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Are you a bad officer or a good officer in a bad department?

From department culture to personal self-reflection, several factors can help you answer the question


Photo/Bob Perier, Portland Fire & Rescue

By Michael Marra

In the high-stakes world of firefighting, leadership is not just about commanding orders; it’s about fostering a culture of safety, trust and excellence within the department. But what happens when the department itself is plagued by challenges? How does one discern whether they’re a bad officer in a good department or a good officer in a bad department? Let’s delve into this complex issue and explore strategies for navigating leadership in challenging environments.

Assessing department culture

First and foremost, it’s essential to take a critical look at the department’s culture. Is there a commitment to training, safety protocols and continuous improvement? Are communication channels open and transparent? Is there mutual respect among team members? Assessing these aspects can provide insights into the overall health of the department.


As a fire officer, self-reflection is key. Evaluate your leadership style, decision-making process and interactions with team members. Are you effectively advocating for your team? Are you prioritizing their safety and wellbeing? Honest self-assessment can help determine whether you’re contributing positively to the department’s culture or perpetuating its challenges.

Leading by example

Regardless of the department’s circumstances, exemplary leadership can make a significant impact. Lead by example by adhering to safety protocols, actively engaging in training, and demonstrating integrity in your actions. Your behavior sets the tone for the entire team and can inspire others to strive for excellence despite challenges.

Seeking solutions

While it’s crucial to acknowledge the department’s shortcomings, focus on solutions rather than dwelling on problems. Collaborate with fellow officers and firefighters to identify areas for improvement and implement actionable steps to address them. Whether it’s advocating for increased resources, refining operational procedures or enhancing training programs, proactive problem-solving can help elevate the department’s performance.

Supporting your team

In challenging environments, the importance of supporting your team cannot be overstated. Be attentive to their needs, listen to their concerns, and provide guidance and mentorship when necessary. Building a supportive team dynamic fosters resilience and unity, enabling firefighters to navigate obstacles collectively.

Making tough decisions

As a leader, you may be faced with difficult decisions that impact the department and its members. Whether it’s allocating resources, implementing policy changes or addressing disciplinary issues, prioritize the wellbeing of both the team and the community. Seek input from relevant stakeholders, weigh the consequences carefully and uphold the values of integrity and accountability.

Embracing continuous improvement

Even in the most challenging circumstances, there is always room for growth and improvement. Embrace a mindset of continuous learning and adaptation, both individually and as a department. Stay abreast of industry best practices, engage in professional development opportunities, and remain open to constructive feedback. By constantly evolving and striving for excellence, you can help lead your department through adversity towards a brighter future.

Final thoughts

The question of whether you’re a bad officer in a good department or a good officer in a bad department is nuanced and multifaceted. By critically assessing the department’s culture, engaging in self-reflection, leading by example, seeking solutions, supporting your team, making tough decisions and embracing continuous improvement, you can navigate leadership challenges effectively and make a positive impact, regardless of the circumstances.

Remember, true leadership shines brightest in the face of adversity.

About the author

Michael Marra is a 24-year career firefighter with the Department of Defense. He currently serves as a captain with the Joint Base Fire Department in New Jersey and volunteers with the Wayside Fire Company in Tinton Falls, New Jersey.