Motivating Company Officers

By Scott Holliday

Motivation stimulates a person to act in a particular way. It is the incentive that causes positive performance. As a fire officer, you must have the ability to motivate your personnel to do everything from cleaning the fire station and apparatus to risking their lives in a burning structure. How would you motivate the members of your command if you had the authority to use various strategies?

Motivation is what drives an individual to satisfy his personal needs. The factors that motivate the individual firefighter can be either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivators include the need for an interesting or challenging job, a sense of belonging to a team, and the prestige of being a firefighter. Many people are drawn into the volunteer and career fire service based on these intrinsic factors. The fire and emergency service is an interesting and exciting field. Being the one that people look to for help in time of personal crisis and providing a satisfactory outcome bring a sense of self-worth to many firefighters. The adrenaline rush of dealing with dangerous and unpredictable situations also plays into the excitement and challenging factors of the job. Intrinsic rewards are directly related to the type of work being performed and the value that each individual places on that work.

Extrinsic motivators deal with the outcomes of the job. For career firefighters, such motivators are salary, benefits, and job security. For volunteers, motivators can be length-of-service awards, college scholarships, and other tangible gains from volunteer service. The job of the fire department officer is to motivate firefighters in a way that satisfies their needs and also accomplishes the department’s goals.

First, a fire officer must determine what motivational factors he can actually influence. The first line supervisor at the company officer level usually has the most direct influence on the intrinsic factors of motivation. Firefighters by their nature are very action-oriented people. They want to be on the inside, actually working to control the incident. They need and want to belong to the effort. Firefighters need to be given an assignment, given the tools and training to perform that assignment, and then be allowed to perform to the best of their abilities. Their reputation in the fire station and on the fireground is based on this performance. For example, given the prestige of the nozzle position in controlling and extinguishing fires, the position can be used as a reward for hard-working members of your company and a motivator to get others to improve their performance. To motivate in the fire service, you need to instill in each firefighter the values of teamwork and how their contribution makes a difference in team performance. This must start back in the fire station before the firefighter even gets to the first alarm. Stress teamwork in everything from station duties and building inspections to meal preparation and firefighting.


Training. Constantly challenge members in training. Since the fire suppression service is largely a reactionary service, we must constantly train to maintain our state of readiness. Give the company members an evolution to accomplish, and allow them to problem-solve the solution as a team. Set realistic training goals that challenge but do not necessarily overwhelm. After the drill, critique the performance of each individual as well as that of the company. Praise their good performance and suggest areas that need improvement. This goes along the same line as the department’s setting obtainable performance goals and showing how each individual and company performance contributes to meeting those goals.

Company level training teaches firefighters to rely on each other and to work together as a team to accomplish their goals. This involves the probies’ learning useful lessons and gaining valuable experience from more senior members and allows the senior firefighters to feel important as they teach and pass along their extensive knowledge and experience gained from years in the fire service. As motivators, company officers must learn to use the resources available to them and that there is no more valuable resource in the fire station than that senior firefighter sitting across the kitchen table.

Teamwork in the fire station and during the drill period equates with a safer and more efficient fire department. The company that is stagnant and not challenged in training will not be motivated to perform on the fireground.

Rotating assignments. Assigning different riding positions and tasks (nozzle, backup, outside vent, forcible entry) allows the firefighter to experience new, interesting, and challenging tasks. This keeps the job interesting because no assignment will be the same from tour to tour. Specialty assignments or specialty training can also be used to motivate individuals. A company officer can recommend candidates for chauffeur school, rescue training, or hazardous materials or emergency medical technician classes. Specialty training at state and national training centers as well as paid attendance at conferences and seminars benefit the employee and the department. Some of these come with extra benefits or assignment differentials and can be used to satisfy an individual’s intrinsic and extrinsic needs.

Recognition. Give recognition on a company level such as “Member of the Month.” You might exempt the person from a task such as cooking or cleaning for that month or assign a prime parking spot at the station. Company officers can use these small rewards to motivate personnel.

Recognition could also be given on a department level. Members can be acknowledged for years of service, attendance, or acts of valor and heroism at a department-wide ceremony. This is where a good, aggressive public information office can work with the department and the company officer in acknowledging members’ accomplishments.

Coach/advocate. As a company officer, you must develop positive relationships with the members to motivate them. Act as a coach. Make the effort to develop them and ensure they are delivering their best performance. Be their advocate.

Financial. Extrinsic factors are difficult to influence on a company officer level. Many of the extrinsic factors for career firefighters, such as pay and benefits, are contractually negotiated. Chief officers, commissioners, or municipal bargaining units usually handle these negotiations. However, depending on department policy, merit pay for individuals might be influenced by the company officer.

Performance evaluations and recommendations for assignments that carry a pay differential will come from the company officer. These incentives can be used as extrinsic motivating factors for some individuals.

As a governmental agency, it is difficult for the fire service to employ other types of financial incentives that are common in the business world such as productivity pay, profit sharing, and stock options. In the volunteer fire service, many of the extrinsic factors that would provide benefits must be voted on by the local taxpayers.

The best strategy to motivate members of the fire service is to recognize their contributions and sacrifices to the community. It is generally accepted that members do not choose the fire service for the pay and benefits. Although it is usually a good, stable career, it rarely is looked on as a means to get rich. Most choose it for the intrinsic rewards of belonging to an organization known for its pride and tradition.

Motivation needs to be directed at these individuals to satisfy their need for an interesting and challenging career, one where their performance has a direct influence on meeting their personal and professional goals as well as their department’s goals.

Scott Holliday has a career spanning 20 years in the fire and emergency services. He is a paramedic captain and the commanding officer of the FDNY EMS Academy; a deputy chief in-structor with the Nassau County Fire Service Academy in Old Bethpage, New York; and the second assistant chief of the Mineola (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. He has a bachelor of science degree in fire and emergency service administration from SUNY Empire State College.

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