FROM “BUDDY” TO “BOSS”: LESSONS FOR NEW COMPANY OFFICERS

BY CHASE N. SARGENT

To effectively operate, the fire service must employ small teams to meet its emergency and nonemergency roles. Small teams account for more than 90 percent of all the customer contacts associated with fire and rescue services and accomplish 90 percent of all the work. Such a team might be an engine company, a truck company, a rescue company, instructors, or inspectors. The team’s effectiveness, safety, and efficiency depend on many factors, the most important of which is leadership. Unfortunately, the fire service is famous for promoting people from a labor to leadership role overnight with little to no training or preparation for a role as company officer. We take personnel that are riding in a jump seat one day and say the next, “Congratulations, you scored number 1. Here is your white shirt and gold badge. Report to Station 20 tomorrow as the lieutenant or captain.”

Overnight, an individual goes from buddy to boss and is expected to operate effectively in a unique and often dangerous environment. Why is it that the fire service will take 24 weeks to teach a recruit but will not spend two weeks training company officers on the basics of leadership, policy, tactics, and human resources management? Many departments are setting their officers up for failure by not providing basic job skills necessary for a supervisor in the fire service today.

I was a victim of that very system, going from blue shirt to white shirt overnight. While my tool box as a firefighter was at least partially full, my tool box of supervisory skills and knowledge was weak at best my first day as a company officer. It became apparent to me the very first week, and in the years following, that it is imperative for new company officers to receive adequate training and continuing education prior to and during their tenure as officers.

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ADVICE TO OFFICERS

Following is some insight into the critical areas or potential booby traps that a new officer might fall into.

Let’s begin with a general approach to the philosophy of leadership and its responsibilities. General Robert E. Lee said, “Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more; you should never do less.” This quote is the essence of what young leaders must understand. By accepting the rank of supervisor, you accept the responsibility and accountability that come with it. You are entrusted to do your duty, each and every time, on the fireground, in and around the station, in the human resources arena, and in the day-to-day mundane tasks. If you cannot-or will not-come to work intending to do your duty each day, then do not accept the promotion! There is nothing worse than a lazy, technically incompetent officer who refuses to do the mundane and hard things because it is easier to let them slide.

Fire service company officers walk a fine line. In many instances they remain members of labor, sort of working foremen. They supervise many of the tasks they used to perform as firefighters, so they understand the job requirements. In times of short staffing, they even assist with those tasks, as any good leader would do, but make no mistake about it: The job of the company officers is to plan, supervise, and direct-not perform the same tasks they did as firefighters. In departments that are short-staffed, they may find themselves performing tasks that a firefighter should be performing on the fireground. While often an operational necessity (as it is in my department), this detracts from what the company officer should be doing at an emergency incident-planning, supervising, and directing. Placing a company officer in this position is dangerous for his crew and for the organization, but that is another article.

Let’s examine some rules for becoming a new leader.

When in charge, take charge. You are the company officer and are responsible and accountable for your personnel. This does not imply that you should be a dictator but that you have a responsibility to ensure the company runs effectively and can meet its organizational responsibilities. Like the military, you should effectively learn from and use your senior enlisted to help your company achieve its goals, but you can never abandon your leadership responsibility. When something goes right, you can pass on the praise and spotlight to your personnel, but when something goes wrong, you will be responsible.

People want you to take charge, but when you do, they will resist you. A new company supervisor always faces the ghost of the previous supervisor. The company you are inheriting has a culture that the members’ interaction with one another and the previous leadership style have established. This can be good and bad. If you had a lazy, worthless officer before you, the shift may be upset that it actually has to work now. If the previous officer “did his duty,” your transition will be easier. Remember that people want to be led; they do not want to wander aimlessly with no plan. However, there will always be moments to challenge your leadership. In some instances, the message may be that there is in fact a better mousetrap; in other cases, it may be that the firefighter or the group does not like the cultural change taking place.

It’s a natural thing, get over it. The only thing that is constant is change! It is natural for firefighters to resist you from time to time. Don’t take it personally; accept it as a cultural reality. Eventually, you will identify each personanlity type associated with your shift and understand the blend of human resources you have been given.

For the above concepts to work, you must do the following.

