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Three qualities needed to succeed as a firefighter

A sense of responsibility, trustworthiness and a positive attitude are three steps to succeed in your personal life and a career in the fire service

Firefighters who demonstrate responsible behavior, trust in themselves and others, while maintaining a positive attitude will advance their career, their department and the fire service regardless of limitations or hardships.

Listen to this article on the Fair Reach Forum – a firefighting podcast to inspire discussion.

Many individual and cultural factors contribute to successful career development: determination, willingness to learn, political savvy, professionalism and more. Above all others are three qualities necessary for both personal and professional development:

  1. A sense of responsibility
  2. Trustworthiness
  3. A positive attitude

Lacking any of these three qualities means a stalled life, if not a prematurely finished career. Defining these three traits is easy; applying them to life and a career in the fire service is the challenge.

1. A sense of responsibility

As a rookie firefighter, you are likely to raise your hand to acknowledge every mistake made. In your mind, putting gas in a diesel tank, leaving the halyard untied or buying the wrong size bag of corn chips is grounds for retribution. Like it or not, as a rookie, you have acquired accountability while protecting lunch.

Being imperfect in a world that seeks precision through training and experience is a daunting and sometimes frustrating experience, especially when you are new. This is the burden of a firefighter’s knowledge curve.

Learning from your mistakes by candid assessment and correcting errors betters yourself and ultimately those around you, including the department you serve. Uncomfortable at times, this methodology is nonetheless understood and appreciated by all members of the fire service. Honesty promotes progress.

Some firefighters find it easier to stand still and wait. When asked who ripped the jump seat after the last fire, these firefighters are mute, and it works to keep them safe. The seat gets repaired, everyone puts away hand tools properly after every call and the station goes back to normal, however guarded.

But normal is not where firefighters work and live. Such scenarios are early evidence that a team is lacking synergy. The whole is not greater than the sum of its parts and individual behavior replaces teamwork in an atmosphere where both are lackluster. Such dysfunctional behavior can prevent any task from being completed, and individual achievements will be minimal at best.

By not taking responsibility for a ripped seat, the odds against accountability increase exponentially when applying the same behavior to different situations down the road. Such omission creates injustice and greater harm than any admission of miscalculation or error.

Imagine ignoring an inappropriate tactic on the fireground and allowing it to develop into a high-risk strategy simply because you cannot or will not acknowledge that a straight-forward mistake has been made. The risk intensifies when corrections are not understood.

Staying safe does not apply to hiding mistakes or avoiding responsibility. The cornerstone of leadership is the ability to admit blunders and change course immediately; knowing that without such revelations – honesty will deteriorate – not immediately, but eventually. This penalty is far greater than the limited consequences of taking responsibility for an error in judgement or action.

2. Trustworthiness

Trust is the lynch pin of the fire service. Whether it is on the fireground or in the office, promises made must be promises kept. Whether you are waiting for a ventilation crew or you need support for a budget request, you want to believe that taking responsibility for all ideas – good or bad, effective or debilitating – is acceptable within your culture of leadership. Department values should be reinforced by the ability to depend on those around you.

There are some who are so busy “taking care of No. 1” that commitment and dependability become circumstantial and secondary to their personal benefit. Quick to take credit for success and faster to point fingers in the face of blame; these are the firefighters that present a direct challenge to the elements of accountability and trust within a fire department.

Lacking consistent moral direction and absent any ethical decision-making criteria, these individuals are eventually drawn inward, creating a sense of isolation for everyone in contact with their actions. Remoteness is confused with separation – another casualty of disintegrating trust.

This form of personal inaccessibility results in a collective micro-management style implemented in an effort to justify all decisions not made; a futile effort to be protected from all threats – real and imagined.

Here is the very definition of paranoia. It is as insidious as it is pervasive. Nothing gets done and it is everyone else’s fault. Worse – if things are going well, then something must be really wrong.

While a new generation of firefighters may argue that trust should be awarded until proven otherwise, it is far more prudent to prevent opportunities to be disappointed or endangered. The fire service must abide by the tried and true formula that allows for proof by example. Generational prejudices aside, this is the only way a firefighter can achieve peer respect, the ultimate byproduct of trust and a hard day’s work.

Trust comes from a continuing sense of responsibility, the decisions it advances, and a commitment to a calling higher than any individual, as teamwork is exalted above all else.

3. A positive attitude

If responsibility is the cornerstone and trust is the lynchpin in our service to others, then attitude is the lubricant by which all things move forward. Without a positive attitude; lethargy, excuses and doubt grow within their own momentum.

A bad attitude is like the proverbial rotten apple – it corrupts everything and everybody around it. So often you hear that things are bad morale wise, but a good fire will change everything. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

While a meaningful call can change the atmosphere for a moment, it never lasts regardless of hope and need. A large incident only helps in magnifying an already weak situation, serving not to focus on the overall outcome but able to bring to light all of the miniscule elements of selfish behavior and inaccessible decision-making. The critique of such an event turns into a negative reflection.

In the beginning, we all have great attitudes. We imagine our career like a movie. But in the movies, they don’t show the four hours of salvage and overhaul for every 20 minutes of knockdown.

The reality of lives lost and property destroyed despite the best intentions and all the right choices.

Knowing what the job of firefighter is really about and mentoring its conditions and revelations are the necessary components needed to advance attitudes toward constructive behaviors and supportive actions.

Firefighters who demonstrate responsible behavior, trust in themselves and others, while maintaining a positive attitude will advance their career, their department and the fire service regardless of limitations or hardships.

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advised businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing won six IAFF Media Awards. Many of Spell’s articles are available by podcast at His last book was titled “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell passed away in April 2024 after a short battle with cancer. His last four articles detailed his cancer journey.