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Leading the Team
by Linda Willing

Fire officers must 'own' firefighter high jinks

Firefighter safety is the company officer's job, on and off the fireground that means being the adult in the room when pranks get out of hand

By Linda Willing

Two firefighters tased, officers disciplined. Cold-water challenge lands firefighters in hot water. These are just two recent headlines of stories about firefighters behaving in ways that their departments deem to be unprofessional or unsafe.

In both of these recent incidents, no one was hurt and all those involved were voluntary participants. In at least one case, the intention of the behavior was good — to raise money for charity as part of a national campaign.

So what went wrong? How does charitable fundraising turn into the use of master streams on a person standing in a field? How do firefighters on duty decide that using a taser on one another is a good idea?

How do any number of other incidents occur among otherwise good firefighters: inappropriate videos posted to YouTube, pranks that cross over into tampering with an individual's food, sexual misconduct in the firehouse?

Top this
Whenever I hear about stories like the ones above I always ask this question: What was the officer doing when all this was going on? In just about every case, the station officer was either tacitly approving the conduct if not actively participating in it.

And herein lies the problem. Firefighters are by nature competitive. They always want to outdo their teammates, whether it is in aggressive firefighting or wild storytelling or playing pranks. Whether it's on or off the fireground, many firefighters naturally fall into the "can you top this" mode.

When this momentum gets going, someone or something has to stop it before things get out of control. Someone has to be the grownup in the room. And by definition and job description, that person is the company officer.

This can be a hard role for an officer to play. All officers want to be liked and accepted by their crews. No one wants to be known as someone who spoils the fun.

Safety is job 1
It is also possible that the officer has personal friends among those on his or her crew. These personal ties can make it that much harder to be the one to stand up and say, "That's enough. Stop it. No more."

But this is the company officers' job, and doing that job well is part of the mandate all officers have to keep their crews safe. Every officer knows that this responsibility of safety is critical on the fireground or emergency scene where physical hazards exist.

Some officers forget that this responsibility for safety extends to every minute of every day that the crew is working together. It goes far beyond just preventing physical harm.

Master streams and tasers — people could have really gotten hurt. They didn't in these particular cases, and that's a good thing. However, just because they were lucky not to incur physical injury does not mean that the behavior is OK.

Being the grownup
Community members who pay for fire protection services expect the people providing those services to maintain a level of professionalism in doing that job. Professionalism in this context has nothing to do with getting paid. It is about competence, trust, and safe practice — acting like responsible adults instead of a bunch of kids playing with toys.

Being the grownup in the room does not mean shutting down any fun firefighters may have in the station. Not at all — it is important in a stressful job to find ways to decompress, and shared jokes and stories can be a good way to bond within a crew.

Being the grownup does mean always remembering who you are and why you are there. Firefighters may get carried away, but officers cannot allow themselves to be carried off with the tide. They have to remain vigilant for their crew's safety at all times, the same way they would at a fire scene.

So when officers see firefighters getting crazy — "Well, if that would be funny, you know what would be really funny?" — they need to step in. Be the voice of reason. Redirect the energy. Find something more constructive to do. If necessary, step up and stop what is happening. Before everyone is brought down by a bad decision.

Some may say that this is all an overreaction. But remember incidents from recent history.

  • Firefighters going to strip clubs with the engine.
  • Firefighters drinking on duty.
  • Firefighters having sex in the station.
  • Firefighters devising elaborate hazing pranks and filming them.

Where was the officer when all of these things were going on? In most cases, right in the middle of it.

Officers who allow themselves to be swept along with the force of wanting to be "one of the guys" at any cost are not doing their jobs. And their lack of leadership undermines the credibility and professionalism of the fire service overall.

About the author

Linda F. Willing worked for more than 20 years in the emergency services, including 18 as a career firefighter and fire officer. For more than 15 years, she has provided support for fire and emergency services and other organizations through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. Linda's work focuses on developing customized solutions in the areas of leadership development, conflict resolution, diversity management, team building, communications and decision making. She is the author of "On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories." Linda is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor for the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. She has a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.S. from Regis University in Denver in Organization Development, and is a certified mediator. To contact Linda, e-mail

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Robert Avsec Robert Avsec Monday, August 11, 2014 1:44:13 PM Great piece, Linda! Couldn't agree more with your analogy of the Company Officer being the adult in the room. This does not imply--nor did I get it from your prose--that firefighters are not adults. I think we agree that it's more about the perspective and state of mind that a good CO maintains at all times during their tour of duty. One of my mentors along the way taught me, "Worry about the little things and take care of them while they're still little. The big things usually started out as little things."
Robert Christian Robert Christian Monday, August 18, 2014 3:36:21 PM This article is spot on. To me, it sometimes it seems that some of those who work in our honored and respected calling, forgot to "grow up" after high school. I served as an Airborne Infantry soldier, and later, worked as a Bouncer and Bartender before I became a Firefighter, and never saw the level of immature pranks, jokes, &, teasing, along with unprofessional attitudes and behaviors, that I have seen as a Career Firefighter.

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