How firefighters can avoid catching 'Lieutenant Syndrome'

While not deadly, this disease can sideline a firefighter's promising career

Most firefighters will readily admit that their first year was the toughest – running calls, mastering new skills and handling the personal challenges of a different job. They are a little less enthusiastic to talk about the year they contracted the mysterious malady known as LtS, or Lieutenant Syndrome.

LtS is a subtle ailment acquired by many firefighters somewhere between their third and fifth year; some can fight off contracting it for a few more years.

Once infected, for most firefighters, the duration of this condition is short and the repercussions are minor. The condition often disappears after a little self-examination and a simple apology.

So, what can science tell us about LtS, and where does it come from?

As an experienced firefighter, you have trained on everything twice or more, been on every call you can imagine and then some, and all the while gaining the confidence and reputation you deserve.

As team leader, tasks are getting done quickly and efficiently, and you are always prepared for the next tactical assignment.

The work is going great, but soon you realize that your officers are beginning to slow. You knew for a fact that laddering the roof was needed on the last call, but it seemed to take forever.

You determined the exposure line on the B side was not going to be enough and the time it took to deploy RIT and rehab was … well let’s just say you would have done it sooner, and leave it at that.

Congratulations, you are presenting the first symptoms of LtS. While not fatal, it can leave a scarred reputation, and in some cases, derail your career timeline.

The symptoms are clear.

  • You start believing you know more than your officer and know the proof is plain to see.
  • You see things on the fireground before anyone one else and know what to do before it’s done.
  • Officers seem sluggish to organize tasks and advance the strategy, and as such are behind in giving you orders.
  • You are way ahead of commands not given and frustration is beginning to creep into your personal fireground.

There’s a cure

To inoculate yourself from LtS, you need to understand exactly what an officer does to be successful. Being an officers requires a completely different skillset from the work of a firefighter.

This is one of the hardest lessons for new officers to learn. It is imperative that you understand the difference to be effective in either assignment.

As an experienced firefighter working a task, it is easy to see all of the answers associated with a problem, especially when you don’t have to pick one.  

The firefighter’s job is to follow orders and complete tasks. How these tasks are prioritized and implemented is the tactical objective for an officer. And while you may know all of the tasks associated with the fireground, the what, where and when of them are beyond your purview.

Failure to understand this critically important aspect of an officer’s decision-making process during an emergency can lead to impatience and the questioning of authority. This results in firefighters being out of sync with the evolution – another tell-tale sign of LtS.

Tangible choices and their actual outcomes reside not in the imagination of firefighters, but in the real space and time of the fireground.

Officers understand this leadership burden and make decisions only when they must. Until then, they gather all of the information available to make an effective decision.

Understanding all the essentials when judgement is required, officers make informed decisions to the best of their ability. This is a capability honed by experience, constant review and critiques as well as a firm resolve to keep mistakes to a minimum.

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Not having to make decisions, firefighters often see the fireground and all of its evolutions collectively. It is what makes good firefighters great. They know they’re going to pull line, raise ladders, position for rescue, exposure protection and containment. Then its cleanup and home.

Knowing everything required to successfully resolve any emergency scene is only half the challenge, however. Putting what you know in the right order and at the right moment in the evolution is the other half of the strategy-and-tactics equation.

Strategic decisions directed by officers and implemented by firefighters working tactics, define the fireground. The strategy associated with a successful emergency response requires a sequential timeline of events and the ability to maintain their appropriate order by resolving all challenges.

The work of an effective line officer is to make good decisions – in the right order and at the right time. Firefighters will do the rest.

Taking responsibility for decisions made on scene carries a great weight. An officer knows this and acts accordingly.

Any emergency response depends on solid decisions made in the correct sequence and in a timely fashion. Anything less immediately increases the risk to life and property.

The best vaccine for firefighters against Lieutenant Syndrome is understanding, appreciating and respecting the job of an officer and the command-and-control responsibilities that comes with it.

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