New company-level fire officers will receive the closest scrutiny of their reputation backpack from the firefighters assigned to that company. The firefighters will evaluate items in the backpack and conduct tests to determine how the officer approaches requests, problems, and incidents. Are the fire officer responses consistent and predictable? Before the start of a regional fire class, I listened while two 40-something apparatus drivers compared notes on the testing of their new Lieutenants. The chauffers described increasing their speed and aggressiveness while driving to emergencies to identify the point their new Lieutenant would tell them to slow down.
After conducting Tests, the second level in Hugh Caulfield’s Fire Service Leadership Game in the fire station arena is the Request. The supervisor receives a request that clearly violates the department’s regulations or protocols.
A request for permission to do something that is against the organization’s formal rules is really an invitation to comply with the group. Firefighters want to know is this supervisor willing to negotiate with the rules? Will the supervisor respond in the way predicted by the reputation backpack evaluation?
The new company-level officer has three choices:
- Permit the activity
- Refuse permission
- Provide a vague response ( “… well, just this once”)
Some new officers stumble at Caulfield’s Request stage. They want to be liked by their firefighters and may say yes to a request that impacts fire company effectiveness or, especially in our digital culture, creates a public perception issue.
Gordon Graham is an expert on risk management. While discussing the significant risk of a High Risk/Low Frequency/No Discretionary Time event, he pointed out that firefighters have a particular blind spot in their decision-making. They make every decision immediately.
Discretionary time is a powerful tool for the new fire officer to use when handling requests. Most requests are not involving a life-threatening situation or require a second alarm assignment. You have the time to thoughtfully consider the request that is clearly violating the department’s regulations or protocols. You can respond with “… I need time to consider your request.”
Graham advocates that you reach out and consult others when you confront a new issue that has discretionary time. Contact a peer who may have more experience with the issue, or check with your supervisor. You can also ask “Why?”
The art of “Why”
Caulfield recommends new fire officers use the Request stage to develop an effective leadership response. This is done in a way that maintains dignity and authority. The response is to ask why the firefighter wants to do something in that specific way.
Asking “why” establishes the subordinate/supervisor relationship and requires the firefighter to discuss the request in more detail. This discussion provides an ability to consider alternative solutions that avoid violating the department’s regulations or protocols.
From a leadership perspective, asking “why” help define the supervisor role by:
- Not having the supervisor take on the issue or problem as their own.
- Establish boundaries for an acceptable resolution
- Sharing the problem resolution with the supervisor’s boss
Be Clear and Decisive
Once you have consulted with a peer and gotten details from the “Why” exercise, the new fire officer needs to provide a clear response to the request. Talk straight and explain the situation in clear terms. Acknowledge other opinions about the issue or problem and ask for feedback.
Providing a vague response results in the firefighters and the supervisor having to play the Request game on every subsequent issue. This saps energy and results in an unhappy and unproductive team.
Allowing this vagueness to fester at the Request level means that the subordinate-supervisor situation may deteriorate into the higher Caulfield levels of Confrontation, Open Warfare or Conquest.
Caulfield, Hugh J. (1985). Winning the Fire Service Leadership Game. Saddlebrook, NJ: Fire Engineering. ISBN 9781879848139
An excellent reference to explore company officer – subordinate issues:
Barlow, Jeffrey R. (2019) Fire Officer’s Guide to Management and Leadership. Burlington MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning. ISBN 9781449641788
Chief Barlow provides 34 company officer scenarios, linked to an NFPA 1021 standard, followed by a detailed discussion of each issue.