  • Trust your subordinates. You can’t expect them to go all out for you if they think you don’t believe in them.
  • Develop a vision. People want to follow someone who knows where he is going.
  • Keep your cool. The best leaders show their mettle under fire.
  • Encourage risk. Nothing demoralizes the troops like knowing that the slightest failure could jeopardize their entire career.
  • Be an expert. From boardroom to mailroom, everyone had better understand that you know what you are talking about.
  • Invite dissent. Your people aren’t giving you their best if they are afraid to speak up.
  • Simplify. You need to see the big picture to set a course, communicate it, and maintain it.

  • It is important that as a leader, especially a new leader, you always go first, lead from the front. There is a wide range of methods you can use to develop your leadership for the long term. Here are just a few to get started.
  • Strive to do small things. Make sure you do even the simplest things with professionalism and quality.
  • Be a doer and a self-starter. Aggressiveness and initiative are the two most admired qualities of a leader, but you must also take time to put your feet up and think. Lead from the front, but also plan for your company effectively.
  • Strive for self-improvement through constant self-evaluation. You’re only as good as your last incident. Reputation means nothing. As Steven R. Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon and Schuster, 1989) says, you have to continually “sharpen your saw.”
  • Never be satisfied; ask of any project or response, How can it be done better? Use every event as an opportunity for learning and teaching.
  • Don’t overinspect or oversupervise. Allow your subordinates to make mistakes in training, so they can profit from the errors during operations. Tell me what you want done, give me the resources to do it, get the hell out of my way, tell me how I did, make adjustments.
  • Keep your personnel informed. Telling them what, how, and why builds their confidence. Maintain effective dialogue with your personnel and bosses.
  • The harder the training, the more the team will brag. Second only to the business of the business, documented, ongoing, and verifiable training is critical.
  • Enthusiasm, fairness, and moral and physical courage are four of the most vital aspects of leadership. Go first, show strength, be fair, and do the right thing.
  • Showmanship is a vital technique of leadership. Take the stage, grab the spotlight, and use it effectively.
  • The ability to speak and write well is essential for leadership. Computer skills, report writing, and getting your point across are critical.

  • Have consideration for others. Lead by remembering what it was like to follow.
  • Yelling detracts from your dignity. Take personnel aside to counsel them. Praise in public, discipline in private.
  • Understand and use judgment. Know when to stop fighting for something you believe is right. Discuss and argue your point until the decision is made, then support the decision.
  • Stay ahead of your boss. Communicate, implement, follow up.

KEEPING THE KITTENS IN THE BOX

Your personnel are going to test the boundaries of your leadership. They are going to compare the box that you work in against the box that the last supervisor worked in. They are going to see how far they can push you, what your buttons are, and what they can and cannot get away with. Remember, you are the designated adult, and the kids are going to try your patience.

Firefighters will try to see what your boundaries are with regard to policy, response guidelines, and expectations. They will attempt to judge you on past supervisor actions. For example, you respond to a fire alarm, and you notice that some of your personnel get off the truck without full turnout gear and breathing apparatus. You direct them to put their gear on, to which they reply; “Cap, we come here twice a day, and Captain Frank never made us put our gear on, and neither did he.” You reinforce your order, to which several mumble something as they put on their gear.

I had just moved back into suppression from a staff job in special operations. On my second shift, I came around the back of the station, and the guys were playing basketball! In my organization, ball sports are not allowed. Of course, none of the captains were around, so I stopped and inquired, “What are you guys doing?” The reply was, “We’re playing basketball.” I said, “I know you’re playing basketball, but why are you playing basketball?” Needless to say, the game was over. My discussions with the company officers indicated my expectations for the future, and from that point on, there was no problem. The point is, they were testing me-the kittens were crawling out of the box.

So how do you keep the kittens from getting out of the box, or at least define the box you expect them to stay in? Here is a simple strategy.

  • Identify your expectations early.
  • Identify (and listen) to your personnel’s expectations of you.
  • Enforce policy universally and fairly.
  • Create an environment of open and constant communications (be approachable and ask to be questioned).
  • Effectively plan your shift and your shift operations.
  • Mentor rookies, and identify senior personnel who have needs.

