HOW TO BECOME AN EFFECTIVE FIRE OFFICER

BY ROBERT COOK

Many classes teach students how to be effective fireground officers, but these are limited to strategy and tactics. The one course I haven’t seen is one on how to be an effective officer at other times-when you aren’t on the fireground. For volunteers, this is almost 80 percent of their fire career. Whether you have been elected, appointed, or promoted to any rank as a fire officer, unless you have the skills to speak properly and understand people, you are going to fail. If you have not been taught how to do this, you will never learn properly on your own. Many people learn to fight fire through experience. As they answer each alarm, their memory banks record the experience for future reference.

There aren’t many actual “Boss” classes. It is more like, “Ready, Set, Command! Here’s your rank; go lead.” We need to learn about people before we start ordering them around. In personal interactions, we deal with a variety of personalities. Since you cannot be taught “personality,” you have to learn how to deal with the vast and infinite number of them. This applies to anyone who wants to be an effective fire officer-not just new officers but also seasoned officers who may need to refine the skills of managing, directing, and controlling personnel.

This information provides a shortcut to achieving success by understanding why people act in certain ways. In most cases, this is based on common sense. But if it is common sense, then why do some officers have problems interacting with their personnel and supervisors? I hope these insights will save officers from the ridicule of the lessons it takes many all too long to ultimately learn. Finally, this will provide an avenue for personal growth and, most importantly, the steps to gain self-confidence.

The need for this sort of training is based on one of the best quotes I heard when I first became a lieutenant many years ago. It stuck with me as I moved up the chain of command, and I have held it close to me since I became captain: “If you have to keep telling people you are the boss, then guess what, you probably aren’t!” (Captain G. Petti)

LEARNING TO BE AN EFFECTIVE MANAGER

Everyone wants to be considered an effective manager. The best way to be effective is to understand what you require in a successful manager. Define realistic goals for yourself, adapt those goals set forth by your superiors, and apply these goals so that your subordinates will adopt them efficiently and completely. While you are doing all of that, you still need to maintain a good working relationship with those under your command and make sure the “big boss” is happy. Sound difficult? It is, but it can be a bit more manageable if you learn some basic skills.

By detailing these items and by learning and understanding the ideas and definitions presented here, I hope you will gain a better idea of how to master the art of being a good fire or rescue manager. These management techniques are taught skills at first and later are refined through personal adaptation, self-learning, and correction. Anyone who feels these skills can be learned “along the way” is seriously mistaken.

In most cases, today’s fire and rescue officers are left to learn on their own. Most have no backgrounds in management; by the time they get halfway decent at their jobs, their term of office ends, they are transferred, they retire, or they simply move on. Then their position is given to some other untrained soul. To paraphrase a statement I once heard: “If you are taught by an incompetent, you have no choice but to become one!”

The best way not to become “one” is to learn everything you can. Read everything you can, and refine your skills every chance you get. The best lesson learned, my dad used to say, can be found from poker players. Some stop learning the first time they play, but the really good ones keep learning until they are the best. Become the best! Never think you have heard it all. Never think you have seen it all. Do not take the “been there, done that” attitude. Don’t be a know-it-all.

We are all capable of being the type of officer we want to be, but we must first learn. The first step to learning is understanding and recognizing what type of worker you are dealing with and what type of leader you are now. Once you understand these factors, you can use them to build your new self with great confidence and self-realization.

There are certain personality skills that we all exhibit within our service to our respective departments. Basic personality traits don’t change. These traits make us who we are. Our level of “personality” changes depending on whether we are giving the order or taking it.

For example, you are the captain of a particular company. The chief gives you an order. You think he is idiot. The first thing you do after he gives you the order is to relay to your subordinates the order you have been given and maybe you add your personal thought of how stupid the order was, especially given by that idiot chief. Now think about it one level down. You give an order to your lieutenant or a firefighter. He thinks it is a stupid order given by an idiot, only this time you are the “idiot.” Same thing, different spin. Put yourself in the chief’s position, and remember, you might be the “idiot” to someone else.

