In a few weeks my renewal will come up and I will not be able to continue this website. I believe it will revert back to a free wordpress site but I am not entirely sure. For those that were following me, I appreciate your support and willingness to read what I wrote. In the months that followed my last post, I realized that this site was not fulfilling my initial vision of connecting fire service professionals and really was just a place for me to offer my opinions. Our career needs more than opinions, it needs people who are willing to go the extra mile to become true leaders. Since this forum never took off, I am going to devote my time and energy into other worthwhile causes that will impact the career-field more than some random articles about issues we are all facing. When I look back on all of articles I have written, it is difficult to face the fact that I have lost whatever drove me to start this venture. Changes to my life, both personal and professional have eroded my time and energy making this project seem insurmountable. Two years is a long time to look back on and I hope it has made a difference to someone. Thank You again for your support! Be safe and keep the brotherhood alive!
I remember my first experience with the fire service and compared to the sterilized, business-like atmosphere, where people are numbers that fill positions…. it was nothing short of a storybook miracle. People hung out after duty, families were known to those we worked with, and we handled our problems as a family. We had our disagreements in the station but had pride in our agency that led to heated debates if outsiders attempted to talk poorly about our brothers. Our uniforms reflected our pride in the fire service and directly influenced the officer’s opinion of our worth. The stations, equipment, and apparatus were maintained and cared for not because it was the scheduled day but rather we acted like we personally owned them making their condition a direct reflection of the job we do. Fire prevention/education events weren’t a waste of a Saturday but a chance to show off to our communities and gave children someone to look up to. As I write about some of the things I remember, it ignites my desire to see these things once more.
I generally try to keep my posts generic and stripped of information relating directly to my current department but I’m this case I wanted to share my positive experience with others as a glimmer of hope.
For those of you who do not know me personally, I was recently promoted to battalion chief and have had my fair share of hurdles to overcome as I transition into a chief officer role. Whether everyone agrees or not, in my opinion, my department has not been the happiest place on earth.
Using some of the education I just finished, I began on a journey to make my department live up to the potential I envision. I quickly found out that the books cannot influence the masses and it would take everyone’s participation to make a real change. One of the first obstacles included a consistently negative trend of attitude and perception. While I know we are no where near what I think we could be, I wanted to take the time to reflect on the small victories.
A few days ago, a member of my shift had an issue with a personal project. When I received the call for help, I gathered my tools and headed over. On my way, I made a few phone calls that resulted in several others coming as well. For the first time in years, there was a meeting of personnel that did not require a monetary exchange. For some it seemed like a minor event however, it restored my hope in what could be.
The next small victory came last duty day. I mentioned wanting to see everyone sit down for dinner as a shift. We have had several of these dinners since I took over as BC but as I ran around talking to people and shaking hands, I heard something I haven’t heard in a long while… the sound of laughter and conversation filled the station, vehicle bays, and kitchen. There were positive conversations and talks about weekend plans. People jumped in to cook, food was enjoyed by all, and there were no arguments about who had to clean up. Whether snide remarks were concealed or absent, they did not dominate the experience and made for a pleasant get together.
In the end I know that we still have a long way to go to reach my expectations but once again, my department is beginning to feel like a fire department should.
As I conclude this short article, I can breathe easy as I have had my hope renewed in the existence of the elusive fire department brotherhood!
It is getting to be that time of year. I don’t mean summertime; I am talking about conference time. Thousands converged on Indianapolis about a month ago, the South Carolina Firefighters Conference in Myrtle Beach is just around the corner, and there is also host of other conferences across the country that cover everything from extrication to ventilation. The training and networking at these conferences cannot be duplicated and it places a great deal of information at the fingertips of all the attendees.
While thumbing through trade journals and seeing other advertisements on the Internet I see ladder classes being taught by firefighters from the FDNY, fire ground size-up by seasoned veterans from Boston, and ventilation techniques being taught by some experienced “Truckies” from Philadelphia. There may also be a panel discussion conducted by highly revered fire chiefs from various departments across the country. This is all very important and critical training. I then thought about why is 95% of the training being dedicated to only 5% of what we actually do?