Along with keeping the kittens in the box comes the task of giving orders. Perhaps giving orders is not the correct term, since if you earn the respect and trust of your people you can usually give direction, not orders. Before giving direction, give some example of what is not expected. Don’t micromanage; micromanagement shows a lack of trust. Tell your personnel what you want done, not how to do it. Manage by the concept of intent (What needs to be done?) and end state (What is the end product to be?). Use the concept of main effort, especially at an emergency. The main effort is the most important issue or task that needs to be completed. Use rules of engagement. This applies to how to accomplish the task or mission rather than the results. This concept does not tell you what to do but what to avoid doing. These are the boundary lines or constraints. Finally, to gain the trust and respect of your personnel you are going to have to, as Steven Covey puts it, make deposits in their emotional bank accounts. You can make these deposits by doing simple things, like going first, staying in touch with open communications, making each day count, becoming a storyteller, and using teaching as a moment of learning.

MAINTAINING TECHNICAL AND PROFESSIONAL COMPETENCE

The worst bosses are those who fail to maintain their technical competencies and then try and lead by making people think they know what they are talking about. Certainly, as you move higher up the chain of command, it becomes harder to maintain your operational competencies. When you reach that point, you must learn to trust those who have the competencies and allow them to make the necessary decision based on their expertise and expert knowledge.

As a company officer, battalion officer, or division chief, you have no excuse for not having the technical competencies (let’s call them knowledge, skills, and abilities-or KSAs). You must always strive to educate and maintain your professional edge and create an environment where your personnel can obtain these same values. On several occasions, I have had my captains poll their personnel on courses that they would like to take and create a training or needs matrix for each member of the shift and for themselves. Then it becomes a team effort to get those personnel assigned to specific courses. This matrix represents those KSAs that the team members would like to obtain above and beyond the required KSAs.

You must be an expert. Your personnel will not trust or follow you if you fail to maintain the professional competencies associated with your job assignments. I love it when chief officers from fire prevention decide they no longer need skills associated with front line fire and rescue service, forgetting that you don’t stay in staff forever! For you to lead, you must have credibility.

The longer you stay in your job, the more mature you will get. Job maturity is reflected in just how competent and committed you are to your job. This means that people want you to make a decision-and make the right decision.

Maintaining professional competencies is one of the most critical things a young or veteran officer can do. From a technical perspective, the risk associated with our emergency response clearly indicates that failure is not an option and that mistakes can have long-term consequences, including death and significant injury, not to mention political fallout. Maintaining your professional competencies will keep you and your people out of harm’s way.

UNDERSTANDING AND ENFORCING POLICY

One trap that young officers fall into is not enforcing policy fairly and equally. As a firefighter and now as an officer, you will surely find some policies unjust, whimsical, or downright stupid. But every policy has someone’s name on it. Take grooming standards, for example. Maybe you cannot grow your mustache because the chief simply does not like mustaches, or maybe you cannot wear golf shirts because the chief or deputy chief does not like them. As mature adults, we know that not all policy makes sense or is practical, but it is still policy! The fact remains that organizational culture plays a big part in how some policy is developed, as do the values of the people who create it. Your job is to attempt to change policy that is unfair or makes little sense. You address policy with your supervisors or via the organizational process up to the point that the decision is made, and then you get behind it and enforce it.

Let’s discuss some common pitfalls of policy enforcement that company officers are confronted with on a daily basis.

Pitfall 1: Deciding that you will not enforce all policy equally. You know that officers are going to turn their heads from time to time on policy that they do not feel bears merit. Sometimes this is done for the good of morale; sometimes it’s done for personal reasons. For every action and decision you make, there are consequences; if you are smart, you balance those actions against the potential consequences. The following example illustrates my point. Say your organization has a policy that says personnel can wear their informal gear around the station after 2000 hours at night. Now suppose your personnel wear it around before 2000 hours. You choose to turn your head to this policy. Is the world or the organization going to end because of this? Certainly not, and chances are you will get away with it for a long time. Now, suppose one of the firefighters on your shift is wearing his mustache a little long (one of the kittens is trying to crawl out of the box), and you tell him to cut it. He replies, “Yes sir. Does this mean you are going to start enforcing all policy?” When you ask what he means, he brings up the informal wear policy. Now you have no reply-you are facing the consequences of your decision. If you are going to turn your head, you have to turn it equally in all directions!

Pitfall 2: Talking bad about policy in front of the troops. Remember, you don’t have to like it, you just have to do it. It is appropriate to say you intend to address the policy you feel is unfair, but you should not badmouth the policy. You should address that with your chain of command. If the troops hear you speak badly about a policy, they will expect you not to enforce it. The appropriate thing to do is to let your personnel know that you do not agree with policy X anymore than they do, but it is policy and its going to be enforced until you or someone can change it. Encourage them to collect data or do the staff work required to change the policy, and assist them with resources.

