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Three steps to collaborative fire service leadership

An evolving skill set, a focus on communication and new approaches to firefighter training will help to change the culture in the fire service


A collaborative approach to leading will disturb the traditional hierarchy of top-down management. Our leaders will have to learn consensus building.


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“Why do we have to do this?” Many fire officers have been hearing this question more often in recent years. As leaders, there has to be a justifiable reason for why we do what we do. The excuse of “we always do it this way” is being seriously challenged today. From the fireground, to relationships in the fire house, the standard actions are being challenged.

Thirty years ago, leadership style shifted from autocratic to more democratic. Today, we are going to have to shift again to a more collaborative style of leadership. This collaborative approach may become the prevalent leadership mechanism in the fire service. A collaborative approach to leading will disturb the traditional hierarchy of top-down management. Our leaders will have to learn consensus building.

Training future leaders must include new approaches if we are to change our culture. The fire station environment needs to evolve dramatically because of all the past misbehaviors that have challenged diversity in the fire service. It will not be easy. There will be traditionalists who couldn’t see a good idea if it made them richer who will fight anything new.

Here are three steps to progressive, collaborative fire service leadership.

1. Focus on collaborative skills

Collaborative skills are something many adults don’t even have or know how to do.

Effective leaders will not always be successful in their endeavors. Training has to bridge the gap that sometimes exists between real life and education. Training has to link concepts to applicable situations in the real world. Some examples of collaborative skills include:

  • Ask for help
  • Ask for a favor
  • Give a compliment
  • Receive a compliment
  • Don’t take criticism personally
  • Debate the issue, not the person
  • Deal with anger
  • Be persuasive
  • Complete assignments on time

2. Change firehouse culture and communication

Without lowering physical or mental standards, we can embrace diversity, and firefighters will need to be able to work with diverse members in the future. Many of our members will need to clean up their acts. Some of the words used in the past are not acceptable today or in the future, which may require a major cultural change in thought process for some firefighters.

We are going to have to teach both young and old how to communicate with each other under this new organizational culture. Things you may have done in the past are not acceptable today (and actually weren’t acceptable in the past, but those actions were swept under the rug and ignored).

Change is not a minute too soon. Words can help or hurt. The smart aleck response is not the respectful way to treat each other. We will have to reinforce the words that we will be using in the future to talk to our peers and our leaders. We need to understand there is a larger audience in many cases other than those directly involved in the conversation. Developing communications skills will be critical to becoming an effective leader in the future.

Guide firefighters through pitching their ideas to the company one at a time. Provide constructive language to use when they don’t agree with one another. Model for them how to praise and critique. Then model the hardest thing of all: moving on. We need to let things in the past remain in the past.

We will be challenging the way we look at ourselves under this new culture. What is unacceptable? Why? What is the justification of why we won’t accept certain things? Are they justifiable? Will our opposition stand up under scrutiny? We will have to answer the question “why?”

“Not every silence requires an immediate answer.” We were taught in Instructor class to use a pause to elicit a response from students. It is the silence that allows for thought. Taking that a step further, by pausing, you have created a space for student problem solving. Be the guide who helps others find the answers, instead of being the go-to person who has all the answers. Move your own responses from “This means” to “What if?” Changing the way we communicate within our team will allow for more collaboration.

3. Make firefighter training ‘edutaining’

There’s a new generation of firefighters entering our departments. Born after 1995, they have never known a world without the Internet. They’ve had smart phones since they were barely teens. Their arrival is changing the way we interact, lead and teach.

Today’s new firefighters are more focused on the outcome than an intrinsic interest in the course material. They want to know how the material is relevant to them and their goals. Firefighters want training that is:

  • Relevant
  • Structured
  • Outcome based
  • Hands on
  • Intense
  • Informative
  • Fun

We have to tell them why the material we’re teaching them is important and worth their time. How is it relevant to their lives and the job? They need textbooks and reading material that recognizes how they have learned to absorb material – not in long, text-heavy static books, but in short, readable passages interspersed with interactive activities and videos. I call it the “20 minute chunk.”

What firefighters want and need may differ. We will have to make education “edutaining” to teach them what they need to know. I began using this word about 10 years ago because I realized in my classes, the most successful instructors were those who were able to mix substance with humor or storytelling. Students flocked to those kind of instructors and they learned more.

It’s tough to keep up with generational changes. But with a little extra work, we can find information that is relevant, engaging and interesting.

This article originally posted on Nov. 13, 2018. It has been updated.

Chief John M. Buckman III served 35 years as fire chief for the German Township (Indiana) Volunteer Fire Department, and 15 years as director of the fire and public safety academy for the Indiana State Fire Marshal Office. He is the Director of Government and Regional Outreach for Buckman is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and a co-founder of the IAFC Volunteer and Combination Officers Section. In 1996, Fire Chief Magazine named Buckman Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year. Buckman is an accomplished photographer, a co-author of the Lesson Learned from Fire-Rescue Leaders, and the editor of the Chief Officers Desk Reference. He is also the owner of Wildfire Productions. Buckman is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Chief Buckman on LinkedIn or via email.