Full Contact Leadership: Sounds Like Command Presence: Ed Flood

By Ed Flood

A supervisor’s prime directive is to get work done through the efforts of others. The “others” referred to in the prime directive are other humans. Leading, bossing, and supervising involve humans interacting with other humans. So, the question a fire service leader might want to ask is, “How effective am I when interacting with the other humans in my life?” 

The following is a bit of exaggeration to make a point:

“I’ve been married and divorced twice. My kids won’t do their homework or take out the garbage. My dog won’t give me her paw. When I gave that guy at the counter ‘what for,’ he just shrugged and went off to lunch. I am certain that I can transcend my less than effective, off-duty human relationship skills to safely and effectively lead women and men in the demanding and dangerous business of emergency response.”

Leading other humans is not a skill you can make up as you go along. Effective leadership cannot be pulled out of thin air or out of a white-shielded black fire helmet or even a gold-shielded white fire helmet. Leading mature, intelligent, dedicated, complex, and sometimes not-so-mature men and woman is dead serious business and should never be the purview of dilettantes, half-steppers, or the well-intended unqualified.

The women and men doing societies hazardous duty under the most arduous of circumstances deserve fully engaged, dedicated, educated, informed, competent, and committed leadership. The men and women of the fire service require leaders who not only recognize the awesome responsibility of command but who also spend an entire career acquiring and honing the skills, knowledge, and competencies necessary to meet the challenges attendant to leading firefighters in the 21st century.

Full Contact Leader Traits

Full contact leaders are engaged, competent, efficient, effective, and capable. They seek to optimize the requisite abilities, knowledge, and skills required to do “The Job.” Full contact leadership is about competence, setting expectations, and defining boundaries. An expectation is an understanding that someone will or should do something. 

A boundary is a clear and unambiguous no-fly zone that limits and defines the scope of a relationship, a process, or an activity. Boundaries are guidelines, rules, or limits individuals and organizations create to set standards; define roles and responsibilities; and identify reasonable, safe, acceptable behavior. Boundaries include how leaders or the organization responds when expectations are not met or the limits of boundaries are breached.

Leadership competence is wholly dependent on a leader’s ability to set and adhere to fair, unambiguous, and purposeful expectations while maintaining and enforcing organizational and personal boundaries. Leaders should be able to articulate the “how far,” “how close,” “how fast,” “how high,” “how low,” “how frequent,” and “how come” of routine and non-routine activities.

Organizational boundaries and expectations are promulgated by rules, regulations, policies, schedules, education, standard operating procedures, policies, preplans, and general and special orders including legal orders issued by supervisors. Fire departments require leaders to interpret and enforce all department expectations and boundaries specific to their sphere of influence. Creating boundaries and setting expectations empower leaders and those they lead. The fire service recognizes the need to set enforceable limits. Full contact leaders recognize boundaries and expectations as personnel and personal protective devices. Boundaries and expectations reinforce self-esteem, self-respect, respect for others and the “Job.” Boundaries and expectations need be designed to support safe, healthy, and productive work environments.

Boundaries and expectations are stress-management devices. Few things cause more stress than ambiguity. Clear unambiguous expectations and boundaries eliminate guess work in a work environment. Boundaries and expectations streamline decision making, allowing firefighters to focus attention and action on the demands of the task at hand.

Setting boundaries and expectations necessitate that a leader speak in a straightforward and direct manner.  Straightforward and direct communication reduces confusion, misunderstanding, and stress. The tone of voice for straightforward, direct communication should be firm, fair, and friendly. To successfully transfer/transmit content, communication must be clear, concise, complete, and digestible. Leaders who vacillate; hem and haw; and who are indirect, longwinded, or can’t get to the point create unnecessary stress, listener resentment, and organizational confusion.

Information is the life blood of an emergency response profile. Leaders in the fire service are regularly called on to promulgate and deliver actionable packages of comprehendible information. A leader taking a casual approach to communicating is doomed to fail. At a minimum, effective communication necessitates study, concerted preparation, and practice.

You Know It When You Hear It

Initial Contact

Firefighter Dobie Gillis has been temporarily assigned to Rescue 3 for training and skills evaluation. Today is his first tour of duty with the rescue company. He is met at the door by Captain Karen Chan, who greets him with an extended hand and a firm handshake.  

