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5 rules for firehouse leadership

Hire the right people, lead through example and show appreciation to develop a company of firefighters who exhibit strong values


When a leader establishes trust within the company, it truly shows.


There are many ways to show appreciation to firefighters:

Managing people can be complex and demanding, but I think the underlying rules are simple – and I have five rules:

1. Treat firefighters like adults unless they act like children

Policies and rules are not effective if they never come off the shelf until we need to discipline someone.

When discussing performance management, we should encourage people to be working for the betterment of their co-workers and the overall organization.

If all you use policy for is to stop people who are not working effectively, then we have a leadership challenge.

2. Hire the right person

Hire for attitude and train for performance. It is critical that we hire good people, no exceptions. There are processes to hiring and those are important, but ensure those processes are hiring the right kind of people. You advertise, then hire the best applicant.

3. Deal with staff problems immediately

This is a key to reducing conflicts within an organization. Not dealing with the little things will mean those little things will expand to bigger things that will require more attention, time and energy.

Leaders must learn to give regular, friendly and frank feedback. Nobody likes firing people, but if the person isn’t going to improve, you need to deal with it.

4. Hire people smarter than you

Effective leadership requires the leader to have a diverse staff with various backgrounds that enhance the capability of the staff.

There is one constant in organizational success: everyone who creates a high performing company hires good people.

If you hire people smarter than you, they will probably do the same – and your organization gets smarter.

5. Say ‘thank you’

People need authentic, genuine praise for a job well done. Make an effort to appreciate your firefighters’ performance every day with every person who reports to you.

The appreciation must be sincere. You’ll get a more receptive audience when you have to take a disciplinary action. Discipline is about correcting behavior, not about punishment.

Why firefighter behaviors persist

Aspirational values almost always come from the top. Though most firefighters care what leadership thinks of them, they are actually quite rational in paying attention to what leadership does, not what they say.

Behavior will persist long-term if it is being perpetuated by either a positive or a negative reinforcement.

As departments grow or become more disconnected from upper leadership, firefighter behavior and values are influenced by their company officers’ behavior. Over time, firefighters become aware of and quickly learn the “rules of the game” to survive and thrive.

Leaders set the company’s values  –  not by what they write on the wall, but in how they actually act:

  • Are they committed to customer service?
  • Do they enact their values when encountering Mrs. Smith?

These behaviors become socialized, and rank-and-file firefighters take their cues from leaders and act accordingly. There are so many examples of how leaders talk the talk but don’t walk the walk and they wonder why their company does not perform at their highest potential. Leadership must remember, your microphone is always on.

Don’t forget customer service is a huge part of our personal, company and organizational values. Attitude impacts our ability to operate within our values at all times.

We exist to help Mrs. Smith in whatever event she asks us to help her; it is not an inconvenience to the fire crew when she calls.

Your company’s firefighters practice the behaviors that are valued, not the values you believe. Leadership should do the responsible thing: actively prioritize behavior that’s congruent with department values.

As the old saying goes, you reap what you sow. As leaders, you get the behavior that you reward. Leaders who don’t walk the talk lose trust. If you want your company members to display certain behaviors, you need to display them first. You cannot ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself.

Very few managers are leaders. The difference between the two? A manager is someone who people report to. A leader is someone who people will follow. What separates the two is the trust and respect of their people.

When a leader establishes trust within the company, it truly shows. Team members feel secure in sharing their opinions without the fear of judgment or retribution, freely share information and openly collaborate on projects. They know if the leader pushes them, it’s with their best interests in mind. The result? Highly motivated and productive firefighters.

Chief John M. Buckman III served 35 years as fire chief for the German Township (Indiana) Volunteer Fire Department, and 15 years as director of the fire and public safety academy for the Indiana State Fire Marshal Office. He is the Director of Government and Regional Outreach for Buckman is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and a co-founder of the IAFC Volunteer and Combination Officers Section. In 1996, Fire Chief Magazine named Buckman Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year. Buckman is an accomplished photographer, a co-author of the Lesson Learned from Fire-Rescue Leaders, and the editor of the Chief Officers Desk Reference. He is also the owner of Wildfire Productions. Buckman is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Chief Buckman on LinkedIn or via email.