Now before fire comes spewing out of your ears and your head spins off your shoulders, let me explain. We should, as a profession attend and train at every opportunity with different instructors to increase the “tools” we can use to mitigate incidents and save our own lives. Emergency events are low frequency, high risk events, and training is the way to stay alive, but what are you doing to train for the 95% of the job you do as a fire officer, or mentoring fire officers? The other 95% is dealing with people. Properly managing the crew. Trying to balance the different personalities on your team to work as a group no matter what. Knowing who can do what and how well they can do it. Believe it or not, most people in groups get a great deal of satisfaction by feeling they are contributing to the goals of the group. Maslow has been stating it for years. They may not seems interested because “paperwork is for the chief”, but the reality is most people want to do well and get a level of satisfaction if given the opportunity.
Here are a few things I did (and was mentored to do) to help provide the need for responsibility and ownership of crews I have worked with in the past.
• Allow the crew to decide among themselves on items that impact them such as housework duties, fair rotation of riding positions, and in-house training subjects.
• Train personnel to complete daily staffing and training reports.
• Assign training subjects to personnel who have good knowledge of a subject. This is a “low stress, high success” route that helps build self-esteem.
• Use You Tube to search videos on personnel issues (use discretion and good judgment). Using your department policies, have an open discussion on how the situation could be handled.
• Use situations from other departments, such as the shooting gag conducted by a department in Georgia, discuss what the outcome was for that department and compare it to what your department polices are.
• Allow your crewmembers to fill out their own performance evaluation. You would not use the one they wrote but this allows them the opportunity to see and use the form before they become company officers themselves. It has been my experience that people will rate them selves lower than the supervisors does.
Every little bit helps. The more personnel are allowed to provide input, the more buy-in, the better the results. I am not saying let “the tail wag the dog”, just listen. Most importantly make sure they understand the parameters and they may not always like the final decision. They already know who is in charge; they just want to take part. The key is to balance the training now to have a balanced fire officer later.
Stay Safe and Trust!
I know it has been a while since my last post, but a newborn and final semester of a graduate program are fairly demanding. I apologize and look forward to getting things back on track in the next month or so. With that out of the way, I figured I would kick off with a subject that hits close to home for me.
Personal preparedness is something many people take for granted, especially fire officers. This concept applies to more than your ability to perform at an emergency scene. Whether preparing for the shift, promotion opportunity, or hardship we all lose focus and suffer from a lapse in preparedness. The question then becomes… who is responsible for your preparedness? This is a double edged sword in many cases, as one would hope your peers and supervisors would take it upon themselves to help you but it is ultimately your responsibility. With that being said, we often need our peers and supervisors to help us prepare making the issue complicated.
When it comes to relying on others to prepare you, there are several ways to look at the situation. First, in a perfect world, everyone would want their peers and subordinates to reach their potential, thus freely offering their assistance in preparing you. That is probably not always the case making option two more likely. In option two, you are highly motivated to improve yourself and need to find a mentor or teacher to help you reach the next level. They serve as a sounding board for ideas, allow neutral party “vent” sessions, and point you in the right direction when reaching a career crossroad. In this scenario you can settle for what you have or network to find someone that will invest in you. Many of my mentors and teachers have never been in my chain of command. I started this website as an attempt to open channels for those without local opportunities to find someone who would help prepare them to step up and be the fire officer our career field desperately needs. Other great places to find these solid foundations include: fire conferences, other departments, other agencies, higher education providers, and community service organizations.
It is easy to blame others for your lack of preparedness, and in some cases those people do share some of the blame however, no one will look out for you like you! I have never relied on someone to take me to the next level or set me up for success. Success is accomplished through hard work, foresight, and tenacity. When opportunities present themselves, grab them and run with it. Accept failure, learn from it, and grow as a person, leader, and officer. The next time you are sitting around flipping through the TV channels, think of the lost opportunity in preparing for your future. Whether taking college classes, reviewing strategies and tactics, or planning your career progression; you must invest in yourself if you want others to invest in you! It is easy to fall into a rut and get comfortable where you are…. it takes courage to pursue something better. The next time an opportunity comes up, don’t let your personal failure to prepare cause it to pass you by!
