Fire Service Leadership Basics: Roles, Responsibilities, and Boundaries

By Thomas Warren

The quote, “Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way” is attributed to General George S. Patton Jr., the famous American Army General of World War II. I have seen this quote scrolled on many plaques and mounted on the walls of many firehouses during my career. By World War II standards, he was a no-nonsense, strong-willed, and knowledgeable leader who demanded only the best of his solders.  His relevance to the fire service is based on his reputation as a successful combat general. The important aspect here is that of a successful combat general.

In the fire service, we liken our work of firefighting to that of military combat, and there are many similarities. We set up command structures to handle every incident we respond to. We identify ourselves using military titles such as “lieutenant” and “captain.” Our workplace, the fireground, is strict and orders are expected to be carried out without hesitation. We adopt military concepts such as “situational awareness” and “meeting objectives” and we apply them to our firefighting operations. We follow standard operating procedures (SOPs) like well-laid-out battle plans based on years of experience. For the most part, this approach has worked very well for the fire service in the mitigation of emergency situations of every kind. What looks like confusion to most people is actually a well-thought-out incident action plan (IAP, essentially a battle plan) executed by well-trained and experienced firefighters (soldiers), led by company officers (commissioned officers) under the supervision of chief officers (generals).

RELATED: Leadership Thoughts From A Military Icon | Halton: Fool Me Once | Chuck Wehrli: Be an Aggressive Officer

While this approach has been, and continues to be very effective, it can leave us wanting when we must deal with the many other non-emergency situations that occupy most of our daily activities. Leadership in today’s fire service still requires all of the nuances of General Patton’s approach to commanding his troops in combat. For today’s fire officer, operating in combat mode has become a smaller and smaller part of each day.

We must now look at effective ways to maintain the elements of a strong and effective leader when not in the combat mode of leadership. The fire service is changing and will continue to change in very profound ways in the future. Company officers and battalion chiefs have witnessed this change in every aspect of their daily activities. Unfortunately for them, it was not like this when they were young firefighters. Many fire offices today had to, by necessity, learn how to evolve with the newer generations of firefighters who have entered the fire service. General Patton could yell and push his soldiers in ways that will land today’s fire officers in serious trouble. Leadership in today’s fire service still requires the unwavering discipline of General Patton, but unlike General Patton, today’s fire officers need to add a new and wider dimension to their leadership skills.

There are countless books and leadership programs available that can help guide today’s fire officers through this new leadership matrix, and I encourage everyone to take advantage of these avenues in their professional development.  

For those who may want to expand their vision of leadership in today’s modern fire service, I recommend viewing fire officers leadership skill development in terms of roles, responsibilities, and boundaries. Let’s take a look at each of these vital skills that every supervisor should understand and practice daily.


Everyone in the fire service has a role in providing a high level of service to our communities. We must think of the fire service as a well-trained football team. Everyone plays a position and every position contributes to the result, namely winning the football game. The fire service of today is an “all hazards” operation that requires a wide range of skills, but the result is providing quality service to our communities.  The fire service would not be successful if we did not define the roles of each member.

The role of the firefighter is probably the most task-oriented of all. This firefighter must be proficient at dressing a hydrant, throwing a ground ladder, stretching a hose, searching, forcing entry, establishing an IV, performing CPR, recognizing hazmat incidents, and many more skills. The role of a firefighter in today’s fire is to maintain a mastery of all these skills as well as department operations. Every firefighter and everyone in the community expects nothing less.

As important as these skills are, there is still another role for the firefighter to play: the role of the mentor. This role is not something new. Firefighters have been passing down knowledge and skills for many years, but in today’s fire service there is a new dimension to this age-old mentorship. The role of firefighters in today’s fire service must also include a genuine respect for other firefighters and an inclusive culture for everyone riding the truck. It is no longer acceptable to not help a struggling firefighter. Everyone has a role to play in a successful fire company and everyone deserves the support necessary to make this happen.

The role of the company officers has some commonality with that of a firefighter, including mastery of all the tasks expected of firefighters and EMS skills. However, the fire officer’s primary role is that of an immediate supervisor. To be an effective supervisor, a fire officer must be knowledgeable, experienced, and project a confidence in their work. The role of the company officer must also include a deep concern for the well-being of the firefighters in his or her command. The concept of well-being covers a wide range of concerns, such as the firefighters’ physical condition, mental health, nourishment, hydration, rest, adequate equipment, and employee assistance program considerations. The company officer must have a thorough understanding of department operational SOPs, policies, and procedures and be able to integrate them into the decision-making process, whether on the fireground or in the firehouse. Lastly, the company officer is the primary trainer of the firefighters in their command.

The primary role of the chief officer is to take command of emergency incidents and develop an IAP to mitigate the incident while keeping the firefighters operating at the emergency as safely as possible. Firefighters and company officers expect nothing less than for chief officers to be able to read the signs exhibited at the emergency incident and make knowledgeable decisions that have the highest benefits with the least amount of risk.  This essentially means bringing a systematic and deliberate approach to emergency responses based on clearly defined departmental operational procedures and years of experience operating at emergency incidents.  Secondary to emergency operations, the role of the chief officer is to be the link between the administrative body of the department and the firefighters operating in the field. The chief ensures that firefighters and company officers comply with and understand the policies of the department, and ensures that the administrative body understands the needs of the firefighters.