Pitfall 3: Looking over the fence. How many times have you heard, “Captain Thompson on A shift lets his guys do it” or “Firefighter Bob has his mustache long, and no one says anything to him”? That’s called looking over the fence. You cannot base you values and integrity on what others do, nor can you allow your personnel to look across the fence.

You can exercise some options. First, go talk to the company officer whose failure to enforce policy is impacting you. Discuss with him the ramifications, and ask him to take care of it. Keep it inside the sphere of officers, and you will gain respect. You expect him to follow up and take care of it, and most of the time that will occur. If it does not, use your position of authority to take care of it, again keeping it internal and within the sphere of the company. The reality is you are an officer with the department, not an officer on your shift, and anyone who tells you different is wrong. Give the firefighter an order to cut his mustache; it does not matter that he is on another shift! This action does not compromise your integrity, since you have already asked his officer to take care of it and he has by his inaction refused. Should the firefighter refuse, he is subject to the disciplinary procedures outlined by your organization. If it reaches this point, it now transcends the company level and is solved outside of the company sphere of influence. This is not a good thing but is sometimes necessary. As company officer, you will only have to do this once, and the word will get out.

Pitfall 4: Getting wrapped around the axle by things outside of your sphere of influence. Firefighters and officers constantly complain about things outside of their sphere of influence. Let’s face it, organizations do not know what the word “fair” means. Fairness is a human construct; it does not apply to organizations as a whole. So, while there are certain things that you really do not like or that you and your personnel think are ridiculous, you cannot get wrapped around the axle over them. You have as much chance of changing them as you do of having the city manager over for dinner and drinks.

There are things that you can do and that your personnel can do to expand your circle of influence and make it bigger. Consider the following.

  • Get promoted. As you are promoted, your circle of influence grows. If you are competent, this is good; if you are incompetent, this is bad for the organization.
  • Get on committees and work groups. Take time to discover what committees or work groups influence policy, and try to get on them.
  • Politic. Find out where the power behind the throne lies and either get the union involved or find a way in personally.
  • Research, and provide data. If you find something that does not make any sense or is contradictory to the data available, collect and submit the data in support of change.

EVALUATING PEOPLE

The hardest and most difficult task a company officer faces has nothing to do with the fireground. The most difficult decisions you will ever make are those dealing with human resources. Fire service leaders always say to me, “You know, I’m not really a people person.” Since the fire service is all about people, both internal and external to the organization, how can you lead effectively without being a people person?

When you become a supervisor, you are going to have to evaluate people. This means evaluate them for the good they do and the improvements that they need to make. It means that you may even have to recommend someone for termination or discipline. The most important evaluations that you will do are those for your rookies. In most municipal services, rookie firefighters are on probation for at least a year and perhaps more. The reality is, if you identify a problem and determine that this employee should not stay with the organization, you had better do it in the first year, because after that you have to commit a felony to get fired! For protection, your department should have a standard KSA package by which all rookie employees are evaluated. This ensures that rookie A and rookie B, who are being supervised by different officers, are at least being evaluated using the same guidelines. This standard may take the form of a rookie training manual, KSA checklist, or other standard documentation and evaluation tool for benchmarking performance.

The process and the words you write about an employee and subsequently say to an employee are extremely important. Your ability to develop a team, mentor personnel, correct behaviors, praise behaviors, and create the leaders and firefighters of tomorrow is directly tied to the evaluation process.

Employee evaluation should start long before any official evaluation. The ability to effectively evaluate someone begins by clearly defining what your expectations are. Employees cannot work effectively if they do not know their supervisor’s and organization’s expectations. This requires a face-to-face meeting where you clearly lay out and discuss expectations.

The evaluation process continues throughout an employee’s career. Give positive and negative feedback so the employee understands what he is doing to meet expectations and where he needs to improve. Supervisors can assist in this process by using operations as learning points, mentoring using senior members of the shift, and rewarding failures because the employee took a risk with good intentions. With feedback, no employee should be surprised when the final evaluation comes.

