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Re-engage the ‘boots on the ground’: Communications within the modern fire service

Follow simple steps to build connections between fire service leaders and the newest generation of firefighters


“Just like any successful relationship, whether personal or professional, it all starts and ends with communication,” writes Botting.

Photo/Delray Beach Fire Rescue

Communicating in today’s fire service is different than it was for past generations of firefighters. We are bombarded with texts, tweets and other messages in a social media overload – a highly different experience than communicating via phone or face-to-face.

Many new firefighters are so text-savvy and accustomed to tech-driven communications that they may even avoid personal interaction. The problem: Texts can cause miscommunication and remove the personal nature that exemplified the fire service for so long – the connections among brother and sister firefighters.

And fire service leaders are also employing more tech-driven communications. I often see high-level fire service personnel send an email to their peers even when there was an opportunity for an in-person conversation. It is clear to me that the more teambuilding-inclusive approach to communications is becoming lost.

Following are some steps to re-engage with “boots on the ground” approach, starting from the top and working down the ranks to probationary firefighters.

  • Don’t forget where you came from: As upper management, fire service leaders must make a concerted effort to step back and re-engage in the world of emergency services/operations. We can become detached from the daily grind realities and find ourselves stationary behind two computer monitors. This may not be what we signed up for, but one way or another, this is where the path has led us. What’s most important is not to forget where you came from – what drove you from the beginning to become a firefighter. This motivation is crucial for your success as a leader within the organization to remain relevant and keep a pulse on what matters most – the firefighters who work hard every day to provide the best service to the communities they serve.
  • Communicate in their language: We need to identify the common jargon for the firefighters of today to be able to relate to their wants and needs. You MUST speak their language and get your message across. You need to use the tools in your department’s toolbox, including social media. If we continue to communicate on a level that is not as easily understood by them, the message will be lost or totally misinterpreted. If you can communicate effectively, the newest generation of firefighters will spearhead the vision and goals not only for today but also tomorrow. Embrace their differences and step out of your comfort zone to get the outcome you desire. Use their nomenclature to your benefit.
  • Empathy is crucial: Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. As a leader, you need to have empathy for your people and the situations they may be facing. There is “no fake it ‘til you make it” with empathy because firefighters will see through it, and you will lose credibility.
  • Buy-in: We often like to throw these words around, but do we truly know what they mean? Buy-in is the acceptance and willingness to actively support and participate. Buy-in is a vision or goal that is put forth to an organization and being able to have the members truly believe that same vision and goal and want to participate. Fire service leaders must remember that the vision and the goal need to be believed by themselves, then achieve follow through with accountability and responsibility. To change the culture and to get buy-in, there can’t be just lip service; it has to be believed.

It all starts and ends with communication

These four tips may seem like common sense, but our job as we know it is not. We need to ensure that we provide all the tools and resources to the firefighters of today for their successes of tomorrow. Just like any successful relationship, whether personal or professional, it all starts and ends with communication. Now it is your job as a leader to make sure that you are checking off all those boxes. Maybe you can do it via Tweet, Instagram or What’s App – at least that’s what they tell me.

Chantal Botting is the deputy fire chief for Fort Lauderdale (Florida) Fire Rescue. Botting has been with the department for 25 years, having served in every rank within operations as well as various administration bureaus, including EMS, Training and Support Services. She has a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership and a master’s degree in executive management. Botting has retained the CFO designation and is a graduate of the Fire Service Executive Development Institute (FSEDI) through the IAFC.