Captain’s Corner: Keeping Things Positive

By Michael Hennigan

Fire departments across the country are under attack. If you believe what you read in the newspapers you would surely be convinced that every state and municipal budget shortfall could be attributed to too generous pensions, over staffing, and overpaid and uncompromising firefighters. Even departments that are not suffering a budget squeeze find themselves besieged by this opportunity to demonize the fire service to reduce pay and benefits. 

I was there in our darkest days. The early 1970s saw strikes by firefighters in many major cities, my own included. The only winners were the politicians that savored our self-destruction as we marched into the abyss. It took many years to restore our stature in the public’s eye. Today we are the most respected occupation, but that status is fragile and each of us has the responsibility to uphold that in our own communities. Every firefighter knows that the public’s perception of each of us is a reflection on all of us.

But this article is not about the state of our economy because I know that this will pass. This article is about counting our blessings, keeping a positive attitude, and staying focused on what we do best: “Saving lives and protecting property” in spite of external influences that we have little or no control over.

Every department has a member or a shift or even a whole station that wallows in self-pity. Remember the character immortalized on Saturday Night Live, “Debbie Downer”? These individuals love to belabor their poor plight at the hands of the public, the administration, the company officer, the battalion chief, politicians, or fire chief. Their perceived pain quickly becomes our painful reality as we endure the lamenting.

Officers have the opportunity to create a positive or negative work environment and whatever course our leaders take the crew will follow. “The sheep follow the shepherd.” How can you create a positive work environment for everyone?

Be enthusiastic about your work. Frame your words with enthusiasm. Instead of “We have to go pre-plan another building,” you could say, “Lets introduce ourselves to our neighbors.” It might sound corny but one sounds a lot more fun than the other.

Have you ever heard that “attitude is everything”? You were probably hired not because you knew everything but because of your positive attitude. Is it still positive? Would your current attitude get you hired again? A positive attitude must be all-inclusive; co-workers, supervisors, department, chief, other shifts, other stations, etc. All-inclusive also means spending shift time with all crew members, not just your favorite engineer or best friend medic. Use down time to do things together. This is part of team building. 

Encourage healthy competition. Have Ping-Pong, badminton, or bowling tournament within the shift and then within the station and then the department! Softball teams. Final Four Pools (Oops! Is that gambling?) Create a firefighter triathlon: SCBA donning, 24-foot ladder raise and hydrant to pump connection. Remember that healthy competition is not at the expense of others but to build respect amongst competitors.

Never trash talk anyone, not another crew member, not another crew, not another station, not another fire department, not the chief, not even the council members that just took away your raise! Remember, if you can’t say something nice… 

Encourage constant learning. Increasing knowledge and improving job skills should become a way of life. Talk about articles you have read. Listen to a Fire Engineering podcast together and then discuss it. Put a road trip together to hear a fire service instructor. Get a fire service instructor to speak to your department.

Acknowledge outstanding performance. Catch people doing things well and acknowledge them publicly. Acknowledge each of your crewmember’s contributions to the company to their families either publicly or with a Christmas card or thank you note.

Never forget to have fun. Embrace fun with the same enthusiasm that you pursue excellence and pursue excellence with the same enthusiasm you pursue fun.

Many years ago, it was my turn to cook and as I drove across town to buy groceries, I began to lament my own current misfortunes. My beloved fire department was racked with scandalous accusations perpetuated by local newspaper headlines. Promotional exams were halted. Department morale was at an all time low and, personally, my marriage of 15 years was coming to an end. All I could think about was how bad my life was right now. As I entered the grocery store I grabbed a cart and proceeded down an isle when I encountered a young boy, perhaps six years old, sitting on the ground next to a white cane crying and screaming his lungs out. Kneeling down behind him, embracing him, was a young woman, obviously his mother. I asked if there wasn’t something I could do to help. “No,” she replied, “he is deaf and blind and sometimes he just gets frustrated.” At that moment I realized how blessed I was and how selfish my thoughts were. As I proceeded down the isle humbled by this encounter, I raised my eyes to the sky and told God that I got it but he didn’t have to yell!

We all have encounters like this to some degree. Lets use them to remind us how fortunate we are to spend our lives in an occupation we love, surrounded by co-workers and supervisors that we admire and respect. We are given the opportunity to help others almost every day. Lets meet this challenge with renewed enthusiasm to improve our skills and serve our public in spite of any negative outside influences. 

Do not sell out our good will at any price. Be patient. Prosperity will return for all of us.


Michael Hennigan retired as a battalion chief from the San Francisco (CA) Fire Department after served 35 years with the department. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in business from the University of San Francisco. He is certified by the California State Fire Marshal to teach management and tactics. For the past 10 years, he has taught numerous fire departments throughout northern California and is a part-time instructor for City College of San Francisco. He can be reached via e-mail at


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