Lesson One: Don’t perpetuate disrespectful or bad behavior or the destructive personality!

Let’s look at some personality types. These are subjective to the viewer; they could look good to one person and really bad to another. There are constructive and destructive personalities. A person with a constructive personality is likeable, possesses and exhibits good skills, is open-minded, is a team player, and has a positive attitude toward all ideas and people. The person with the basic destructive personality is not so likeable, possesses poor skills, freelances independent of the group, has a negative attitude about everything and everyone, and is so busy talking that he cannot learn a thing.

Now, let’s think about everyone in your immediate circle-your immediate superior, your subordinates, and your same-rank peers. Get a piece of paper and make four separate columns. In the first column, write their names. In the next column, write down the positive qualities you feel they have. In the next column, write down what you feel are their destructive qualities. Leave a space for yourself, too; you will be using it later. In the last column, write how you think you would either correct the trait or at least minimize it to make it more palatable to deal with. Be fair and honest. Even if they are your personal friends, be honest. As a suggestion, do not do this immediately. Finish this article, and really think about your answers. After you write some things down, put the list in a drawer for a day or two. Do the same exercise again, and compare your answers to the ones in the drawer. You might be surprised to see some difference.

Lesson Two: Sometimes, after you have taken a little time, some thoughts change!

Now, let’s talk about you! Sometimes you have to face the fact that some “destructive” qualities are brought on by others. Have you ever heard someone say in response to your complaint, “You just don’t know them; if you did, you wouldn’t say that”? Let’s look at what type of leader you are. Again, be honest so you can get to the root of any problems. We have all seen leaders that we admire, leaders we hoped that we would be like, but somehow along the road we got a flat tire and we turned into something else. Leaders have differing personalities, too. Are you likeable? How are your fire/rescue and leadership skills? Do you exude confidence, or do you tend to be indecisive? Do you listen and are you understanding, or can you appear to be uncaring? If you are a volunteer and were elected to your position, why were you elected? Was it your turn? Were you the best candidate? Were you the mayor’s brother-in-law? Did you know the right people? Did they hate the guy you were running against? This is going to be potentially painful, but remember that spot I told you to leave open for yourself before? Now is the time to use it. Fill in the blanks and see if you are happy.

Lesson Three: Nothing is written in stone, so if you aren’t entirely happy, it isn’t too late to change things.

Once you have taken an honest look at yourself, go through the list again and see if there is another “type” that you might like to be. Think about what you can do to change yourself to make your area a more productive and cohesive environment for all of those people on your list, including yourself. Once you have learned the “whats” and “whos,” you can alter yourself to make you successful. Understand what types of leaders you have served under and think about how they performed. Keep the good; dump the rest. Be progressive. Times change, so some things that worked in the past might not be applicable by today’s social standards. Also look at how they dealt with workers. If they were successful and were able to keep a high level of motivation, they too must have learned the lessons of interacting with people.

There are some basic ways to lead. The first is what I call the “Treat people the same by treating them differently” method. This means that everyone has a story, and you take on each personality unto itself. This isn’t bad if you have the time. Most managers don’t. This requires listening to every word the worker has to say and, in most cases, you end up explaining why some got treated one way and the others got treated differently. The second method is the “Treat everyone the same at all costs” method. Here there is little room for flexibility. This is the rule book guy with no leeway for personal interpretation or adaptation. No matter what problem the worker has, refer to the book. The third method is the “Friends vs. oath” method. This is the basic “If I like you, you’re ‘in’ ” vs. “If you bother me, don’t even think about getting the good jobs or any slack anytime soon.” In a volunteer situation, you will surely lose a potentially long-time member. In the paid sector, you may have a disgruntled worker who will make coming to work seem like walking on crushed glass is a good thing. Remember your hero. He was the knowledgeable guy who was fair and made you feel like part of the group. He was understanding. He exuded love and respect for his team. You had the same for him. He was the kind of guy who made you want to come to the fire station. He was the fire station. He was the guy in the Norman Rockwell picture. He was a real leader. This is the fourth method.

