Eight Ways Fire Officers Must Communicate

One morning when I was a rookie firefighter assigned to an engine company, we returned to the station from a medical call just after 4 a.m. As we got off the truck, the captain turned to me and said, “Bulanow, do you want to write this report?” I was tired and the only thing I wanted to do was get back in my bunk, but I was blessed with a thought. I said, “Cap, I will if you teach me.” My captain was probably just as tired as I was, but to his everlasting credit, he said, “Okay, put on a pot of coffee.” This was in the mid-1990s when we still completed incident reports on paper forms. Over the next several hours, my captain taught me how to complete reports for various types of incidents as we drank coffee and the sun came up.

Because I knew how to write incident reports, I was able to serve as crew chief on a support unit just a few months later. That experience more than 20 years ago led to formal promotions, and my leadership journey continued on up to chief of the department. Throughout this time, I’ve learned a great deal about leading firefighters. Consistent communication is the single greatest determinant of a fire officer’s effectiveness. However, real communication takes time, which many fire officers find in short supply, especially as we rise through the ranks. Competing demands for our time force us to make very deliberate choices of how we use our time, and we become very disciplined about what we communicate. Consistent, effective communication is essential to successful leadership, and it should include the following components.

Keep Your People Informed

In the absence of information, employees will have to guess what is happening, which leads to rumors and misinformation. People will talk, so the fire officer must determine whether that talk will be informed conversation. If you ask your people for their best effort, first respect them enough to explain the goal you’re trying to attain and how they can help you to reach it.

Consistent communication is the single greatest determinant of a fire officer’s effectiveness.

In addition, create an environment in which your people feel free to ask questions and accept the personal responsibility to keep themselves informed. Shortly after I promoted a new battalion chief, he came to my office every few weeks to ask detailed questions about some of our projects and programs. Although he sometimes interrupted my plan for the day, it was worthwhile to sit down with him to answer his questions because I learned things from him, too. I learned that he had the guts to work up the chain of command to get answers even though there were two layers of hierarchy between us. This showed me that he wanted to carry out the message but needed more information to do so effectively. This also showed me that I needed to do more to communicate not just to him but to the whole department, something I’ve been working hard to do ever since. One brave person willing to push for answers can make a big difference. If you don’t know what’s going on, ask; if someone asks you, take the time to answer them.

Listen to Your People

Although few fire officers would deny the value of listening, we may often fail to do it because it seems so passive. The fire service has a proud, action-oriented culture. Firefighters solve problems by knocking down doors, dragging in hoses, and cutting up cars. Swift, direct action produces results, and those who do it well most often gain the opportunity to rise to formal positions of authority. Fire officers need to recognize that listening is one of the most important things they can do for their people. The officers not only get to hear what their members need, suggest, think, and feel, but they also communicate to their subordinates that they value them. Your people know that your time is valuable and limited. When you use this valuable commodity to listen to them, you communicate loud and clear that you care.

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Nowhere is listening more important than in taking care of your employees’ emotional health. According to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), a fire department is three times more likely to experience a suicide among its membership than a line-of-duty death. People who are thinking about suicide often talk about doing it well in advance. This may include talking about feeling hopeless, feeling trapped, feeling like a burden, or saying that they want to die and plan to kill themselves. As fire officers, are we listening? According to the NFFF, suicide is preventable and help is available. Listening to your people is critical to taking care of them and getting them the help they need.

Provide Outcome-Focused Feedback

Part of being a fire officer is confronting performance issues. We must hold our people accountable for their actions. They must get the work done safely. The challenge is doing this constructively. When confronting performance issues, acknowledge what happened, but don’t dwell on it—quickly move on. Most people know when they made a mistake; it does no good to relive it in painful detail or to lay out threats for repeated failures. Define the problem, and tell the member what to do differently the next time. Focusing on the desired outcome allows you to establish the context in the future. That makes it constructive and changes the experience into a learning opportunity.

