be tempted to hand out the evaluation to the employee and ask him to simply “read it” and ask questions. Rather, begin with either a chronological/date review or begin with the positive observations and then discuss the “areas of needed improvement” or weaknesses. For instance: “I would like to begin with a discussion of your strengths that I have observed, and after we have established an understanding of them, talk about some areas in need of improvements that I have also observed.”

Once the review and dialogue are completed, supervisors may be tempted to hand out the written evaluation. If the review was truly a dialogue there will be times when the supervisor will learn of some material not contained in his notes. In this case, the supervisor should include the pertinent aspects and comments in the written evaluation that the employee will read and sign.

Always try to end on one or two positive notes when concluding the review. This is most important when the supervisor is discussing significant needed improvements or counseling and discipline will result.

If feasible, discipline should be conducted separately from the performance evaluation review. The emphasis should be the dialogue and discussion and should set the stage for anticipated reviews. We want employees to “trust” the process.

Step 4: Documentation

Documentation, a written record of the dialogue or discussion(s) between the supervisor and employee, is often the part of the performance evaluation that we hear the most about and the part that can be the most difficult for employees. Documentation could be as simple as a memo or a sheet of paper with a narrative (much like the narrative from an incident report) of the dialogue and discussion(s).

Keep the “rating scales” to the fewest numbers. “Meets Expectations,” “Below Expectation,” and “Exceeds Expectations” makes choosing the rating scale easier for the supervisor and presents a clear decision by the supervisor to the employee. Most employees would say that a rating scale that is 1-10 is too broad, invites more subjectivity when deciding between a 3 and a 4, and sets up the question to the employee of “why was I given a six instead of a seven?” These “broader rating scale” issues take the focus from the important dialogue and observations and make it all about the “rating.”

The number of “categories” or “dimensions” in the written evaluation form should be kept to the minimum needed to adequately document the job performance and behavior. Often, the technical performance categories are plentiful, and the behavior categories are minimal or do not even exist. When there are too many categories, the supervisor is forced to complete all the sections and often has to add comments of narrative to each dimension; sometimes the supervisor will use the same or a similar observation over and over just to fill the required sections. The written evaluation form needs to include at least one behavior category, even if there is only one and it is labeled “Behavior.” This Behavior category, even just one, gives the supervisor the latitude to thoroughly discuss the employee’s behavior.

Note: A simple and yet effective performance evaluation would be one that has two categories, Job Performance and Employee Behavior, and three rating scales, “Meets,” “Exceeds,” and “Below.” Then provide unlimited or expanding space for the narrative documentation of the observations. Download the sample review form HERE and a sample performance review policy HERE (both PDFs).


The primary purpose of performance evaluations is to assist employees to develop to their fullest potential, to coach them to perform to the best of their capabilities, to counsel them when their performance and behavior are not up to acceptable standards, and to assist in the process of discipline.

All employees should know that performance evaluations will be a part of any discipline action; this is not any “special” use but rather part of the employment process. It doesn’t occur every day, thankfully, but it is this two-percent of employee supervision and leadership area that defines the true value of effective documentation and is often tested.

Special use refers to agencies that may use performance evaluations for “merit” increases, special awards and commendations, and other purposes that extend past coaching and counseling employees to perform and behave to their best ability during the time of employment. These examples are an excellent way to reward performance; although these rewards can also be an incentive towards outstanding performance, generally, the performance evaluation process and rewards programs are separate and distinctively different.

You need just these simple steps to implement effective performance evaluations. Performance evaluations are mostly for employees to dialog about their performance and behavior, and to have it recorded it in a documented form.



Peter BryanPETER BRYAN, a retired chief and a fire protection consultant, is a 37-year veteran of the fire and emergency services. He served as chief for the Norco, Monrovia, Rancho Cucamonga, and Wheatland (CA) Fire Departments. He is experienced in fiscal management; revenues and fees; and wellness, fitness, and workers’ compensation programs.

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