7 ways to recognize your fire department’s top performers

The best feedback is timely, relevant, specific and actionable


All fire department personnel, from the probationary firefighter to seasoned firefighters and from company officers to the chief, appreciate feedback and recognition for their job performance.

Don’t let a department culture of “just doing the job” stoicism be an excuse to brush aside feedback as something just for younger generations. As a supervisor, mentor, leader or aspiring leader, you have a responsibility to recognize the top performers on your apparatus, ambulance, crew, company or department.

Whether directed at top performance or poor performance, the best feedback is timely, relevant, specific and actionable. In my experience, we are quick to critique but slow to give praise. You can recognize a job well done in the moment, in the hot wash after an incident, and during regular intervals, such as quarterly performance reviews or annual department reports. Feedback also needs to be honest and delivered with a tone of sincerity.

Look for opportunities to nominate your top performers for intra-department, local, state or national awards.
Look for opportunities to nominate your top performers for intra-department, local, state or national awards. (Photo/Getty)

Here are seven ways to recognize top performers in your department, but don’t limit yourself to these ideas.

1. Catch them doing good

The best way to identify top performance is to be out and about among the firefighters. “Management by walking around” is most useful when supported by the data you are collecting to recognize good performance, then using that data to improve processes and opportunities for others to do great work. Observe firefighters doing their jobs, completing tasks and serving the community. If you see a firefighter or company doing good work, tell them specifically the good work you saw and why that work matters.

Because you can’t be at every fire alarm, structure fire, ambulance run, fire inspection, training event or community education program, it’s important to regularly read incident reports, electronic patient care reports and evaluations. If your department's volume is high, develop a system to spot check a certain number of reports each day or week. Use your review as an opportunity to recognize a well-written patient care narrative or a novel approach to solving a problem.

There isn’t much that tops specific, timely feedback from an immediate supervisor or department leader. If you can, deliver feedback face-to-face. If that’s not possible, send an email, text message or even a handwritten note.

Chief tip: Keep a box of “From the Chief” cards on your desk. A handwritten note with a chief's challenge coin might become a memento a firefighter keeps their entire career.

2. Tokens of appreciation

Just like major events (e.g., severe on-duty injury or apparatus crash) trigger an automatic review, there should be events that trigger automatic recognition. These events, from the routine to once a career, are worth recognizing with a card, certificate or pin:

  • Baby delivery
  • Cardiac arrest save
  • Opioid overdose save
  • Limb save with tourniquet application
  • Structure fire rescue
  • Work anniversaries

What events would you add to the list? Share in the comments below.

Like birthdays, work anniversaries should be celebrated every year, not just every five or 10 years. Longevity and retention are worth recognizing in a chief’s memo to the department, in-station display monitors, and with personalized emails or notes. And, yes, a cash bonus or gift card to a local store or restaurant is additional recognition for annual anniversaries. A personalized plaque, helmet shield or axe is a great gift to recognize career milestones like 20 years, 30 years or retirement. But don’t wait until the end of a firefighter’s career to thank them for their service to the community.

3. Celebrate survival

Every department should extend an annual invite to survivors of sudden cardiac arrest, as well as major trauma or rescue from a structure fire, to a reunion event with their rescuers. Remember, the top reason most people pursue a career in public safety is to serve their community and help others. There is no better recognition of the call to serve others than to meet the people whose lives were saved by your personnel. Reunions can be public or private events and should include all the public safety personnel involved in the save, including dispatchers.

Chief tip: A reunion can be an emotional event for all who are involved. Give your personnel a chance to meet privately with the person they saved and their family before any public-facing component of the celebration.

4. Mentor or champion

Strong performance by a firefighter or fire officer is an indicator of both current work and future potential. Recognize a top performer by offering to be their mentor or champion. Meet with them to envision their aspirations and ambitions. Regularly meeting with them, as well as connecting them to other people and opportunities, is a way to recognize their performance, strengthen your organization and bolster the profession.

