The fire service has changed dramatically over the course of the past 50 years. In the 1970s, we focused our collective attention on fire suppression. In the 1980s, hazardous material response was our priority. In the 1990s technical rescue was the topic of discussion and in the 2000s, WMD response consumed all of our time from a training and pre-planning perspective.
Just as our priorities have changed throughout the years, so have the people within our profession. Fire-service organizations are arguably more diverse today than what they were 50 years ago. This diversity in gender, race, ethnicity and age (just to name a few) gives us the opportunity to have diversity in thought. When we have diversity in thought, we can truly provide a ‘public service’ that consists of ‘public servants’, who look and think like the citizens that we serve. The challenge of today’s fire-service leadership is to cultivate the talent within the organization while meeting the emotional and physiological needs of members on the team that are from three different generations. Exercising a culmination of various proactive leadership principles is critical to the success of any person in a position of authority.
There is no question that the fire service has changed significantly from when I originally joined 20 years ago. I came from an era where you did as you were told without questioning your superior officer. If you dared to challenge a salty firefighter or an officer, you were met with enough cleaning details, of the most unpleasant nature, that would keep you busy for at least the next several shifts. I was a Firefighter/EMT for just four years before becoming an officer. Out of my 20 years of service, I have been a chief officer for 15. Unorthodox, I know; however, I am grateful for the learning experiences that I gained from the examples of good leadership that I had as well as the poor leadership. The foundation of structure, organization and discipline still functions as an effective building block to this day. A notable change between now and 20 years ago is how members of the team are spoken to and treated. The ‘culture’ of the fire service many years ago was one that was accepting of characterizing and generalizations that would most certainly earn you a lengthy suspension if not termination in today’s society. Any person in a position of authority in today’s fire service must know and understand that they inevitably set the tone for the organization. Although our official office hours may be 9am–5pm, we are ‘on’ 24 hours a day and seven days a week. We must be the example and lead with unbiased determination from a utilitarian perspective. With various generations in the firehouse, there are various priorities and competing interests. Leadership must rally the team around the organizational statements to reiterate the ‘who, what and how’ of the department which is manifested by the ‘mission, vision and values’. Two things that are prevalent in every firefighter regardless of the generation that they belong to is the degree of the willingness to do the job and the breadth of ability to get the job done.
To put this in context, change the word willingness to ‘attitude’ and ability with ‘experience’. As a fire chief, I would much rather have someone on the team that had the right attitude and work ethic with very little experience than someone with a poor attitude and 10 years on the job. Why? I can take someone with a good attitude and turn them into a great firefighter, but someone with a bad attitude regardless of their experience is unpleasant to be around and erodes the critical teamwork component of the fire service. 20% of the organization will be very challenging to manage and lead regardless of what you do as the person in a position of authority. 60% of the team come to work and do their job without having to be prompted and 20% of the membership go above and beyond because that is who they are. The actual percentages of the 20/60/20 Theory classifications may vary depending on the climate and the culture of your organization. An often overlooked perspective is that ‘climate’ is a precursor to culture. When significant events occur and they go unaddressed by leadership it is probable that this disenfranchisement will negatively impact the culture of the organization.
It is critically important to foster a culture of inclusiveness, equity and responsiveness in firehouses. A good way to ensure that this happens is to utilize your emotional intelligence. Also known as ‘EQ’ or ‘EI’, emotional intelligence allows you to recognize how your actions, words, body language and tone impact others. Those who have high EQ can make the person or persons that they are engaging with feel like they are valuable members of the team and what they have to say matters. Appreciative Inquiry (also known as AI) helps facilitate this. AI is simply synthesizing what someone is saying to you by emphasizing key points while making eye contact if possible. This tells the person you are communicating with that you are paying attention and that what they have to say matters. It is also very important to ignore or eliminate distractions such as your desk phone, cell phone or emails. Although we may not think about it when it is happening, if we were to look at a text message or email when someone is speaking to us, that could be construed as rude and unprofessional.
One person who understood what it meant to serve and be of service was Robert K. Greenleaf. In his essay that he wrote in 1970, Greenleaf introduced servant leadership and how it could be applied to any profession and any generation. Servant leadership is a faith-based leadership philosophy that emphasizes the importance of the person at the top of the organization adopting the mindset that he or she works for everyone in the organization not that everyone in the organization works for him or her. This leadership style can expedite self-actualization due to the feeling of being appreciated and valued. There is a distinction between a person in a position of authority and someone who is considered a leader. Our titles and authority are given to us through appointment; however, being affectionately referred to as a leader by those that you serve can only occur if you take deliberate action.
To serve and be of service is the reason why I joined our beloved profession. The passion for people and service remains as vibrant and bright today as it was 20 years ago. We are trusted by the citizens that we are sworn to protect to make, in most instances, the worst day of their lives better. We must be reminded that the badge on our chest and the patch on our arm is bigger than we are. Everything that we do in the fire service is team oriented and when it’s all said and done, firefighters simply want a fire chief that is going to do the right thing. Both in the firehouse and on the fire ground. We must faithfully meet the challenges of the 21st century fire service with honour, integrity, commitment, dedication, loyalty and steadfast professionalism. Utilize the strengths of every member of the team regardless if they have been a member of the organization for two years or 20 years. If they did not have value, they would not have been hired. Tenure is no longer reflective of competency. In today’s fire service, one’s competency is determined by their training, education and experience but more importantly, how they apply their training, education and experience. Be inclusive. Be responsive. Be equitable. Your oath requires that of you and your firefighters deserve it.
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