Recognize Positive Performance

Rewarding/recognizing positive performance is a valuable communication tool. Recognition communicates what the officer values, and it should relate directly to the mission of the organization. Single out efforts that advance the mission. When done right, recognition recalibrates everyone to the purpose of the organization.

How officers show this recognition can vary according to what employees want and appreciate. Napoleon Bonaparte effectively motivated his troops through a wide variety of methods. He fostered regimental pride by bestowing heroic nicknames on effective units. He presented medals and other symbols regiments could display. He held ceremonies and festivals to celebrate military victories. Napoleon understood the psychology of the ordinary soldier and kept the soldiers motivated by recognizing their success in ways that they appreciated. Rewards and recognition align the people with the purpose.

Teach, Train, and Model Improvement

No work unit can maintain a flat level of performance; either it is improving or it is declining. Good fire officers constantly try to raise the bar and improve performance. Look for opportunities that will provide your people with new experiences and training. The best way to develop your people is to model continuous improvement yourself. When you raise the bar for yourself, the bar goes up for everyone under you and pushes those above you as well.

The Center for Public Safety Excellence provides fire officers with models for continuous personal improvement through its Commission on Professional Credentialing. These models provide guidance for professional growth and career development. While reapplying for the Chief Fire Officer designation, I realized that although I have had many wonderful opportunities for education and practical experience, my professional contributions were relatively few. I began looking for more opportunities to contribute and have experienced a resurgence in professional growth as a result. A formal process can help fire officers achieve continuous improvement as individuals and as part of an organization.

Trust Your People with Responsibility

Nothing helps develop leaders better than letting people feel the weight of responsibility for themselves. Good fire officers give their people the opportunity to experience ownership in the work they do. This helps them gain perspective and see their work in a way that they never have before. For the first time, they may see how a task fits in with the organization’s mission. Ultimately, this is about creating independence. Trusting people with responsibility will help them grow into good leaders.

You can tell if you are effectively developing your people by asking yourself if you trust them. Can you go on leave and feel comfortable that the work will still get done? Can you get on a cruise ship and expect that your people will be able to deal with any problems that may come up while you are unavailable? If not, then your people may not be the problem. You may need to consider changing the way you’re leading and give your people more opportunities to grow.

Live and Speak Your Values

The fire officer should clearly define the boundaries for acceptable behavior. The scandals that can cripple fire departments rarely happen as a result of a single incident. Most often, they come as a result of a slow deviation from the values that ought to define us. Some fire departments have formal, written values. Other departments simply uphold the traditional values of the fire service. Either way, we should regularly talk about our values and incorporate them in daily decision making.

When I read about a fire department that has been embarrassed by a scandal, I feel bad for the department, but I also question if that same thing could happen in my department. Most fire officers are sincere in wanting to live up to their values, but this takes work and sometimes even causes pain. Living the values may mean starting from scratch to get it right or taking the long road to reach the goal. Living the values may even cost a friendship. Doing the right thing is rarely easy, and you should be able to give examples of having made sacrifices to uphold your values. That’s how you’ll know if you are on the right track.

Accept Your Responsibility

Fire officers implement the decision to lead when they take responsibility. When we see a problem or our people come to us with an issue, we should own it and take action. The action may be to handle the problem directly. The action may be to simply listen. The action may be to direct action back to our people, or some combination of all of these options. Every position in the fire service has limitations on authority, but good fire officers exercise influence up the chain of command to get things done. Taking responsibility is the foundational action of leadership.

Just as my first captain gave up sleep and took the time to teach me the job, leadership takes time. It takes time to keep your people informed and to listen to them. It takes time to confront poor performance and recognize great performance. It takes time to train your people, give them learning opportunities, and establish the boundaries for proper behavior. Fire officers must accept that putting in this time is their responsibility. It is the work of leaders, and it is time well spent.

GREGORY A. BULANOW began his fire service career with the North Charleston (SC) Fire Department, an internationally accredited agency with a Class 1 ISO rating, in 1996 and advanced through the ranks to become department chief in 2009. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, is credentialed as a Chief Fire Officer, and is a member of the Institution of Fire Engineers. 

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