Whether we want to admit it or not, evaluations are in place to determine whom we want to keep in the organization and whom we want to get rid of. Good documentation is the key. Before you begin the paperwork, make sure you are educated in a number of areas. First, make sure you familiarize yourself with employees’ rights. This includes knowledge of any firefighter/EMT bill of rights, union procedures, department grievance procedures, or human resources policy that states what you can and cannot do. Next, determine where the “official personnel file” is kept. Is it kept by the department, or is it kept in your municipal human resources department? In many instances only documentation entered into the official file counts for anything. Finally, understand that “if it’s important enough for a sit-down, it’s important enough to write down.” In many instances, verbal counseling is not admissible when justifying a good or a poor evaluation. If your employee is doing such a good job that you want to get him an incentive bonus or commendation, you had better document it in writing. If you begin to notice a pattern that indicates a problem employee, you had better document it and place it in the file for future use or reference.

DISCIPLINE

Discipline is one of the hardest things a supervisor will ever have to do. Let’s examine some of the basic principles of how to effectively administer fair and productive discipline. Discipline should be corrective, progressive, and fair. The purpose of discipline is to correct unsatisfactory work performance or employee misconduct. With a few exceptions, always apply the minimum penalty necessary. Finally, discipline should be progressive and should promote the maximum utilization of the employee’s potential.

If you find yourself in a position of having to investigate to determine the facts of an event prior to discipline, use the following as a guideline.

  • Get statements from witnesses and those involved.
  • Provide the employee with the opportunity to explain his version of the facts.
  • Document the information discovered during the initial stage of the investigation to develop a full picture of the facts.

To determine the relative facts, determine the following.

  • What, when, where, and why it happened; who was present; and who observed or participated.
  • What rule(s), if any, apply to the situation.
  • If the employee was aware of the rule or if the violation was so obvious that any reasonable person would have known.
  • If the rule was consistently enforced. (This is where an organizational discipline database greatly assists-a database, minus names, that officers can refer to, stating the type of offense and the discipline provided.)

Any documentation that you undertake with the intention of indicating poor performance should have the following minimum characteristics and should, in written form, state the following. What was done wrong? What rule or policy did it violate? What should have occurred? What discipline is being administered? What will happen if it occurs again? What is expected from the employee in the future? What will you and the employee do to make that happen-what corrective action plan is being put into place?

Understand that each individual brings his own strengths and weaknesses to the job. Also understand that you cannot have a “zero defects mentality” with your employees. If personnel are not making mistakes, they are not taking chances or risks. Use mistakes as a learning tool and as a starting point for improvement.

Use the following limits as a guide when encouraging risk taking and failure: Repeated mistakes in the same area are unacceptable; mistakes make during the “5 percent time” (during emergency operations) are unacceptable; and the higher up the food chain you go, the less tolerant and the more career-threatening mistakes become.

Unfortunately, organizations do hire people from time to time who should be making bagels for a living. If for some reason you inherit some of these people because they made it past the training staff, if becomes your duty to effectively evaluate them. If you find yourself in this unfortunate situation, make sure you do the following: document, document, document; follow all administrative polices; have a witness when discussing issues that might be contested (someone in your chain of command-your battalion officer is a good choice); and keep a journal (you can bet the employee is).

A final word about human resources issues, and a suggestion for you new officers. When I used to receive a new employee, I would not look at his personnel file. At the time I believed that this allowed me to fairly evaluate the employee without being prejudiced by another officer’s evaluation. I have discovered that this is not a very good way to do business. Unfortunately, personnel with behavioral problems, aggressive behavior, and other issues carry those traits with them throughout their careers. It has also been my experience that some officers do not “do their duty” and instead of dealing with the issue, they transfer it. Look at those personnel files so you at least know the employee’s history. This will more effectively allow you to mentor and evaluate.

PREJUDICE AND DIVERSITY

Our workplace demands appreciating diversity, not just accepting it. There is no more expedient way to get demoted or fired than letting racial issues or sexual issues overtake you in the fire station. As the officer in charge, you are directly responsible for the actions of your personnel while on duty. Your inaction in instantly quelling any inappropriate racial, gender-based, or religious intolerance in your station is unacceptable. In fact, should you fail to move swiftly when these events occur, your inaction may be seen as acceptance.

Women and minorities in the fire service are no longer a novelty. The vast majority of organizations are constantly recruiting minorities in an effort to reflect the community they serve. This means that what was in decades past a white, male job will continue to change, reflecting the diversity of our communities and our country. As supervisors, you are going to have to begin to manage this change in the fire service in an effective manner. The following issues require immediate attention, or they could be career ending: racial or ethnic jokes or comments in the fire station; sexual or graphic displays in the fire station; and personal or human prejudice displayed while on duty.