As we are all aware we are always learning. Some times the learning experience happens quickly, such as realizing your should have used an oven mitt when taking the shish kabobs off the grill with your fingers, or is formal and well planned such as taking a college course. My education in the fire service has never stopped, whether is was rapid, informal learning, or planned out. One of the hardest things I had to learn was making the transition from a firefighter to a company officer.
You may be questioning why I am writing about supervision when this site is titled Fire Officer Mentor. Mentoring cannot occur without supervision, and good supervision leads to good mentoring. We have all learned about the many types of supervision, styles, theories, etc. And we all have learned that not one style and theory fits all situations, but whether we like it or not we all operate from a base level. Those base levels can be autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire. We have all worked under the company officer that wants hospital corners on your bunk, or the officer who does not have a daily structure, and then there are the ones in-between.
Based on my experiences I would like to share a couple of supervisory approaches. I am not transposing these from any book or reference material. I am putting my own labels on them.
The Fish Net Approach – With the fish net approach the supervisor snags the first person they see when an idea crosses their mind or they have a project that is close to the deadline and they have not started it yet. The supervisor casts the net out, catching you then pulling you in. There you are, trapped and helpless, just as fish are in the fishing net. And just as in the fish net there are a variety of items, random things pulled up by the net. The supervisor is looking for results. They expect you to sift through the items and then make it work. No real direction or instructions are provided, and the supervisor may not really even know what the catch is supposed to be. The results may be a completed task, but it may not be the way the supervisor wants it and it may result in having to do the task again.
The Shot Gun Approach – The Shot Gun approach is similar to the Fish Net. The difference is the supervisor knows what the results need to be they are just not sure who to pick for the task. Maybe during a casual conversation with a small group the supervisor “blasts” out the idea or plan. Some one in the group takes the “hit” (they volunteer to take on the task for recognition, peer pressure, etc.). The task may get completed properly or not. That is the second part of the Shot Gun Approach. Just as shooting a shotgun, you may or may not hit the target appropriately. Again, the task may get completed but was the right person doing the task? This may work out OK, unless the task had an emphasis on safety.
The Pile-On Approach – just like a bunch of NFL football players diving in and piling on to recover a fumble, the supervisor keeps piling on the tasks. This may be good and bad. The supervisor may be piling on because they know they will get good results. The bad part is other tasks suffer and priorities keep changing as more tasks get piled on.
Last One Picked for Gym Class Approach – I can remember when I was in school gym class it was well known I couldn’t even catch a cold, so I was always the one picked just so the teams would be even. A supervisor may pick someone for a task because there is no one else to pick. The results could end up being dismal. Loss of productivity and a need to re-do the task by someone else. The results for the employee are also dismal. Their confidence has been shattered, making it even more difficult to properly develop the employee.
The Helicopter Pilot – This supervisor assigns a task then hops in their helicopter, hovering over your every move. They are not micro managing because they are not spelling out how to get the task done. They just hover, and hover, and hover, never really saying anything. It would be a blessing if they did micro manage. At least you would be getting some feedback. They just land their helicopter when the task is done, tell you what went wrong then get back in their helicopter to hover over you again. This approach causes anxiety in newer employees, and just flat out pisses off experienced employees.
Well, I have to be honest; I have been on both sides of these. It took me a while to figure out just because someone is willing, does not mean they are able. There are several keys to avoid being caught up in one of the above approaches:
- How critical is the project? What level of authority or perceived authority is needed? Pick the person that can carry the ball, who understands the critical nature of the task and has the backbone and knowledge to exert the appropriate authority.
- Think about the results you want. If the task is not completed properly, what is the impact on the shift and employee assigned?