5. Select or recruit

Recognize top performance by selecting or recruiting those personnel for advanced training opportunities, special assignments, or committees. Though continuous learning is commonly associated with millennials, a desire to learn and strengthen skills is a universal trait. If given the opportunity within a department culture that embraces continuous improvement, most people will appreciate opportunities to increase their knowledge, grow their skill set and hone their abilities.

If committee assignments are seen as punishment or drudgery in your department, work on fixing the way committees are chartered and operated before using a committee assignment as recognition for a top performer. Committees that are well run, have clear responsibilities and make specific impacts on the department have value for the organization as well as professional development potential for the committee members.

6. Announce to the public

Make it a habit to regularly share the great work being done by department personnel with the public through press releases, social posts, annual reports and stakeholder updates. In each message, whether it is a five-paragraph press release or a 240-word tweet, include the who, what, when, why and how of the event or incident that led to the recognition. Your local media, as well as the citizens you serve, are hungry for good news. Announce:

  • Promotions and work anniversaries
  • Completion of new certifications and degrees
  • Noteworthy rescues and saves
  • Collaborations with social workers or public health

Yes, it is great to announce the receipt of a new fire apparatus or the purchase of mechanical CPR devices. But make sure to include the committee members who led the needs analysis, determined specifications, met with vendors, and implemented new training on the apparatus or device.

Chief tip: Always have ideas for the media by keeping a card in your pocket or a note on your phone of potential stories for your PIO or to share with media personnel who contact you directly.

7. Nominate for awards

As a company officer, battalion chief, assistant chief or chief, look for opportunities to nominate your top performers for intra-department, local, state or national awards. Match the award program criteria, such as EMT of the year or advocate of the year, to the top performers in your department. Most award programs offer a short online nomination form and, in my experience, coworkers, immediate supervisors and mentors are glad to assist in writing a support letter for a nominee. It is usually easier to support recognition for someone else than seek out recognition for yourself.

Look for award programs beyond the national award programs from the IAFC, IAFF, CFSI and NAEMT. Department, regional or state awards might have more perceived value to the award winners, as they are being recognized by the people whom they are more likely to know.

Chief tip: Many award programs receive very few nominees, and most people will truthfully say, “It was an honor to be nominated.” Keep a running list of your top performers so you can nominate them for awards.

Recognition is your job

Giving feedback, especially for work done well or above expectations, is a critical part of every supervisor's job. As you climb the organizational ladder, it might get harder to regularly see on-the-ground performance, but that is an easily overcome obstacle. Here’s how:

  • Have a mindset that giving deserved and earned praise is part of your job.
  • Solicit suggestions from others – peers, supervisors, trainers, the medical director, patients and the public – with a question like, “Who impressed you and why?” or “What have you seen recently that really impressed you?”
  • Make it easy for examples of high performance to reach you. Many organizations send out satisfaction surveys to patients that ask for feedback about the quality of care they received.
  • Share handwritten cards and gifts the department receives from citizens on social accounts. Recognition for good deeds begets more good deeds and more recognition.

Feedback rules and guidelines

Depending on your organization type, keep in mind and follow any workplace rules, state laws or federal laws for recognizing workplace performance. For example, gifts over a certain cash value, training opportunities or committee assignments may be governed by the collective bargaining agreement.

Feedback should always be fair, transparent and inclusive. If two firefighters of different races or genders achieve the same performance level, they should both receive equal recognition.

Finally, individual success in any business, including a fire department, is almost always a team success. EMS calls have two or more providers and fire calls have a dozen or more. Though a single firefighter might make the heroic rescue of a child from a burning building, they were part of a team that made it possible for them to enter the building, rescue the child and hand-off the child to medical personnel. Whenever possible recognize the team with the individual.

Editor’s note: How do you give recognition to the top performers in your department? What was a method of recognition you appreciated?

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