The responsibilities of the firefighter, fire officers, and chief officers have a lot in common. Every member of a fire department has the responsibility to represent the department in the best light possible.  The success of every department rests in the hands of those who comprise the department every day. Every member of the department has the same basic responsibilities: reporting to duty in a clean uniform ready to work, treating fellow firefighters with respect, ensuring all emergency equipment is operational, interacting with the public in a respectful manner, and avoiding reckless behavior that could cause injury to other firefighters on the fireground. It is the responsibility of every member of the department to continue to train in the skills that are expected of them and to take advantage of professional development opportunities as they become available.  SOPs provide a framework for the department to operate that set clear operational responsibilities for everyone operating at emergency scenes. These SOPs create the basis for an IAP that specifies what is expected of everyone at the emergency scene. Everyone is responsible for specific parts of the total operation and everyone can be confident that every responsibility of the emergency response is being met and who is responsible for each part of the total operation.  

The responsibilities of firefighters are to master the skills of a firefighter and to take direction without hesitation. There are also responsibilities for firefighters in the firehouse, such as keeping the firehouse in a clean and orderly condition, taking turns at cooking and cleaning, addressing senior officers by their rank, and even taking children on firehouse tours.

The most important responsibility of fire officers is for the firefighters in their command. Fire officers are responsible for the training, efficiency, discipline, morale, and safety of all the firefighters in their command. This is a serious responsibility that involves constant attention and scrutiny. The fire officer also has an extended responsibly to the families of the firefighters: to keep their loved ones out of danger and away from excessive mental stress. The fire officer is also responsible to ensure that medical treatment is readily available during all emergency operations as well as critical incident stress debriefing teams.  Fire officers are responsible to maintain a respectful and welcoming work environment for everyone in the firehouse regardless of sex, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, or experience. Some of the more mundane responsibilities include the care and management of all buildings, equipment, and property of the department. Fire officers are also responsible to make regular reports of their company’s activities to chief officers.


The concept of boundaries is a relatively new concept in the fire service. In years past, when the fire service was predominantly a white male organization, boundaries were of less importance and most firefighters gravitated to fire companies where they felt most comfortable. When I began my fire service career in the 1970s, the concept of boundaries did not have any context. We simply worked in a fire company and were told what to do, sometimes in a very loud and profane manner, and that was considered a normal course of operations.  We did not have portable radios, so yelling was a way to be heard. The profanity simply added urgency to the task at hand, and as the new guy you were expected to do more of the dirty work until you were no longer the new guy.

This system was in place for many years before I arrived on the scene and it had produced some of the most prolific firefighters imaginable. It was also eerily like the leadership style of General Patton. Morale was very high and we all wanted to be part of the best and busiest fire companies.  I suspect that my experiences were very similar to many others in those years.

As time moved on and fire departments began to evolve, the concept of treating your fellow firefighters in this way was no longer acceptable for a number of reasons. Many different groups of people began to make up the ranks of the department, and they did not all look alike or think alike.  As the make up of fire departments began to change, a more respectful approach to interpersonal relationships was necessary.  Leaders in the fire service began to understand the need for behavioral boundaries in the fire service as a part of our evolution.

A boundary is simply something that indicates limits, and in the fire service the limits that deserved scrutiny were behavioral limits. The limits in this case are points where acceptable behavior turns into something that is not acceptable behavior, and this way of thinking is rooted in ethics. This concept is the basis for the expression “crossing the line”. Many departments have attempted to codify acceptable behaviors within their rules, regulations, policies, trainings, and administrative directives. Crossing boundaries generally ends up in disciplinary proceedings or, worse yet, in litigation. Some examples of crossing boundaries include the following;

  • Officers dating subordinates.
  • Using offensive language.
  • Not treating everyone with respect.
  • Not allowing every firefighter in your command the same opportunities.
  • Making disparaging remarks about individuals or groups.
  • Engaging in any type of sexual harassment behavior.
  • Intentionally disregarding SOPs during emergency operations.
  • Exposing firefighters in your command to unnecessary danger.
  • Engaging in racial, ethnic, or gender discrimination.

There are boundaries for everyone in the fire service at every rank and in every interpersonal relationship. Fire officers must maintain high ethical standards for themselves and at the same time expect the same from their subordinates. High ethical standards define the boundaries of behavior, and when exhibited by people in leadership positions, this type of ethical behavior soon becomes the norm.  Boundaries will soon become clear to everyone, yielding a respectful and welcoming work environment. General George S. Patton was one of history’s greatest combat generals, but I suspect even he may have needed some remedial training to operate in today’s fire service.


Tom WarrenThomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. Presently he is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in fire science from Providence College, an Associate’s Degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.


More Thomas N. Warren

Fire Service Sexual Harassment: Leaders Must Set the Tone

Situational Awareness on the Fireground

The Firefighter: A Different Kind of Person

Command Presence: What Is It, and How Do You Develop It?

Standard Operating Procedures: The First Step to a Safer Fireground

How Do You Prepare Yourself for Duty?

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