Leadership Lessons from the Streets

By P.J. Norwood

As an officer, your job is to lead and care for the most valuable assets in the fire service, the men and women who work under your command. Understand this now: Officers are nothing without good people working under them doing the right thing each and every day. If you are a good officer, your people will make you look good. If you are not a good officer, it will be a battle every day. You will not have the necessary respect to be an effective leader in our very dynamic business.

This article is not going to discuss the leadership traits listed in the management books. It discusses real-life issues that happen in firehouses across the country from which officers can learn.


A good officer, regardless of whether a chief (any level), a lieutenant, a captain, or other position, rank, or authority within the agency, must learn some very important lessons to be effective. An officer is only a man or woman promoted or appointed to a position. It is what the individual does with that position that makes that person an officer! Your rank and position will be respected, but you may not be respected as a person if you don’t take some of these lessons and learn from them.

The job of an officer is much more complex than anyone will ever tell you. Departments spend countless hours training on basic fireground tactics, but very few invest time and money for resources and training for their officers.

As an officer, you must take care of your people, and not just on the fireground. You must take care of your people 24 hours a day, seven days a week–regardless of whether or not you are on shift.

Chief Steve Kraft discussed leadership in his keynote speech at FDIC. Many things stood out to me during this great speech, but one thing stung, as it was something I have experienced as well. He was detailing a story about when he went to visit a firefighter who returned to work after a lengthy break in service for an injury. Kraft felt good about himself as he was going to welcome the firefighter back. His positive feelings about himself were quickly shattered because the returning firefighter was very upset that the chief never reached out to check on him during his time out of work.  

This hit home for me. During my career, I have been out injured from work twice for an extended period of time, once as a firefighter and once as an officer. During both injuries, I went to countless doctor and physical therapy appointments, working hard to get back to the job. During this time, not once did I receive a call from my immediate supervisor just say to say, “How are you? Do you need anything?” However, while out injured as an officer, I had line firefighters checking in on me. I had line firefighters offering rides and their support (even to shovel my driveway during a winter storm). Firefighter are assigned to you, they work for you every day of their lives. If they are out injured, they are still firefighters or officers who work for you.  Don’t just call to check in on their paperwork and workmen’s compensation status or to ask when they are coming back. If you check in regularly, you will already have that information, so you won’t need to ask. Officers, taking care of your people means taking care of your people all of the time! Call them when out injured and see if they need anything.


As an officer, you may be recognized by a group, an organization, or the department for your performance or an accomplishment. If that award is for something you did entirely by yourself with absolutely no input, help, or assistance from the people who work for you, then kudos to you! However, very few, if any, awards given out to officers are earned by that officer solely.

As the officer, you deserve to be recognized, and it is our job as firefighters and lower-level officers to make you look good (or bad). However, when that award is given or acknowledged by the organization or the local media, you must give thanks to those who made you look good! You should never accept an award without thanking the people who have worked so hard to get you there; those who made you look good may not want to be recognized. They simply want a “thank you” to show that your ego is not too big and that you didn’t forget where you came from. The next time you are acknowledged for your work, remember it is very rarely your work alone! Almost always, it is the hard work by those who serve under you. Without thanking the troops, don’t count on them to go out of their way the next time as they did in the past.

Acknowledge the accomplishments of your department members. Awards and being acknowledged for doing their job is something that every firefighter will tell you is not necessary. However, deep inside every one of us needs to be thanked for doing something good. You do not need to hold a large medal day each year unless your department can support such an event. A simple pat on the back and a “thank you for your hard work” go a very long way. Awards may not be important to you and may not be something you enjoy giving, but if your members do something extraordinary, reward them. Their actions may not be defined as extraordinary in your playbook. Nevertheless if they make a save, go above and beyond, or simply do a good job, be sure to thank them. Many departments struggle with morale, and a good way to boost it is to acknowledge our people for the work they do.


Learn about your firefighters and officers who serve below you. Your department may be too large to learn something about every member of your department. However, if you serve a company or if you are a chief of a small department, you should know something about each of your members. As their officer, it is your responsibility to treat them as individuals and simply ask how they are doing. Ask how their family is. You should know if they have a family member who is sick; ask if you or the department can do anything for them. You should ask how their child is doing in school, sports, or in their pursuit of higher education. You should know if they have a child or loved one overseas protecting our country and the freedom you enjoy. Make sure you bend over backwards for them and offer any and all resources of the department to help the firefighter and his family through this time.

If you are like me and don’t have that type of memory or if you work in a large department, you must find ways to overcome that weakness.  Keep a log or journal of the important things about your members to refresh your memory. There are some things you should just simply remember about the people who risk their lives for you each day.


Training is the foundation for everything we do on the fireground. Without solid training, we will have a weak foundation and the department will fail. As an officer, you cannot lead your people if you can’t perform the skills they can. As a chief officer, you can’t command a Mayday if you have never practiced calling a Mayday. As a chief officer, there is no better place to earn the respect of those serving under your command than on the training ground. This does not mean stopping by the training, saying hello, and watching. This means showing up, putting on your protective clothing, donning self-contained breathing apparatus or other equipment being used, and getting your hands dirty.

Getting involved in training offers you education about your department and its members that you can’t get anywhere else. Showing your members you can still perform on the fireground will build their confidence in you as their boss. If you are not going to get involved in training, don’t get involved on the fireground. Leave the fireground for those who train for the fireground. Just because you are a chief officer and have been in the fire service for 20 or 30 years doesn’t automatically mean you can perform the necessary skills. Today’s fireground is not the same as the one you trained for. Get out of your office and get to the training ground and get involved. This will pay off at every level of your organization. Take a look at the primetime television show, “Undercover Boss.” There are some valuable lessons we can learn from this show. The leaders of the organizations get involved at the lowest level of their companies to see what is working and what is not working. Working at these levels side-by-side with their employees allows them to build relationships with those who are the backbone of the company. This increases customer service and allows the boss’s vision to reach all levels of the company. This reach will pay off huge dividends in every layer of the company. 


