Has Fire Service Leadership Changed in the Past Five Years?

By Dane Carley and Craig Nelson

In 2009, FireRescue Magazine published an article entitled “Characteristics of Future Fire Service Leaders.”1 The study discussed in the article identified five areas of findings that included the following:

  • Challenges. This includes funding, staffing levels, generational differences, and community expectations.
  • Onset of leadership. Fire service leaders felt leadership traits emerged in firefighters at the entry level.
  • Leadership characteristics. This includes ethics, interpersonal and communication skills, decision making skills, customer service, technical expertise, strategic thinking, team development skills, community and government relations, vision of the future, and incident management skills.
  • Promotion seeking. Firefighters weighed the desire to promote between quality of life issues such as loss of overtime, loss of work/life balance, loss of fire scene excitement with a chance to make a difference, a positive relationship with current leaders, and the need to achieve.
  • The assessment process. A substantial majority indicated that promotional testing lacks a focus on leadership competencies, and half of the fire service leaders felt the entry-level test screened out leaders.  

Have these five findings changed in the last five years? The strongest change we see is that the points have only become more relevant each passing day; all of these findings relate to leadership abilities in some way. Yet, does the fire service intentionally seek out leaders? What is the first step in most, if not all, fire department testing processes? Is it a written test that measures basic competency at the entrance level and technical knowledge at the promotional level? How do these tests measure leadership? The answer is that they cannot. The written tests that fire departments use measure a person’s ability to regurgitate memorized facts.

The current crop of written tests do not identify leaders. Leaders may pass the written test if they are capable of regurgitating facts from a book. But on the other hand, many leaders who have excellent people skills may not pass this step. However, the person who everyone knows can regurgitate any answer from a textbook, but who is also a jerk for whom no one wants to work may score highest. So, the potential leaders are filtered out at a higher rate than the technically competent people who may or may not be leaders.

This is easily fixed but, to our knowledge, it is not being done in the fire service. Leadership is measurable through instruments like the “Five Factor Assessment.” It would be relatively easy and defensible to incorporate such an assessment into the testing process with a weight equal to the technical written test. Why would a fire department not seek out an employee who is both technically competent and a leader?

Our experience has seen two general responses. First, that people still do not believe that leadership can be measured. Although the Five Factor Assessment has been tested across some 220+ cultures over several decades, there are still questions about its validity and reliability from people who assume, without considering the plethora of evidence to the contrary, that leadership cannot be measured.

Second, people do not believe the results. The results may say that a person has strong leadership abilities, but their personal interactions with this person bias them toward not believing the results or vice versa (also known as “confirmation bias,” which is very common to human thought processes). This second response is commonly reinforced to some degree of belief in the first bias.

The study in FireRescue Magazine identified the importance of leadership. The responses to the study indicated that fire service leaders believe leadership abilities emerge at the entry level and continue to grow throughout a person’s career. The leadership competencies identified are critical to crew development, scene safety through the development of situational awareness, ongoing fire department success as the members interact with the public and the community leaders to develop a strategy for the future, and in developing a work environment that encourages members to advance. So, why do we still not intentionally seek out leaders? Why do we leave a supervisor’s leadership ability to chance and focus solely on technical competency?

Testing processes are not the only place where leadership should be a priority. Testing just happens to be one of the easiest places to start intentionally looking for leaders. Strengthening leadership traits in members is equally important. Luckily, there are established ways to do that as well; ways that have been tested and proven successful in the airline industry, health industry, and wildland firefighting industry to name a few.

Higher reliability organizations (HRO) focus on two broad areas: the organization and the people. HROs design their organization to support their people by institutionalizing the five principles we have described in depth (check out Tailboard Talk at Fire Engineering’s Web site). HROs also develop eight specific behaviors in their people. These eight behaviors and five principles build a learning culture. However, it is all rooted in leadership. Just as leadership strengthens the HRO concept, the HRO concept strengthens leadership.

An application of the HRO concepts practiced every day is crew resource management (CRM). Again, CRM is the application of leadership because it is rooted in understanding people, why people do what they do under stress, and how to overcome the challenges that creates in an emergency.

These ideas have existed in the fire service for many years now. The fire service has overwhelmingly recognized the importance of leadership. Yet, it does not seem that much has changed in actually applying leadership concepts over the past five years. How can your department put some of these ideas in place?

Are you interested in more on this topic? Then, check out the discussion on the March 27, 2015 show of Tailboard Talk on Fire Engineering Talk Radio.



  1. Feuquay, J and S. Langan. (December 31, 2009). Characteristics of Future Fire Service Leaders. Retrieved March 21, 2015, from : www.firefighternation.com/article/command-leadership/characteristics-future-fire-service-leaders. 


Craig Nelson & Dane Carley: Tailboard Talk

Craig Nelson (left) works for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department and works part-time at Minnesota State Community and Technical College – Moorhead as a fire instructor. He also works seasonally for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a wildland firefighter in Northwest Minnesota. Previously, he was an airline pilot. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership.

Dane Carley (right) entered the fire service in 1989 in southern California and is currently a captain for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department. Since then, he has worked in structural, wildland-urban interface, and wildland firefighting in capacities ranging from fire explorer to career captain. He has both a bachelor’s degree in fire and safety engineering technology, and a master’s degree in public safety executive leadership. Dane also serves as both an operations section chief and a planning section chief for North Dakota’s Type III Incident Management Assistance Team, which provides support to local jurisdictions overwhelmed by the magnitude of an incident.

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