- Don’t always pick the same person to do the same thing. If you can, spell out the results but the details provided should depend on the task and experience level of the person assigned. Give them “Point B” and step back. They may surprise you with how well they do. Tell the employee to get back to you 1) If they have questions or need resources 2) run into obstacles 3) The task is completed. Check back occasionally to show support.
- Use tasks to help develop the team early. Assign a team leader in the group and provide them the necessary management tools to see a task through. Allow the team leader to suggest others that could help the project but be sure it is not the same few all of the time.
- Don’t be afraid to take a chance on someone. Just make sure they have the support to accomplish the task. I’ll stand in front of a fire chief all day explaining what happened if it means I could help develop a future mentor.
Take your time when assigning tasks. Use them to develop not just task related skills, but supervisory and management skills. Show faith and confidence in those you work with helps set the tone for good mentoring.
When evaluating the gambit of skills needed to be a successful officer, there is one that is perhaps the most valuable and yet hardest to develop. I am referring to self-reflection, which in itself seems easy to do however, skewed perceptions often leave our true self image twisted and distorted like a fun-house mirror. In addition, many of us fail to realize that self reflection is not merely what we think of ourselves rather it is the ability to see ourselves in relation to the external world that exists outside our mind. Without this ability we fail to understand the impact of our actions and truly understand who we are or how we fit within the group. While self-esteem should remain internally driven, self-reflection needs to look at the bigger picture.
Understanding your strengths and weaknesses, in comparison to your environment, is key to identifying your role. Not every leader is equipped to handle every situation. Knowing where you fit and realizing what is within your comfort zone is beneficial to everyone involved. False confidence by over or under estimating yourself leads to becoming vague rather than definite and decisive. The vagueness is a defense mechanism so that when challenged the person can skew the decision/answer they gave to fit the new information, thus attempting to appear right. You will gather more respect and build a better team if you take an honest look at yourself and admit when you have short-comings. Also, in maintaining integrity, if you cannot be honest with yourself, how can anyone expect you to be honest with them? I am my worst critic, and over the years have learned to accept outside opinion, relating to aspects of my performance to help balance out my true self-image. This works both ways. Whether others see you better or worse, than you see yourself, maintaining balance is key to improving as a leader.
So, now that we have explored the reasons for self-reflection, the question is how to accurately complete a self-survey to see the reflection. First step is to put yourself in the right state of mind. Although not a formal process, it is one that requires attention to detail and a look at the bigger picture. You need to accept that you may not like the answers you come to while maintaining the ultimate goal, of being better, as your focus. Next, look at your internal perspective. What are your values? What are your perceptions? How comfortable are you with the situation? What do you excel and struggle with? What is your level of commitment? When you have the answers to those questions, it is important to gather external perspectives. These can come from formal evaluations, personal discussions, or by focusing on the non-verbal ques given off by those around you. In this stage of the process I like to have a trusted mentor/friend/co-worker who isn’t afraid to tell it to me straight. I often find myself asking these people questions like…. did I handle _____ appropriately? What do you think about _____? The final piece to this puzzle is something we practice our entire lives starting in early child-hood. This is evaluating cause and effect. Successful officers are able to see beyond the initial effect. An example of this concept is spilling a glass of water. Simple cause and effect would dictate that the glass is empty and there is a mess. Extended cause and effect would evaluate the placement of the glass, the amount of fluid inside, the conditions that led to the spill, the spill itself, hazards and subsequent actions that might occur from the water, the result of not having water in a glass(thirst, etc.), the added effort and resources needed to clean up the spill, the actions and effort needed to refill the glass, and even ways to prevent the spill from reoccurring. Self-reflection will help you realize that every action has extended effects. In the complicated interactions between people the ripple, created by your actions, can effect those who may have no direct contact with you.
Some closing remarks……Always consider that no-one can see your intentions, therefore your actions are what define you to others. Using self-reflection as a 360 degree understanding, you will become a better leader since it will allow you to see how you influence others. Everything you do or say is analyzed and translated through the perceptions of others making it necessary to see things from other points-of-view. Never assume you are the best or worst when compared to others, there is always someone who will prove you wrong. Maintaining a balanced self-reflection is the key to unlocking your potential as a person and leader.
