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Surviving the ‘on-deck circle’: Tips for firefighters ready to advance

You may be eager to step into your next position, but there’s plenty you can do while you wait for the opportunity to open


Don’t squander the opportunity to show that you are, in fact, the right person to take that next step.


At some point in fire service career, you will likely find yourself in a “next up” or “on deck” position. This could be an informal position shift like to firefighter or engineer or a more formalized promotion from lieutenant to captain or even a chief officer hoping for the opportunity to advance to fire chief.

Regardless of the step, being in the “on-deck circle” can be a difficult position as you await your opportunity to shine. However, it is also a time that can make or break your future success. Don’t squander the opportunity to show that you are, in fact, the right person to take that next step.

The following are some tips to help you set yourself up to hit it out of the park.

Be patient

Patience is one of the more challenging traits to master for motivated leaders. We all want the opportunity to shine now, and waiting can be difficult. However, sometimes the batter in front of you fouls off 20 pitches and then takes the count to 3-2. Even worse, there is a rain delay or a postponement just before you step to the plate.

The key is to stay focused and don’t let your guard down. In the fire service, the opportunity to bat may be years in the future. That’s OK. Take that time to hone your skills. Be physically and mentally prepared for success. I’ve often looked back on my career and was thankful that doors took longer to open than I had desired. The extra time helped me improve and mature and better prepare for that future opportunity.

Earn respect

Respect is the most critical trait for successful leaders. No leader will thrive if they lack respect from the rest of the team and surrounding forces.

While on deck, it’s easy to get sloppy and lose some passion and drive. Do everything possible to avoid this slip, as your members and those around you are watching your every step. As such, stay focused and keep grinding for yourself and the organization. Many times, when a leader grinds in the shadows, others will push even harder for your success. It’s those who produce outside the spotlight who earn the most respect. If this occurs, your success rate drastically increases when the shadows retreat and it’s your time to shine.

Over the years, I’ve seen those that wait for daylight to show up. This is a fatal error as your members will not forget those years while you hid in the shadows.

Stay in your lane

There are times to wade into new areas and times to stay in your lane. It is imperative that you continually strive to improve and master your responsibilities and focus on what you can control. Concentrating on yourself and your areas of responsibility will organically educate those around you of your abilities to take the next step. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t help others, be a team player and support the overall mission as much as possible. But stepping on others’ toes is not something that you want to make a habit of. Keep in mind that the fire service was built on the “division of labor” concept. Leaders who go down that road are labeled as people who will do anything to promote, causing a lack of support when the time comes for that promotion.

Take advantage of opportunities

The fire service provides endless opportunities to shine, but too often, we shy away from options that don’t fit our wants and desires. Instead, take any opportunity to better your organization. Your goal should be to obtain a laundry list of successes that span a broad scope of service. Diversity in experience is just as essential as the diversity of your organization. Diversity is what allows us to be successful in any situation that arises. This requires breaking out of your shell and attacking opportunities that may not be in your wheelhouse. These uncomfortable ventures will prepare you for future success.

Build relationships

Relationships inside and outside your organization are some of the most critical for any leader. The fire service is highly complex, and there is no way to know every topic. However, someone does have the answer. That person might be a probationary firefighter or the city manager – maybe even the city manager of a city far from your organization.

Networking and relationships will make or break your success. The more people you have in your network, the greater net you will be able to cast. Over my career, a quick phone call or email has provided insight that allowed for a positive, successful outcome. Although networking can be uncomfortable, I’ve found that most people involved with this service are incredibly welcoming and will go out of their way to assist with your needs. Those who seek knowledge and input will be met with an immense amount of support. In the end, your decision will be much more successful if vetted through others that have been there before.

On the flip side, shooting from the hip and reinventing the wheel will most likely derail your success in today’s fire service. Remember to have humility; it’s OK to say, “I don’t know.” The key is to be open and find someone who does know; that way, you can come back later with some constructive, proven ideas and concepts.

Lead and mentor

Being on deck can seem like you’re not being watched and evaluated. However, where you stand is visible to all your members and those watching from the seats. This gives you a prime opportunity to lead and mentor, whether during formal or informal situations. Members often seek your input and follow your lead because you are their immediate supervisor or their shift/division supervisor. Take advantage of every opportunity you have to mentor and lead others. Remember that those who stand around you now are the ones you will want to push with you in the future. The work and time you put in today will pay off when you take that next step in leadership.

Focus on self-improvement

The fire service is an ever-changing environment. It’s obvious when you see an individual who has given up on self-improvement. As soon as we stop educating and networking, the fire service passes us by, and we become out of date. As leaders, informal or formal, it is imperative that we don’t take our foot off the gas. We must continue to gain knowledge and stay up with our current level of responsibilities. Please make every effort to surround yourself with driven experts as none of us can come even close to knowing everything we need to know. The level of expertise and education you have on any subject will improve your credibility and respect by those standing beside and behind you.

Putting it all together

The fire service is a fantastic career. Many of us have devoted our lives to this job and continue to push to improve our organization and community. Depending on your aspirations, there are so many different positions of leadership throughout each organization. Sometimes it’s fate that lands you in the perfect place; other times, it just happens, and you land where you land.

At some point, you will find yourself in the “on-deck circle.” When on-deck, you will be waiting for your opportunity to lead and hopefully drive home that winning run. Although the on-deck circle may not be your desired position, it can be a fantastic opportunity to prepare for your at-bat.

Take the time to better yourself, and lead by example. Your preparedness and attitude toward your next opportunity will set you up for success or failure. Take advantage of every opportunity to shine and show everyone on your team or in the crowd that you are locked in and ready when your moment comes. When your name is called, be as prepared as possible for that winning hit.

Chad Costa is the assistant chief with the City of Petaluma (California) Fire Department. With 26 years of fire service experience, Costa has worked in a variety of organizations, including the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), plus rural and semi-rural districts. He is also a rostered Operations Branch Director for CAL FIRE Team 1 and an alternate Operations Branch Director on California Interagency Team 5. In addition to his practical experience, Costa holds a master’s degree in fire service leadership, a bachelor’s degree in emergency services management and a certificate in homeland security. He also completed the Executive Fire Officer program and is an accredited Chief Fire Officer through the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). Learn more about Chief Costa.