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FRI 2018 Quick Take: From buddy to boss, lessons for new fire officers

Attendees at Fire-Rescue International learn about the potential personnel issues and pitfalls new fire officers have a responsibility to mitigate


DALLAS — Only 20 percent of most fire officers’ time is spent managing incident response. The remaining 80 percent is spent on various administrative tasks, including personnel management. Unfortunately, while many departments train their new officers for managing a structure fire, they fail to adequately prepare them to put out personnel fires.

In his session, “Personnel Issues and Pitfalls for New Officers – The Administrative Second Alarm,” at Fire-Rescue International, Charles "Chuck" Ryan, Fairfax County (Va.) Fire & Rescue Department, helped attendees identify the hot button personnel issues that can be catastrophic to a new fire officer’s career and expose the agency to liability.

Firefighters think of the fire house as an inner sanctum, housing a unique camaraderie – a brother and sisterhood – and sometimes forget it’s a workplace. (Photo/Wikimedia Common)
Firefighters think of the fire house as an inner sanctum, housing a unique camaraderie – a brother and sisterhood – and sometimes forget it’s a workplace. (Photo/Wikimedia Common)

Top Quotes on fire officer personnel management

Here are some of Ryan’s top quotes on identifying and responding to personnel issues in the fire house.

“It’s the conduct, not the outcome that matters.”

“If it has any impact on performance of duty, then the employer is within its rights to act on it.”

 “Size up a personnel matter as if it’s a fire scene. Do the full 360, get the whole picture.”

Top Takeaways on fire department personnel matters

Ryan discussed several current issues every line officer should expect in his/her fire department and how to mitigate and manage station-level/small unit personnel matters, as well as the role external stakeholders have in fire department personnel matters. 

Here are the top takeaways from his presentation.

1. The fire station is a workplace, like any other

Firefighters think of the fire house as an inner sanctum, housing a unique camaraderie – a brother and sisterhood – and sometimes forget it’s a workplace, Ryan noted.

He sees the same personnel issues crop up in the fire services as he does with large corporate clients:

  • Harassment, bullying, retaliation and discrimination.
  • Allegations/instances of workplace violence.
  • Political discourse in the workplace.
  • Social media/social networking behaviors on duty and off duty.
  • Workplace discipline for personal legal matters.

“We have the same issues as people everywhere, whether it’s a five-person floral shop or Boing,” Ryan said.

2. The fire department is not a sovereign entity

Likewise, fire departments, personnel and officers have to answer to a higher entity. “I get  a lot of grimaces when I tell people this, but we are not a sovereign entity,” Ryan stressed. “We are employed by the governing municipal authority. We are assigned to the agency charged with fire suppression and/or EMS service.”

Why is this distinction significant? It means all of the governing municipality’s personnel rules apply, including:

  • Rules and regulations.
  • SOPs.
  • Standing orders.
  • General orders.
  • EMS protocols.
  • Interim medical directives.
  • Lawful orders from superior officers.

Agency-specific policies and procedures also apply.

All fire department personnel are charged with knowledge of all those personnel regulations, Ryan noted. It’s like the speeding ticket, he related. You can tell the officer you didn’t know the speed limit, but you’re still going to get the speeding ticket.

3. It’s your obligation as a fire officer to intervene in bad behavior

Ryan told attendees that as fire officers, they have an obligation to take action to stop bad behavior. “Let’s not put our heads in the sand. You can’t do that anymore,” he said. Prevent the administrative 911 call by nipping personnel matters in the bud, before they lead to workplace conflict or a beach of protocol.

Fire officers can’t tell personnel what they can and can’t post on social media, but they can be clear about the consequences for inappropriate posts. They can also enforce uniform guidelines to keep politically inflammatory clothing and “flair” out of the station, before they fan the flames of crew discord.

Similarly, officers have a responsibility to influence the culture to create a nourishing environment. “Do you think bullying exists somewhere in your agency? If any of you are shaking your head east and west, I’m sorry folks, but you’re wrong,” Ryan stressed. If your previous chief or officers have left you with a “rough and tumble culture,” signified by a kicking people in the pants rather than building people up, Ryan suggests you start working to change that culture immediately.

One of the hardest transitions for a fire officer is from riding backwards to riding forwards and realizing it’s a whole new world, Ryan said. It’s important to know the difference between buddy and boss. “You can never be faulted for taking action to stop bad behavior,” he said.

Additional Resources on fire officer personnel management

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