Leadership lessons from a ranting officer
A firefighter's job is to mitigate damage and never make something worse than it already is
A recent video showing a confrontation between a Miami-Dade Fire captain and a photographer is making the rounds online and generating a lot of discussion.
The original incident involved a man filming a helicopter landing in a field across the road from where he was standing. The fire department personnel were on the scene to transfer a patient to the helicopter. The recording is initially boring and routine, with no real details of the scene apparent from the distance where the videographer is standing.
Then at around the three minute mark, things get interesting. The fire crew notices the man with the camera. The firefighter walks across the road toward the civilian. His first communication to the man is him drawing his finger across his throat.
The captain follows soon after, yelling as he approaches the man, "You're leaving right now! Turn around and walk away!"
The photographer refuses to leave, citing his right to be present in a public area. Things go downhill from there. At one point, the captain, who is still wearing bloody medical gloves, appears to physically push the photographer.
There are unanswered questions associated with this incident, specifically what if anything happened before the filming began. There has been debate about limitations on First Amendment rights. But at a more basic level this incident has much to teach about leadership and control.
Essence of leadership
At its essence, leadership in the emergency services is entirely about control. Firefighters do not cause the problem — it was already on fire when they got there. Their job is to mitigate damage, protect from harm, and in all cases never make something worse than it already is.
The captain in this video violated all of these principles of leadership and effective emergency response. Whether the presence of the photographer posed a real hazard to himself or others is debatable.
Perhaps there was no problem to be solved on this scene, at least until the captain got involved. He broke the first rule — firefighters are there to resolve problems, not create them.
The primary way that this officer undermined his authority and endangered himself and others was by losing control. In fact, by all appearances, this officer had lost control of himself before he even approached the photographer.
A professional way to initiate an encounter with a civilian is by introducing yourself and calmly explaining your request, not by charging up to that person and yelling at him. This officer is lucky that the photographer seemed to have better control of himself than did the firefighters on the scene.
Since fire officers by definition are responsible for bringing control to chaos, their first responsibility is controlling themselves. If they lose this control, things can become dangerously unstable very quickly, leading to bad decisions.
In this case, the officer appeared to be so determined to confront the civilian that he did not even bother to take off the bloody medical gloves before approaching him, and perhaps also making physical contact with him. A very bad decision.
In the emergency services, leadership and control are two sides of the same coin. Control is fostered in a number of ways for officers and other personnel.
First, having clear policies that are consistently applied helps to set standards for conduct and allows those both inside and outside the department to know what to expect. These policies should be written down and all members should receive training on them and be held consistently accountable for upholding them.
But training must go further than just talking about policies. Firefighters at all levels need training in how to manage conflict, how to de-escalate confrontation, and how to have the so-called "difficult conversation." Most people are not naturally good at these things and benefit tremendously from focused skills training.
Fire departments need to initiate a discussion among members about what it means to be professional as emergency services providers, and how unprofessional behavior impacts the entire department. Professional standards go much further than just SOGs or SOPs.
Professionalism is about understanding a core sense of mission and making sure that individual actions never violate that mission.
In the case of the officer at the helicopter landing, his anger, lack of control, and unprofessionalism undermined his leadership from the first moment he encountered the civilian. Whatever the situation might have been, he made it much worse through his actions and words.
That's being part of the problem, and that is never leadership.