COMMAND AND CONTROL

Now, let’s look at some basic management ideas of command and control. The difference between giving a blind order and giving an order a subordinate will act on willingly can mean the difference between having a job done (maybe) and having a job done well. Here are some ideas to help you get them done well. They are seven basic management skills taught at any business school. You don’t have to be a college graduate to understand them because most of us do this as a normal part of our life. We do these things naturally, although sometimes not well. We do them as parents, shoppers, and spouses. Remember them so that when you use them, you will consciously use them well.

Lesson Four: Think about having the knowledge and knowing how to use it properly.

  1. POSITIONING: Make people act the way you want them to by setting up the situation so that they will “want” to act in the way you want them to. Basically, this is equal to setting up the cattle chute and leading the cattle through without their realizing they have completed their task until it is done.
  2. NEGOTIATING: This requires each situation to be discussed and, through a series of discussions, each person will act as per an agreement on how each other will act.
  3. PLACEMENT: The manager will place people in positions to act based on experience or knowledge of a specialized area. You place the people, and you expect them to do their jobs.
  4. ORDERING: This will require a person to act as directed with little room for personal interpretation. Specifically, the manager tells someone what to do and generally how he wants it done. In some cases, the manager will leave the “how to get it done” to the individual. In some cases, the individual will act as he feels the manager would want him to get it done.
  5. RULE BOOK: Here there is no room for individuality. By doing it by the book, specific ways of handling situations dictate the person’s actions.
  6. TRUST MANAGEMENT: This is where a goal is set and the manager assigns areas of accomplishment to a worker or group. The manager trusts the worker or group to make the correct decisions and to produce the best results to reach the goal.
  7. GOOD COP/BAD COP: Managers can work together on this. One manager stimulates the growth of the team, while the other presents himself as a taskmaster. Although effective, the manager playing the “bad cop” role will not receive a great deal of love. Sadly, many managers don’t care. They like being the heavy.

Make use of all of these skills depending on the given situation. Any manager can be good or bad, but a manager who lacks confidence and respect from his workers will have problems.

Lesson Five: Always be decisive; any wavering will cause a lack of confidence.

Lesson Six: Don’t be afraid to ask for help or to give it! Asking for help from a superior or subordinate can do a world of good. Asking a superior how he would handle something shows that you trust his judgment, and he will appreciate it. This will only help you in future dealings. Time brings not only conventional wisdom but also experience.

Showing subordinates that you understand their needs and have an understanding of their emotional conditions can be very useful. Asking subordinates for advice or help is a great idea for many reasons. For one thing, it makes them feel like part of the team. Additionally, it teaches them to be future leaders and how difficult making a decision can be. Make them understand that you are looking for their counsel and value their opinion but that, as the leader, you must make the ultimate decision, and if you do not use their advice, it is no reflection on them personally.

Lesson Seven: Keeping control of yourself is an important part of being the boss. People upset each other; it is a fact of life. How you handle it shows what type of leader you are. Here are some ideas on how to stay in control.

  1. Act vs. react. Acting is using your intellect; reacting is using your emotions. Acting is good, acting and reacting together is tolerable, and reacting alone is the worst thing a manager can do. Using your emotions to handle or direct a situation is not only a bad idea, it usually will damage your worth. Managers must put their feelings aside and use their intellect. They must use all of their knowledge and experience when making decisions. Learn early that not all situations require immediate attention or correction. Not all discussions have to turn into an argument. If discipline is required, you must first take a step back, assess the situation, determine how detrimental it really is, and decide what is an appropriate corrective action. In other words, sometimes things are not as bad as they seem. If discipline is warranted, simply disciplining someone without corrective action is no different than doing nothing. Unless the discipline teaches the person not to do the negative action again, he will do it again-count on it. Even worse, he will do it again and hate you, causing you even more grief. Workers who are a chronic problem must be dealt with. Do not think they will change or fall into line. Make sure you have a good paper trail, and either transfer them or get rid of them. They are like the flu. If you let it go too long, they will infect the whole place. Be careful of transfers. You don’t want to transfer your problem to someone else who will have the same problem. Think carefully!

