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Conducting successful fire department staff meetings

A properly planned and managed staff meeting provides the opportunity to reinforce the vision of both the leader and the organization


Photo/Jason Caughey

By Robert L. Ridgeway, Fire Chief (retired), BS, MS, EFO, Harvard Fellow, CFO

Are your department’s staff meetings productive, or are they simply a waste of time? Unfortunately, too many meetings fall into the latter category.

I once worked for a boss whose idea of conducting staff meetings was as follows: Every few months, he would contact the various departments under his purview and say, “We’re going to have a staff meeting at 14:00 this Friday.” When we arrived for the meeting, he would proceed to go around the room and ask, “What’s going in the fire department?” or “What’s going on in the police department?” And then he wondered why most of the department heads would make some excuse to not attend whenever possible, instead sending some poor proxy in their place. These “meetings” accomplished absolutely nothing; they were a check-the-box exercise.

A properly planned and managed staff meeting provides the opportunity to reinforce the vision of both the leader and the organization while serving as an excellent teambuilding tool. It can help the chief improve transparency within the department and build trust within the team. But that will be hard to accomplish if the meeting lacks purpose and some level of planning.

Who should attend FD staff meetings?

Before staff meetings are scheduled, you must identify who should attend. Generally, you want as few people as possible, but you also want to ensure that all of the relevant people are present. This means the personnel with responsibilities for controlling the major parts and functions of the department should be present – a representative from Operations, EMS, Prevention, Education, Staff support, Public Information and other positions as needed. The secretary should also be present, as should any specialized personnel with intimate knowledge of important projects. The number of personnel present at a typical fire department staff meeting is 8–12 people, but this number will vary based on the size and complexity of the organization.

If you have volunteer or paid on-call personnel, a representative from this group should also attend. In departments with a labor organization, consider inviting a union representative. To some people, this may seem like “letting the wolf in the henhouse,” but I have found that having a labor representative present at staff meetings can help to build trust between labor and management, and can assist in avoiding problems in the future.

Staff meeting ground rules

Adequate preparation for the meeting requires the consideration of several items beforehand:

  • Preparation and distribution of a meeting agenda
  • Meeting time and place
  • Meeting decorum
  • Participation expectations
  • Reaching closure and consensus on action items
  • Meeting notes and distribution

Preparation and distribution of a meeting agenda: The key to conducting a successful meeting rests in the preparation, which includes drafting a simple one-page agenda that lists the items to be discussed and/or acted upon at the meeting. If ongoing projects are to be discussed, those projects can be included as an attachment. Supporting information may be included as either attachments or referrals to websites as needed.

Suggested formats for both the meeting agenda and the ongoing projects list are illustrated below.

Staff Meeting Agenda.png
Ongoing Projects.png

The agenda and the updated ongoing projects list should be prepared and distributed several days before the scheduled meeting so that meeting participants can have time to prepare and be able to report on their areas of responsibility. The agenda and the ongoing projects list should be distributed to all attendees, as well as to all stations and work units of the department. The key here is to foster good communications and transparency throughout the organization, as well as to solicit any ideas and suggestions the rank and file may have on the listed items.

Meeting time and place (and creature comforts): The staff meeting should be located in a quiet area, free from distractions and noise to the extent possible. The key here is to eliminate interference, so that business can get accomplished without interruptions.

The meeting schedule should be set in advance, so there’s never any confusion about when meetings will be held. I found that a schedule of twice per month worked well, and scheduled staff meetings for the first and third Tuesday of every month.

Meetings should always start on time and end on time, and should generally last no more than two hours.

Coffee, water and possibly snack should be available. However, attendees should be discouraged from bringing bags of food into the meeting, as the smell and noise of people eating can be distracting and interfere with the purpose of the meeting.

Meeting decorum and etiquette: Proper meeting etiquette requires that participants arrive on time and come prepared to discuss the items on the agenda. They should also be expected to behave respectfully and professionally, listen attentively, and take part in discussions without interrupting. We can disagree with each other on a topic without being disagreeable personally. The fire chief normally functions as the person in charge, or the moderator, of the staff meeting. In that capacity, they should encourage active participation by all participants, and ensure that everyone has a turn to speak.

Interruptions during the meeting should be kept to a minimum. Phones and radios should be turned off and only activated for emergencies. The moderator should also ensure that the meeting follows the agenda and that the discussion doesn’t get off-track.

Participation expectations: There’s a fine line between controlling the discussion and gate keeping. ‘Gate keeping’ is when a topic is allowed – or not allowed – to be discussed. If an attendee attempts to start a discussion that is clearly off track from the subject, the Moderator should gently steer the conversation back to the subject at hand.

All personnel should be encouraged to speak their minds and offer their suggestions without fear of retribution, or without becoming argumentative or disagreeable. The Moderator should control the meeting and not allow one person to dominate the discussion, while drawing out quieter attendees and asking for their input.

Reaching closure and consensus on action items: Some action items, such as those currently listed as ongoing projects, will require more than one meeting to resolve. Leaders of those items should provide regular updates as to progress being made, report on the project being on track for completion, and notify the moderator if the resources needed to complete the project are sufficient.

Items addressed for possible implementation should be thoroughly discussed, and all attendees should be given the opportunity for input and agreement reached on solutions and implementation. The moderator should always attempt to achieve consensus on controversial items. Consensus is reached when those attendees who initially argued against the agreed upon solution to the issue now agree to (and will support) the final solution. Consensus can be tested by playing the “Devil’s Advocate” or by taking the opposite side of the issue and asking the attendees their opinions. If all attendees argue for the agreed upon solution, you have consensus.

This method is more time-consuming than simply making the decision yourself, but it is incredibly valuable for more controversial items. The original naysayers will often become the biggest proponents of changes reached through consensus, as they had a hand in the final solution.

Meeting notes and distribution: Once all agenda items have been completed, the moderator should go around the table one more time, summarize the actions taken during the meeting, and ask if anyone has any further questions or comments. Items that may need further discussion can be placed on the agenda for the next staff meeting. Once that’s completed, the moderator should then adjourn the meeting.

After the meeting, the secretary or admin should complete preparation of the notes from the meeting and then send to the chief/moderator for final review and editing. The goal here is not for the chief to change any actions that were taken, but rather to ensure that the notes are clear and concise as to final resolution of any actions taken.

Once finalized, the meeting notes should be distributed to all attendees, as well as to all stations and work units within the department. Ideally, this distribution should occur within a few days of the meeting. Once the meeting notes are received in all work units, the supervisors of each unit should sit down with their personnel, review the actions taken, and solicit any possible input for the next staff meeting. The chief and other staff officers will know this has been done, based upon comments and/or questions they receive from personnel when they conduct routine station or work unit visits.

While meetings are not typically a fan favorite, they can be productive places to gather and collaborate, if managed well
Tips for who to invite, where to hold the meeting and what to discuss at this opportunity for open and honest discussion

Final thoughts

The key to a successful staff meeting rests in the preparation done in advance by all attendees, starting with the fire chief. The chief has the responsibility to ensure that the staff meeting is productive. When properly planned for, the meeting affords attendees the opportunity to discuss department issues, share information and participate in decision-making, thus improving communication and transparency throughout the department.


Chief Robert Ridgeway served in public safety services for over 50 years. His service included 22 years as a fire chief for four fire departments. He also served as a training program manager for the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) at the Naval Education and Training Command (NETC) for nine years. Prior to his retirement, Ridgeway served on several national committees for both the NFPA and the International Association of Fire Chiefs.