Sexual harassment is another form of prejudice. Sexual harassment affects everyone-supervisors, employees, and the organization. According to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment is attention that is unwelcome or unwanted, harmful to employees or employers, and illegal.

As an officer, you may encounter two kinds of sexual harassment. The first is “Quid pro quo, which means “something for something.” This kind of sexual harassment usually involves a supervisor who uses threats of firing, blocking promotion, transferring, or giving a bad evaluation if the person does not go along with his sexual desires or using rewards of hiring, promotion, good evaluations, a raise, or other perks if the person goes along.

The second kind of sexual harassment is the “creation of a hostile environment.” This covers regular and repeated actions or things displayed around the workplace that “unreasonably interfere” with job performance or create an “intimidating or hostile” or offensive work environment. A hostile environment may include sexual pictures, calendars, graffiti, or objects and offensive language, jokes, gestures, or comments. The courts have ruled that determination is based on “what a reasonable person thinks is ‘out of bounds’ or interferes with work.”

If you are in doubt, ask yourself, Would I want my spouse, child, sister, or parent to have to see or listen to something like this? Sexuality is a part of our lives, and people have always joked with each other, flirted, and kidded around, but there is a big difference between good-natured fun and sexual harassment. In essence, the difference is how the other person feels, and the law says that what the victim feels is most important. Remarks or actions may not be intended to hurt anyone, but if they have that effect, they are harassment.

Your organization is required to have a sexual harassment policy and more than likely offers sexual harassment courses for supervisors. Make sure you are familiar with the policy and its implications.

MANAGING ANGER AND VIOLENCE IN THE WORKPLACE

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, an average of 20 workers are murdered each week in the United States. In addition, an estimated one million workers-18,000 per week-are victims of nonfatal assaults each year. Homicide is the second leading cause of death on the job, second only to motor vehicle accidents, and homicide is the leading cause of death among females in the workplace.

The U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (July 1994) states that those victimized by workplace assaults cost about a half a million employees 1,751,100 days of work each year, with an average of 3.5 days per crime. This missed work resulted in more than $55 million in lost wages annually, not including days covered by sick leave and annual leave.

As a company officer managing people, you are going to be faced with conflict and potential violence in the workplace. You can identify many of these situations early and mitigate them before they get out of hand or escalate into tragedy. It is important that you be able to identify the initial stages of violence in the workplace, take the necessary steps to diffuse the situation, and implement departmental policy in addressing the issues at hand.

Many organizations have failed to address violence in the workplace for the following reasons:

  • Weak or nonexistent policies.
  • No mechanism for reporting violent or threatening behavior.
  • Failure to take immediate action against those who have threatened or committed acts of workplace violence.
  • No clearly defined rules of conduct.
  • Failure to educate managers, supervisors, and employees.

You can identify most workplace violence early, so it’s important that you familiarize yourself with the warning signs. These signs may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Intimidating, harassing, or threatening behavior.
  • History of violent behavior.
  • Obsession with weapons.
  • Direct or veiled verbal threats.
  • Moral or political intolerance.
  • Intimidating co-workers or supervisors.
  • Obsessive involvement with the job with no apparent outside interests.
  • Chronic disputes with co-workers or supervisors.
  • Paranoia or belief that the system is unfair.
  • Does not take criticism well.
  • Verbalizes a hope that something bad will happen to a person.
  • Notable decline in workplace performance, attendance, and productivity.
  • Pushes the limit of normal conduct.
  • Chemical dependence.
  • Social isolation or low self-esteem.
  • Exhibiting extreme depression over recent personal problems.

These behaviors fall into two specific categories: those where there is immediate verbal or physical action (aggressive) and those where there is discussion or change in human behavior (passive/aggressive). As a supervisor, you must advise any employee showing signs of aggressive behavior in the workplace that you will not tolerate it. Additionally, you must document and report it. If the employee has a significant emotional confrontation (aggressively shouting, getting in someone’s face, using threats or abusive language), immediately relieve him of duty.

Should you find yourself threatened, take it seriously, note the problem in the formal personnel file, firmly explain that the behavior is not acceptable, intervene on the issue, provide assistance, offer professional help (an employee assistance program, for example), and make a formal referral if necessary.