Chan: “Welcome to Rescue 3.  I know you are detailed for training and evaluation; however, while you are working with this company, consider yourself a full-fledged member of Rescue 3. I want you to act ‘as-if’. 

“Your in-house rescue company training began the moment you stepped through the firehouse door. It is imperative that you have a clear understanding regarding everything that I say here today.  If you have any questions about anything at all., if you are unclear about anything we go over today, or if you have questions anytime in the future, I want you to stop me and ask me to clarify or repeat whatever it is that needs review.


(Captain Chan refers to the form on her clipboard.) “Priority responsibilities will always be attended to as soon as you report for duty. Priority responsibilities include confirming riding and tool assignments, properly setting up personal protective equipment (PPE), checking self-contained breathing apparatus, and testing PASS devices. When all those items are secured, a 360° inspection will be made of the apparatus and all compartments. The routine I lay out today is to be conducted first thing every time you report for duty. Do you have any questions?” 

Gillis: “No.”

Chan:  “You will be shown where and how to place your PPE and will be given a riding position and tool assignment. (Referring to Firefighter Wonder) This is Firefighter Alice Wonder. She will be your partner. When an alarm comes in, attach yourself to her hip. On arrival at any incident, stay close to Firefighter Wonder. Alice is the most experienced member of Rescue 3. Do not leave her side; follow her direction. I have discussed all these matters with Firefighter Wonder and the other members of the crew. Wonder has been fully briefed on her responsibilities and my expectations. This is the process every newly assigned member of Rescue 3 has been brought along by. Is this information clear to you? If you have any questions regarding what we’ve discussed, please ask.”

(Gillis signals that he understands.)

Wonder: (extending her hand) “It’s very good to meet you, Dobie. Welcome to ‘The Three’.”

Chan: “When your PPE is properly situated, Firefighter Wonder will have you perform your SCBA and PASS device checkout. You will don your SCBA and perform a mask-fit test. 

(Checking off items on her clipboard) If everything checks out, Wonder will take you through an initial apparatus familiarization. You will see which compartments hold what equipment. You are not expected to remember everything from this one inspection; it is the first step in the training and evaluation process. When all of the priority duties are completed, Firefighter Wonder will introduce you around. You’ll have some breakfast and meet the firefighters you will be working with.

“Housework begins at 0900 hours. You will be excused from housework today. You are to report to my office at 0900 hours. I’ve set aside time to meet with you. We will discuss your roles and responsibilities during this training and evaluation period. I will lay out my expectations. You’ll be given an idea of how your first day will unfold. I will also answer any questions you may have.  Do you have any questions before I turn you over to Firefighter Wonder?”

(Gillis indicates he has no questions.)

Chan: “Once again, welcome to Rescue 3. The firefighters in Rescue 3 are some of the best you will ever have the good fortune to work with. Okay then, my office 0900 hours.”

After completing apparatus and equipment checks and the other priority duties, Firefighter Alice Wonder introduced Gillis to the other Rescue 3 company members. They shake hands and introduce each other, engage in firehouse banter, and drink coffee. Now, it is time for “The Talk.”  

Gillis: “The Talk?” 

(The assembled Rescue 3 members exchange knowing looks attended by smiley/smirky head nodding.)  

Wonder: “Yeah, Captain Chan’s ‘The Talk.’  It’s a thing she does. Not quite a meet-and-greet or fireside chat. Not to worry. You’ll probably survive. Anyway, it’s almost 0900. The captain’s office is at the top of the stairs. The door will be open.”

Chan: “Come in, Dobie. Take a seat. The reason we are having this meeting is ‘primacy.’  Are you familiar with the term?”

Gillis: “No, Captain Chan, I am not.”

Chan: “Primacy–the short form. Get it right the first time. The first information a person receives is the information that will best be retained. For you, me, and the rest of the crew, primacy will be defined and practiced as, Teach it right the first time. Learn it right the first time.

When I was a new kid on the block, I didn’t know what I needed to know. I was hungry, and I wanted and needed to know what the deal was. I wanted in on the secret handshake. This job is a pass-it-on business, but you can’t pass it on if you don’t have it to begin with. I was fortunate enough to be schooled by committed officers and great firefighters who embraced a mindset that required them to mind, mold, mend, monitor, motivate, mentor, and help me become a full service, 360° firefighter. 

“The captain would set the table, and the crewmembers would sit me down, call me out, dress me up and down, and clearly lay out the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘when,’ ‘where’ ‘why,’ and ‘how’ of the fire service. The captain was always somewhere around monitoring and stepping in when fine or coarse tuning was called for. Do you have any questions, Dobie?”

