Suburban Firefighting: Two Powerful Leadership Tools, Part I

By Jerry Knapp

Leadership is the hot topic in the fire service today. Many really smart people are running around doing leadership training for firefighters, usually based on scientific studies and psychology. All that is good, but we work in the street. We do things and are judged on our ability to get things done. Sometimes we talk about it too much, but in the end we are action people, “doers.” This may not a very sexy or scientific name, but that is what firefighters are: “doers”.

The next two articles present two leadership fundamentals that always work for the doers–well, they work most of the time. “Always” and “never” are not good words in the emergency services world.


A friend called me yesterday and relayed this story. His company had just returned from its second extrication call in as many days. The captain of his company, during the after-action review, said they did a good job, but not everyone had a traffic vest on. One of the firefighters at the call mentioned that the chief in charge responded with shorts and flip-flops and did not don his turnout gear. There he (a senior leader of the department) was in the street with cars passing right by his command post–shorts, flip-flops and all. My friend was just on fire about being told to wear a vest when the senior leader at the call, in the same amount of danger, was dressed for the beach. This guy is no dummy and clearly understands the value of the vest. Why the double standard?

Let’s say that this scenario gets a little out of hand and the captain decides to formally discipline the company member. After a notorious long and confusing process, whether you are career or volunteer, the dust settles. Now, you have a few permanent enemies, and the seeds of a dysfunctional organization are sown in fertile soil. This is not good for anyone, especially your organization. Did the member violate the standard operating procedure? Sure. But, what about the most egregious, obvious, and damaging leadership failure–to lead by example?

What about the leadership failure of the captain? Why was it okay for him to correct the firefighters but not to say one word to the chief? What message does that send to the members? There are a thousand excuses for the captain’s not saying anything to the chief and a thousand excuses for the flip-flops and shorts. None of them make one bit of difference to the subordinates who witnessed it. Do you think these actions are good for the morale of the members and the overall health of the organization? Absolutlely not. These leaders are sowing the seeds of discontent for years to come.

Lead by example should be leaders’ litmus test for everything they do. The other part of leading by example is that leaders must be fair to everyone in the organization. It’s just human nature to get your hackles up if you think you are not being treated fairly. The call noted above was during a 90° day. It was unfair that the firefighters had to have their gear on while the chief, exposed to the same dangers or greater dangers, did not.

Some of you now are probably snickering, thinking things like rank has its privileges. Sure, it does. It has responsibility as well. “He who has the gold makes the rules” is also true. But he who has the gold also has been given the trust of the entire membership and organization to administer the rules fairly. Leaders are responsible to show they care for their members, not that they are above them and can do whatever they please because who is going to tell or discipline them?

I witnessed a classic lead-by-example scenario a few years ago. We were using a helicopter aviation unit with four Blackhawk helicopters, each with a 660-gallon bucket, to attack a large wildfire.

(1) A large wildland fire approaches nearby homes and highways.

My job was the downrange spotter to determine if the drop hit the fire line and to radio to the commander, who would give the pilots corrections for the next drop.

(2) Col. Frank Intini directs a drop while a wildland firefighter awaits to mop up following the water drop.

After 14 hours in the woods during the hottest days of summer, we were glad when the operational period came to a close and we were on the chow line. The commander, Col. Frank Intini kept getting off the line and going to the rear. I asked him if he was going to eat. His reply was, “After my men eat. I want to be sure they eat first and there is enough for them.” There was undoubtedly plenty of food for the number of pilots, air crews, and support personnel on the chow line. His thoughts were for the care and support of the pilots and crews and the overall success of the organization and the mission at hand. His was a symbolic gesture, but one with tremendous significance and on one example of his leadership style.

(3) The commander calls the release point for the drop of 660 gallons of water for an incoming aircraft while the down-range spotter is on the fire line near the point of impact and assesses the accuracy.

When we lead by example, we display to the “doers” our values of care for our subordinates and the fairness of actions. We become a leader who is a doer. It is what the “doers” expect and deserve. You may not think about it, but by your actions you can show respect or disrespect. Do the right thing: lead by example.

By not leading by example, leaders undermine the entire structure of the organization; they immediately lose the respect of their subordinates and sow the seeds of a dysfunctional organization:–a dysfunctional organization that those leaders themselves will have to attempt to repair. It is easier and more productive to lead by example.


In next month’s column, we’ll look at another crucial element of leadership on the fireground.


JERRY KNAPP is the assistant chief for the Rockland County (NY) Hazmat Team and a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He is a 35-year veteran firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department, has a degree in fire protection, and was a nationally registered paramedic. Knapp is the plans officer for the Directorate of Emergency Services at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.

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