Trending Topics

Above the shoulders: When to consider brains over brawn

The personal traits that fire service leaders should consider during the hiring and promotional selection process


We are looking for those members who understand and value our organizational ethics.

Photo/Chad Costa

What makes a good firefighter?

My answer to this question has changed over the years. In my younger years, I would have described a mentally and physically fit individual who makes the perfect stretch, cuts excellent heat holes or gets grabs. Today, my lens has shifted. I still feel the above attributes or actions are essential traits of a good firefighter, but I now place a similar value on what’s “above the shoulders.”

The fire service has changed dramatically. We are a customer service-driven profession, constantly embedded within our community. The days of closing the apparatus bay doors, only to be opened for a fire, are over. We reflect on our community and are viewed as leaders and role models. Further, expectations of firefighters have expanded far beyond fire responses. With these changes, I believe the above-the-shoulder attributes are just as critical as those below-the-shoulder traits. One of the critical above-the-shoulder traits is emotional intelligence, which carries incredible weight in modern-day informal and formal leadership success. Combining successful informal and formal leadership leads to a successful and resilient organization.

Let’s consider those above-the-shoulder traits that fire service leaders should consider during the hiring and promotional process.

Morals and ethics

Morals guide your “right vs. wrong” compass, whereas ethics are rules that define allowable actions and correct behavior. It is essential to understand these differences because morals and ethics guide your member’s decision-making and actions.

Regarding hiring and promotions, we are looking for those members who understand and value our organizational ethics. Every organization should have a mission statement and values. These are the guiding principles that establish organizational boundaries for ethical and moral decision-making.

We must understand that individuals have differing morals based on their lives, exposures and beliefs. These diverse morals are spread amongst your organization and are extremely important to the diversity of thought. However, things can go sideways when an individual acts on personal morals that don’t align with the organization’s ethics. For example, a firefighter may have personal feelings regarding a patient who has overdosed from a drug or been injured while driving under the influence. An issue can arise when that firefighter acts on their morals, compromising the patient’s service delivery or treatment.

We highlight integrity, trust, compassion and empathy in all our missions and values. Those are the core of customer service. So, if your actions or your moral compass degrade those departmental ethics, you are acting detrimental to your organization. Fire service hiring and promotional decision-makers are looking for those people who act in a way that aligns with your organizational ethics. This doesn’t mean that every individual must have the same morals; it means your actions and your right vs. wrong decision-making align with that oath you swore to uphold.

Pride and ownership

Pride and ownership are crucial to those we hire and promote. When hiring, these attributes can be internal or external to your organization. For example, I believe that finding those who have pride and ownership in your community bodes well for employee retention. That is not to say that an employee who doesn’t reside within your community wouldn’t value your organization or community. However, those connected to the community tend to have an increased pride and ownership that translates to their commitment to both.

Internally, it is important to promote those members who embody the mission and values of the organization. Those members who have pride and ownership in themselves, the community, and the organization translate into positive informal and formal leaders who act as professionals while increasing your organizational scope of success. We are looking for those who do more than show up to work on their duty days. We are looking for those who understand the importance of community engagement and are passionate about serving the community. Heart and compassion are related traits that will directly translate to increased service and organizational success.

Community engagement

Unlike private sector professions, the fire service is customer service-driven and revolves around doing what’s best for our customers, not necessarily what’s best for the department or the bottom line. Whether that’s fighting a fire, conducting a school talk, attending a charity cause, or giving a child a sticker and allowing them to walk through our apparatus, we are there for the public in every aspect or situation.

Fire service decision-makers are looking for individuals who understand and value the connection with the community. Our service revolves around trust. Without trust, we will not exist, and our organizations will fail. We must be engaged and understand our community to gain and sustain the conviction – and our community must get to know us. This continued and deliberate partnership allows for trust to grow and be sustained.

These community and growth opportunities can and should happen long before you wear the badge. Broaden your perspective and work to understand those who you serve. Embrace the key stakeholders within your community, as those partnerships are invaluable to your personal and organizational growth and success. The fire department can’t operate within a silo. We must join forces with our allies and provide holistic community risk reduction and response service. Those that make this effort will shine throughout the process and put themselves in a position to succeed.

Formal and informal leadership

Hiring and promotional decision-makers are looking for those who display informal and formal leadership traits. When an individual is a captain of a baseball team or the lead of a project or community-based organization, these skill sets generally translate into successful informal and formal leadership roles within the fire service. Our profession is a team of people coming together from all walks of life, joined in a mission to serve and protect. Although our team has a different mission than most others, at the core, we are no different from any other. Finding those individuals who understand the importance of team cohesion and communication will support organizational success. Those who exemplify positive leadership traits as an informal leader and generally successful when hired or promoted as a formal leader.

Big picture perspective

Increasing the diversity of your teams and organizational thought is directly related to success. Individuals often have difficulty understanding the big picture or don’t try to understand it. It is essential to find those who desire to broaden their perspective and look beyond the walls surrounding them. A closed-minded, siloed approach or opinion will lead to poor judgment and decision-making. We must be diverse in our thoughts and surround ourselves with those who see our blind spots while creating an environment or a space where people feel comfortable sharing their perspectives and can question decisions. Those individuals open to understanding, learning and growing as a person are those who executive leaders and decision-makers should gravitate to within our hiring and promotional processes.

Culture of humility

Humility is one of the essential traits of a human being. No one is perfect, and no one consistently makes excellent decisions. However, growth after a mistake is critical. Fire service leaders are looking for those individuals who acknowledge mistakes, accept the consequences and, most importantly, grow after the incident. Those who look in the mirror and value growth from failure are those we want to wear our patch and represent our organization. When we have a culture of humility, we will have a team that makes fewer mistakes because we are learning and growing together. Those who blame others and point fingers are toxic to your organization’s culture and will most likely fail to succeed in our service. Hiring and promoting those who lack humility will degrade your organizational success and resiliency.

Gauging these traits

With all this in mind, following are some tips for gauging these above-the-shoulder traits:

  • Interview questions: Ensure that you are asking questions that allow the candidate to speak about their morals and past experiences internally and externally to the profession.
  • Psychology and polygraph exams: These are critical parts of your process that should be taken seriously. Meet with your polygraph and phycologists and work together to ensure that they are gauging and analyzing the attributes that support your organizational mission and values.
  • Background investigations: Work closely with your investigators and review all background information. Please pay particular attention to how candidates handled adversity and challenges.
  • Input: Solicit input from internal and external sources. This input should be a part of your final decision.
  • Life experience: Your hiring and promotional process should allow the candidate to speak about real-life experiences. How those were handled can help with your overall evaluation.

It’s important to follow your gut, and don’t be afraid to take a chance. And don’t forget to use your probationary process. It’s there for a reason.

In sum

Fire service hiring and promotional decision-makers have one of the most critical roles in our organization’s success and resiliency. If we don’t hire and promote the right individuals, our organization and community will undoubtedly suffer. Retention of employees is connected to these decisions, so having a solid foundation for this decision is imperative.

Suppose you’re looking to get hired or promoted in our service. Understand that what is above your shoulders is the key to your success. A one-sided approach to what’s above the shoulders or below will hamper achieving your goal. Instead, have a balanced approach that values all aspects of you and what you can bring to the organization. Ultimately, it’s about service to others (not ourselves), and our actions, attitudes and decisions must reflect this.

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.