Gillis: “No Captain Chan. Get it right the first time. Got it.”

Chan:Excellent. The purpose of this meeting is to lay out my expectations, explain how the workday unfolds, and answer any questions you may have.

“First things first. The overarching responsibility–mine, yours, and every other member of this company–is to maintain and support the in-service and ready-to-respond status of every firefighter, every tool and piece of equipment assigned, as well as the apparatus and quarters of Rescue Company 3.

“The golden rule here is, When it comes to life safety and/or property conservation, there will be zero, nada, none, no compromise, or half-stepping. This is a priority one, 24/7 mandate.

Firefighter Gillis, do you know of anything in the fire, rescue, or emergency environments that does not have connection to life safety or property conservation?”

Gillis: “When put that way, no. I can’t think of anything that doesn’t impact on life safety or the protection of property.”

Chan:With that understanding, I will provide you with the following guidance: Number one, there is no off-duty time when you are on duty. Number two, there is no such thing as an indirect order. There are only direct orders. I prefer to frame things like, Do me a favor… When you get a chance … You might want to … If you don’t mind … You should interpret any request or suggestion given to you by me as a direct order and, unless otherwise stated, the request or suggestion should be carried out immediately. Do you have any questions Dobie?”

Gillis: “No Captain Chan. I understand.”

Chan: “Dobie, you can address me as Cap, Captain, or Captain Chan.”

Gillis: “Thank you, Captain Chan. I mean ‘Cap’.”

Chan: “Regarding your roles and responsibilities during this training and skills evaluation program, today you will be given a syllabus outlining how your rescue company training and evaluation will unfold. I will meet with you again at 1630 hours to review the day and address any administrative, training, or company-related issues that crop up during your first day of training. I will provide you with a schedule that lays out the path of your evaluation, and specialized rescue company training will follow. Do you have any questions about what we have discussed?”

Gillis: “No Captain Chan. I mean Captain. I understand.”

Without Which It Could Not Be

Sine qua non is an indispensable and essential action, condition, or ingredient. It was originally a Latin legal term for “[a condition] without which it could not be” or “but for…” or “without which [there is] nothing.”

The company officer position is the sine qua non built into the fire/rescue chain of command. The company officer is the point of contact between the organization’s goals and expectations and the goals and expectations of the firefighter. The full contact company commander translates the administrative into action and achievement. Only full contact leadership can meet the demands and expectations of the company officer as sine qua non. Captain Karen Chan exemplifies a full contact leader.

The manner in which she inserted herself at the initial point of contact between Gillis and Rescue 3’s expectations and requirements is essential to Gillis’s success. Her demeanor projected a confident, competent, and engaged command presence. Her orientation was the sound of “command presence.” You know it when you hear it.

Gillis’s orientation was clear, concise, complete, and digestible. Chan created a primary experience that was accepting, structured, supportive, and informative. Her orientation was organized and logical, and presented in a manner that was firm, fair, and friendly. She identified company expectations and delineated department boundaries. She came to the orientation fully prepared and equipped to ensure a complete, logical, sequential, and purposeful first meeting with the most important member of any fire company–“the new kid.” 

Chan understood and respected personnel and process. Chan knew that Gillis’s first impression would set the tone for all that followed (primacy). She came to the initial meeting prepared and practiced. Her preparation ensured an orientation that was comprehensive and digestible.   

Chan used the following simple outline/lesson plan to structure and guide her orientation. 


Captain Chan’s Checklist/Lesson Plan

Date: _____ Time: _____

Activity: ______________

Participants: __________      __________     __________

Greeting & Introductions: __________

Riding & Tool Assignment: _________

PPE: ___ SCBA: _____ PASS: _____ Mask Fit Test: _____

Assign Gillis to Wonder: ________ Outline Alarm Responsibilities: ____

Apparatus Familiarization: _____

Introduction to Firefighters: _____

Schedule 0900 & 1630 hr. Meetings: ____

Allow time for Questions: ____

Sine Qua Non = Company Officer = Without Which a Fire Company = It Could Not Be



Ed Flood began his service 1973 with the Weehawken (NJ) Fire Department and rose through every rank to Chief of Department.  Facilitated regionalization of all North Hudson Fire Department and retired as Chief of Department. 

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