  1. Frustration control. There will be times when you will be tested by a person, a situation, a task, or even yourself. How you manage that frustration will measure what kind of manager you are. The most common example is when you have one member who always seems to press your buttons, hoping to get a rise out of you. How you handle this person cannot only quell the situation, but it will show others just how good you can be. Don’t get baited into discussions you neither want nor need to be a part of. Again, take a step back and respond intellectually, not emotionally. Do this, and you win!
  2. Responsibility. The best manager in the world will always take responsibility. The fact is, if one of your people messes up, it is your responsibility. After all, if you had either trained them better or made them understand how you wanted them to act, they wouldn’t have messed up in the first place. Oh, that’s right, people have their own personalities. It doesn’t matter; correct it. They must understand that there are areas of their personalities that aren’t appropriate for use in this atmosphere. We aren’t the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo; we are firefighters doing a dangerous job.
  3. Give them what they need. It is said that every human has some basic needs-food, shelter, safety, love. Find out what they need, and the rest will be easy. Most managers think they set rules and the rest is autopilot. Find out what makes your people tick, and show a genuine interest. You can learn more about listening to them for five minutes than you can if you are doing all the talking. Sometimes, let them talk and you listen. In plain words, show some caring. It will come back to you 10 times over.

Understanding what other officers are thinking and what their needs are can be helpful in getting along with them as well. You will see that each has different needs and goals. Having the perfect management team in any setting is close to impossible. Realistically, in volunteer and paid departments, the chief has a few deputies, a few captains, and a bunch of lieutenants. Each has his own style, his own personal goals and needs, and his own unique personality. Sometimes these do not mix. Good leadership can overcome any potential problems.

HOW WILL YOU BE REMEMBERED?

No one is an officer forever. This is especially true for volunteers. Volunteer fire officers are usually elected by their members or appointed by someone like the mayor or supervisor. Their terms might be short-lived. Some departments have an election every two years and, like in a paid department, political climates change like the seasons. One day you are the chief, the next day you are gone. In paid departments, promotions are generally test-based and, as you get higher up, maybe politically motivated. Eventually, you retire or get caught up in a political rankle and you move on. Either way, one day you will go. There are three ways you are remembered. The first is the way we all want to be remembered, and that is with great fondness and respect, a truly great officer. The second is being remembered poorly. Don’t worry about this, as it will never be known to you unless, of course, you were so bad even you knew it. The third way is the most common. Here you are just remembered as being an officer at one time. For those of you on your way up, why not learn how to manage properly? Then maybe-just maybe-you will be remembered as one of the great ones.

The bottom line is learn, do the right thing, and treat people with respect. The payoff will be returned to you. Moreover, you will be successful. If you succeed, your department will perform better, and your community will benefit. That is why we are here.

One last note, especially for volunteers: Please train your own replacement. Fire officer/manager is not a lifelong position. The worker of today will be the leader of tomorrow. If you hide the knowledge from your successors, they will grow up to be poorly trained managers. A poorly trained manager makes for a dangerous boss. The fire is our danger; we don’t need bad bosses to make our jobs any more difficult.

ROBERT COOK is a captain with the Plainview (NY) Fire Department, where he has served on the truck company and the medical rescue squad. He is a certified assistant fire inspector, certified EMT-CC, and community speaker on fire prevention and awareness. He has bachelor’s degrees in business management, political science, and fire service administration.

No posts to display