The officers at every level must routinely communicate their expectations to those they lead. For a line officer, this should be each and every shift. For a shift commander, depending on the shift schedule, the frequency of this communication will vary. The shift-level communication should be at least once a week. A chief officer should be having regular staff meetings. The chief needs to look at the size and volume of the department, current projects, and call volume. Once you look at what your department is actually doing, it should help you define what regular intervals you should be meeting. If you command a smaller department, that meeting should at least occur quarterly. As we look at larger departments, those meetings need to become even more often. For these meetings to be successful, they must be short, focused, and to the point–not all-day affairs. Having a prepared agenda and limiting the number and time of open forum conversation will help keep the focus. There must also be follow-through from meeting to meeting with assigned tasks.

If you are not defining expectations and meeting with your troops, you are setting the department up for failure. If you are not meeting with your officers, you do not truly know what is going on in your department. You may think you have the pulse of the membership, but if you are not holding regular meetings at all levels, you will not know what is effective and what needs improvement within the ranks.

Probationary or new members to a company need to have expectations communicated to them as well. Probationary members should be given daily expectations; without knowing what you expect, they won’t know what to do. A member without direction will only create problems that will have a rippling effect throughout the department for years to come.


The chain of command is a vital component of every department, and it should not only be present during emergency incidents. The chain of command is just as important on the administrative side of managing the agency as it is on the fireground.

This brings me to the ever-popular open-door policy. The open-door policy can work and is proactive, but it can also create havoc. The firefighter or officer coming to you should have already communicated to his immediate supervisor that he is coming to you. When a department member uses the open-door policy, you should immediately thank that person for coming in and see how he is doing personally. Remember, show concern for your people. Then you need to ask the member if his officer knows he is in your office. If the answer is no and he wants to talk about a department-related issue, ask if he discussed it with his officer. If the answer is no, thank the employee for stopping in and ask him to come back after discussing the issue with his officer. The only exception to this rule is if you are the next in the chain to an officer with whom the employee is having a conflict. The open-door policy is not an invitation for employees to walk in and complain about a person, an issue, or a problem that has not been first addressed at the company level.


Trust is something we must have at every level of the organization. As an officer, you must earn the trust of your members. Trust is not simply granted to you because of your rank. It takes years to gain and earn it but can be shattered in seconds. Many of the behaviors already discussed build trust at every level, including when training together.

As a chief, do not micromanage and check up on every task you give out. Assign a task, and trust your members to get it done. Do not micromanage the process to completion unless there is only one right way; very few tasks in the fire service have only one solution. Furthermore, your way may not be the right way–look at the desired result. How a task gets completed is not always important, but the end result is. Allow your members to forge their own paths as long as the desired result is achieved.

If you assign a task to an officer, you must trust that the task will be completed. Do not check up on your officers every step of the way or ask others to see if a task was completed. If you want to check on the status of an assignment, ask the one to whom it was assigned. If you do not trust an officer who serves under you, you must have a conversation with that officer.


The number-one rule is to take care of your people. The best way to do that is to accept nothing less than 100-percent compliance with regard to safety. Safety is identified and communicated through your meetings, policies, and standard operating procedures. These elements are not taught on the fireground, but are enforced there if necessary. Safety starts with the basics, but these are the things that will save the lives of your members. Examples follow:

  • No member should be allowed to wear a helmet without using its chin strap.
  • No member should ever ride in apparatus without a seat belt buckled the proper way.
  • No member should ever have to work past their ability because the incident commander didn’t call for more help.
  • No member’s life should ever be compromised because of training cuts.
  • No member should ever transmit a Mayday to an incident commander who never trained on receiving or even calling the Mayday.

Your job as an officer is to do everything in your power to keep your members safe and make sure they return home to their families every day.


Leadership has been defined many ways, and there are many examples you can look to for inspiration. An officer should be looking at the successful leaders who have come before them. Many of those great leaders have come from the military. We need to look at the teachings of the military and learn from them. They not only teach the lowest level to serve and to serve well, but they also invest time in their officers.

There are great examples all around us. However, one that sticks out comes from a book written by author Pete Blaber, The Mission, The Men, and Me. This book details lessons from a former Delta force commander and outlines the priorities of leadership that can be applied to today’s fire service. Look at the title and learn from what is being stated. First comes the mission; second comes the men; and lastly comes you. You cannot put yourself as an officer before the mission or before the men or women who serve you. If you are putting yourself first at any time, you are failing as an officer. Your department or company will fail. In our business, failure is not an option. When we fail, people’s lives are jeopardized.

As an officer, get out of your office. Train with your troops, learn what makes them tick, communicate openly but with caution, take care of them, and give credit where credit is due. As a leader, you must acknowledge the accomplishments of those working for you and accept responsibility for their errors. You can reap great benefits from being an officer; however, the success or failure of the organization is directly related to how you perform and treat your people every day.

P.J. NorwoodP. J. NORWOOD is a deputy chief training officer for the East Haven (CT) Fire Department and has served four years with the Connecticut Army National Guard. He has coauthored the DVDs Tactical Perspectives of Ventilation and Handling the Mayday—The Fire Dispatcher’s Role (Fire Engineering, 2011 and 2012, respectively). He is an FDIC instructor and cohosts Fire Engineering‘s Blog Talk Radio show “Making the Turn.” He has lectured across the United States as well as in Singapore. He has also served as Connecticut’s Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Regional CERT coordinator. He is certified to the instructor II and officer III levels.



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