If it is a violent situation, you should do the following:

  • Immediately call the police. If the violence is directed at an inanimate object such as a soda machine, or the employee throws a halligan bar across the room, this may not be immediately necessary.
  • Keep your cool. Don’t display anger, fear, or anxiety. Talk in a calm voice, lower than usual, but don’t patronize.
  • Ask what’s wrong. People generally get angry after a triggering event. Give them a chance to talk or yell. Maintain eye contact.
  • Ask for solutions. Give him a chance to solve the problem that triggered his anger. Not only will it help calm him down, but you might end up with a solution you can live with.
  • Help him save face. If it’s an employee, find a way to punish his behavior that will preserve his dignity and won’t humiliate him.

As a supervisor, you must treat all potential violence in the workplace issues immediately, effectively, and in a manner according to policy.

ORGANIZATIONAL RULES OF GRAVITY

Nothing frustrates a leader more than not being able to control events that impact him and his ability to effectively do his job. As a supervisor, you want to gain the trust and respect of your crew and your supervisors, gaining credibility as you go. Understanding these issues will help you maintain that credibility.

Every organization has its “gravity,” those unwritten natural and political laws that thrive in organizations and impact the people that work for them. Like gravity, you can fight them all you want, but you will probably end up just hurting yourself, just as if you try to defy gravity. Knowing these natural organizational laws will keep you from getting so frustrated and help you explain to your personnel why “life isn’t fair.”

BEING ACCOUNTABLE AND RESPONSIBLE

As a company officer, you are responsible and accountable for your actions and your crew’s actions. This is true of every departmental officer, but the company officer seems to have the greatest level of impact. As a company officer, just because someone else chooses not to do his duty is no excuse for you to do likewise.

As a company officer, you are a “working foreman,” which means you must strike a balance between leading, managing, and being a friend. Your responsibility is to lead by example. You will have to take responsibility for personnel’s failures, but when they are successful you must allow them to take most of the credit. You must make your reputation on your willingness and capabilities and on your willingness to do what you ask your personnel to do.

You are a human being, and you are going to make mistakes. When you make a mistake, especially with your personnel, admit it. Nothing damages your credibility faster than trying to skate your way out of something you know you did wrong.

Two of the most powerful tools that a company officer has are the door and the desk. When you call an employee in your office and close the door, what immediately happens outside that sphere? The rest of the shift is abuzz with questions: What is going on? What did he do now? It may be that you just called the employee in to tell him he is doing a great job or to ask how he is doing or to follow up on a conversation you had earlier, but, boy, does that door start the brains in the company working. Use your door wisely. The desk is another tool-it creates a power barrier between you and your staff. Come out from behind the desk to talk, to review performance, to address a problem. There are certainly times when you need “the desk,” but just like the gold on your collar, if you find yourself using it too much to lead or direct, there is a problem.

There may come a time when you feel inclined to protect your personnel for what they have done or said as a matter of integrity, because you sanctioned the action, or because you know the action to be correct. Be wise where and when you choose to do this, as you will not be afforded too many of these opportunities by the chain of command before your supervisors start to question your leadership capabilities.

Make sure that you are questioned by your personnel. If they are not questioning you from time to time, you are not getting the best from them. Have an open-door policy, where they can come and question you regarding a decision or statement you made. Open dialogue is critical to success. You must be challenged from time to time if you are going to draw forth the best ideas from your personnel and create meaning and vision for them.

Finally, remember that as a supervisor, one of your key tasks and responsibilities is that you are directly responsible for the health, safety, and welfare of your personnel. This is in regards to all aspects of the job, both emergency and nonemergency. You must enforce safety and health issues in and around the station for the good of all personnel. On the fireground, you must make sound tactical decisions, taking into account the basic priorities of life, property, and control in everything you do. If your personnel see that you are willing to take calculated risks and are there with them, they will follow you anywhere.

CHASE N. SARGENT, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief with the City of Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department, commanding the Special Operations Division on B Shift. He is a task force leader with FEMA’s USAR Virginia Task Force II and is an instructor for the FEMA USAR Structural Collapse Technician program. Sargent is president of Spec. Rescue International, a training and consulting firm specializing in technical rescue, management and leadership, hazardous materials, and terrorism training. He received a bachelor’s degree in forestry and wildlife with a major in fisheries biology from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 1979 and a master’s in public administration from Golden Gate University in 1991. Sargent is the author of Confined Space Rescue (Fire Engineering, 2000).

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