5 things a company fire officer should never say

These statements reflect an attitude that may seem harmless in the short term, but will undermine leadership in the long run

There is no shortage of cringe-worthy things we've heard and said on the job. The things we say reflect what we are thinking, even if it's only what we are thinking at the moment and not representative of our deeply held thoughts and beliefs.

For an officer in the fire service, what you say is registered by the crewmembers and will alter how they view their leaders — even the flip remarks. Nobody will always say the perfect things, but for company officers, it is critical to avoid these five statements.

1. I don't care what you think

Joking around with crewmembers is fine as long as certain joke statements don't become ingrained parts of the department culture. Actions always speak louder than words, but words do matter.
Joking around with crewmembers is fine as long as certain joke statements don't become ingrained parts of the department culture. Actions always speak louder than words, but words do matter. (Photo/John Odegard)

You're the officer, right? You're in charge. So you might feel that the only opinion that really matters is your own. Most officers realize how stupid this thinking is, but sometimes people do get caught up in it, especially on emergency scenes.

Of course you don't want to have a debate or a consensus discussion when you need to act quickly under emergency conditions. But you still need to have a way for all others to be able to convey information to you, from the senior engineer down to the newest firefighter. Otherwise, you'll never hear people saying things like:

  • "I think I see the roof sagging on the right side of the building."
  • "I think I've seen that guy before at other suspicious fires."
  • "I think that man on the edge of the crowd might be related to the victim."

As an officer, you need all the information you can get. So figure out systems of communication that work for everyone, even under emergency conditions.

2. Don't bother me with your personal problems

I've actually heard officers say this on more than one occasion. But really? Officers should care about their crewmembers as whole people, not just firefighting machines.

And who is in a better position than a company officer to recognize when a crewmember might be having a personal problem that is affecting performance?

Someone is going through a divorce or an ugly child-custody battle. Someone's behavior has changed and it may be related to drug or alcohol use. Conflict within the crew might be related to harassment or bullying. Withdrawal and depression could be a precursor to serious behavioral health issues, even suicide.

The company officer should be concerned about all of these things and should want to know if any of them are happening. Company officers are not psychologists, but they should be able to act as resource officers. They should know where someone can find help for any personal problem that might come up.

3. I know it's against policy, but …

You can fill in the blank. "We're B Shift, we do things differently." "We're in a hurry." "That's a stupid policy anyway."

Officers are obligated to uphold departmental policies whether they personally agree with them or not. If there is some specific reason why the policy cannot be followed in a particular case, then that exception needs to be recognized in the moment and documented after the fact.

Otherwise, if you don't like a policy then work to change it, but don't undermine it among the crew while paying lip service to it at an organizational level.

4. Just leave that for the other shift

There are certain jobs that nobody wants to do. Let's face it — emergency service sometimes involves dirty, unpleasant work. But when that work falls on your shift, with your crew, then you do it. Period.

You don't ignore the smell of sewage coming from the basement and then act surprised when the oncoming shift is just about knocked over by the stench the next morning. You don't let things explode in the microwave then not clean them up. You don't "forget" to do a tedious inventory that is due the next day.

Leadership is about accountability, about standing up and doing what needs to be done, whether you like it or not. There will be times when you don't like it and it's no fun, but putting it off on others just destroys respect between crews and undermines your own leadership and authority.

5. When you've got these …

I was a firefighter on a fairly small department. We didn't have the luxury of having specialized crews to do different tasks on fire scenes. If you were called out on initial attack, you were likely still going to be there during overhaul. And everyone was expected to pitch in, regardless of rank.

On one fire, a senior engineer asked an officer if he would please help pick up some hose at the end of the incident. The officer, who was not busy at the time, responded by tugging at his shirt collar, which held his lieutenant's bars, telling the engineer, "When you've got these, you don't have to pick up hose after a fire."

Well, this comment became legendary on my department. Long after this officer had retired, long after we stopped wearing collar brass, people were still tugging on their collars and saying, "When you've got these, you don't have to [fill in the blank]."

It was a joke and an unfortunate one, because the officer who inspired it had a lot of good qualities. But that one statement undermined everything else he was about as an officer.

You don't want that kind of legacy. Officers should always be leading by example, working harder than anyone else around them. Actions always speak louder than words, but words do matter.

So now it's your turn: What one thing do you never want to hear coming out of an officer's mouth?

This article, originally published on July 8, 2015, has been updated.

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