Fire officers: How to lead older crews at slow stations
Just because the crew has decades on the department doesn't make them above being led; in fact, it's quite the opposite
In response to a recent column, I received the following email:
"I arrived at my current station after being given a transfer to a station closer to home, and found I had inherited a crew of three aged (they say experienced) firefighters, all of us with 30-plus years of service, and two of them born, raised, married, divorced and still working in the same neighborhood as the station.
"Despite being nice guys, it is the most excruciating period of my career so far. I find the most irritating thing they do is try to run things their own way, the same way they have done it for years. They say they know it all but they don't and I have exposed many holes in their so-called experience. They have the time, but less skill level than a recruit.
"No amount of motivation can interest them, they've seen it all, done it all, had every type of officer that can be possible, young, old, female and male, been to very type of emergency call several hundred times, know the system, milk the system, everything."
How to respond
It was hard to know how to respond to this note, although I think most officers can empathize to some degree with this officer's challenges. Every fire department has members who are very close to retirement. Some departments allow these firefighters to self-select into crews, often at the slower stations.
As this officer wrote, they've "seen it all." What effect can an officer have on such a crew?
In some cases, officers may give up despite good intentions. Why try to change someone who only has a year left on the job? Why exhaust yourself trying to do training when crew members will just go back to doing something the old way that they are used to? Why create conflict when the odds of getting serious calls, or much of any calls for that matter, are low?
Reasons to lead
There are several reasons why an officer cannot just accept the status quo. Safety is the most important. Slower stations get fewer calls, but the big one can happen anywhere, and when it happens in a slower, more remote district, it can be that much more critical.
Seldom used skills will be rusty, and help will not be fast to arrive. Preparedness and training are perhaps more important at the slow station versus a busy one.
Some departments do not allow such homogenous crews to form. They recognize the value of having people of different levels of experience, skill, and interest together on the crew.
However, many departments allow firefighters to bid station assignments based on seniority. In that case, if the most-senior firefighters want to work together, they will.
Don't be a jerk
So what's a new officer to do? As difficult as it may be, an officer must set clear standards for performance and hold people accountable. Being a firefighter is a job, not an entitlement. Even those with 30 years of commendable experience must still be able to do the job.
But you don't have to be a jerk about it. Respect and compassion are key aspects of successfully leading firefighters at the end of their careers.
Sometimes firefighters shy away from training because they are afraid of failing in front of their peers. They may hide behind bravado, but are actually quite nervous about proving themselves.
An older crew will probably do better with a more collaborative approach to training instead of the competition that may motivate younger firefighters.
Transparency is important. Officers need to be crystal clear in stating their expectations. For example, if a training evolution will be happening later in the month, describe in detail what will occur well before the time it happens.
Set clear standards (you can even put it in writing) for how the training will be run, including expectations about participation, use of protective gear, and so on. Then stick to those standards when the training actually takes place.
Slow and steady can win the race with older firefighters. Keep the momentum up by doing something related to professional development every shift, even if it is just emptying a compartment on the rig and going over the equipment. Drive a new subdivision. Do a tour at the small factory down the road.
Set the expectation that you will be doing these types of things every shift, and then stick to that commitment, regardless of any grumbling you might hear.
Keep things in balance. It is important to stay active, but it is equally important to value the crew members you have. Honor the experience of your team. Ask questions. Share stories. Get a sense of the legacy that these firefighters want to leave.
It can be hard on an officer who has to lead among those who have "seen it all." It is tiring when getting every task completed is like pulling teeth.
Crew members may complain, "What are you trying to prove? Why are we doing this?" The answer is easy: "Because I care about you and want to keep you safe."
Simple as that.