While working on the book I am writing, I approached the subject of the different types of employees we find in our departments. With a high concentration of Type A personalities, as found in most fire departments, there is one employee in particular that merits some additional attention. I imagine that we all know someone like the person I am about to describe and each one of them, while similar, will have a broad spectrum of reasons for being that way. This type of person is known as a disenfranchised employee (DE). Many business leadership books list the DE as someone who used to care, perhaps was a star employee, and is now hurting the agency. In the business world this accounts for lack in productivity, poor work environments, and a slew of problems that eat at a company’s bottom line. In the fire service these people represent a growing number of “burned-out” employees that can put people in danger.
The old school way of thinking would dismiss these people, toss them to the side, with remarks pertaining to their inability to “make it” as a firefighter. While this seems like the easiest and fastest fix, it fails to understand the merits of the individual and account for the cost associated with their training and experience. In many cases, the brightest burning stars are the quickest to burnout. The first question that needs to be asked is “what caused them to change?” Identifying the personal or professional issues that caused the change is the first step to re-engaging the individual. Word of caution though, we are not mental health professionals and do not need to act like it. You do not have to dive into the personal life of your employees the analyze what went wrong. A simple understanding of their situation will suffice. Some common personal causes are: divorce, money problems, unhappy home-life, sick or dying family members, or lack of support at home. There is very little that we can do about these types of issues beyond acknowledging the problem and offering an employee assistance program. The more common issues that we can handle revolve around professional causes. Some of these include: lack of acknowledgment, not being validated, failure to progress, constantly being limited or micromanaged, lack of personal accountability within an organization, and having a perception of being mistreated. While many of these problems are employee specific, there is also something to be said for noticing trends. When multiple personnel show signs of being DE, there is often a bigger problem within the organization.
The question remains, “How do you re-engage someone who has become a DE?” On a personal level, they need to have a reason to be connected to the organization. No one, especially firefighters deal well with feeling like they are not needed. Employees much like fire need specific components to grow. I like to think of it as a spark, fuel, and air. Finding a role that utilizes their specific talents is the fastest way to create a spark. On its own, the spark is not enough to breathe new life into the employee. The next component is fuel. Just like a fire you cannot add too much or too little fuel if you expect growth. The fuel is a two part formula that includes continuing projects to provide opportunities for success and positive reinforcement with honest feedback. The final component is one that takes an experienced leader to understand. Air in its simplest form means that the leader needs to give the DE room to succeed without leaving them feeling abandoned again. Best case scenario, this career CPR will bring a DE back however, if wide-scale problems are present, individual action will not be enough.
On an organizational level, several DE’s are a sign of poor leadership/management practices. Drops in morale, lack of advancement opportunities, failure to hold people accountable, and micromanaging supervisors are generally the root of the problem. The effects are further compounded when the DE is a supervisor. Our attitude as a leader is highly infectious. Poor attitudes seem to be even more contagious than positive attitudes making it more difficult for positive attitudes to survive. The biggest question in this scenario is how do you as a company officer fix DE problems that may stem from higher levels of management? This is one of those “easier to explain than to do” scenarios.
You have to be persistently positive. Find ways to give DE’s spark, fuel, and air while pushing for management changes. Help to reestablish the organizational image. Throughout an organization’s progression, the failure to pass on core values and pride will lead to senior personnel becoming DE and prevent newer employees from ever truly engaging. Give credit where credit is due, stop “blanket policy” fixes, and treat people with respect. No one wants to be a number, they need to be accepted and validated as important members of the group. Failure to re-engage these employees will further support the perception that employees are numbers as they either leave or are let go and are replaced by newer, less experienced personnel. This scenario is one that can be more rewarding than a traditional conflict resolution since you are not only fixing a problem but bringing back someone who use to be a strong performer.
I want to close with one of my favorite quotes….. “If you are not apart of the solution, you are apart of the problem.”