Achieving buy-in: How officers can connect members and mission
Leaders must work to build member trust and support in order to maintain strong morale that ultimately furthers the department mission
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By Adam Yelich
Over the past few years, I’ve had the honor of serving at many different organizations, ranging from a small combination department of 15 firefighters to a major metropolitan department of 1,800. While demographics change and run volumes vary, one factor that matters across departments is the buy-in of the rank and file. Their acceptance and willingness to actively support department initiatives is critical to long-term department success.
Three priorities for officers working to achieve buy-in among members: the mission, my troops and myself. Let’s explore all three and how they intersect.
The officer’s role in buy-in
It goes without saying that the backbone of the job is the membership – the brothers and sisters on the line, 24/7, 365. It is vital to listen to their voice, as this is the first step in achieving buy-in.
At the other end of the spectrum are the appointed or elected officials sitting in the front office. Administrations have agendas, and these officials are making decisions that affect the firefighters. But really, it’s the support of the firefighters that can either make or break that agenda. Some call this leadership from the ground up.
So who does this impact next, from either side? The senior firefighters and the officers. As an officer, the buy-in of YOUR firefighters depends on YOU. And the buy-in of your crew can and will affect the company’s performance on the fireground. After all, firefighters are more willing to push their limits on and off the fireground if they know they have the support of their peers and supervision.
Further, it’s critical to include firefighters in decision-making, as this can and will inspire them to look for opportunities to serve in decision-making roles. If you show your firefighters that you trust them, they will trust you. My go-to order I give is “handle it.” This instills trust and motivates my firefighters to be as educated and prepared for whatever they may encounter.
This all starts at the heart and soul of the firehouse – the kitchen table. An officer’s expectations must reflect the mission statement of the department. The officer must also be approachable and humble enough to hear what the firefighters expect from the officer. The kitchen table is a good place for officers to monitor member morale to ensure that everyone is “all in” on the department mission.
When is morale highest in the house? When we get to be firefighters. It may sound twisted to the average citizen, but you tend to see more smiles and hear more laughs after a good fire. You may see an uptick in healthy razzing back at the station after a successful extrication. Firefighters are inherently action-driven, so when we get to do the job we signed up to do, we are most satisfied and morale is strong.
Conversely, if run volumes are down, or it’s been a while since that last fire, you tend to hear more negativity from members. It’s hard to focus on the mission, protecting lives and property, when you haven’t had a chance to do it! This becomes a training issue.
Not only is it essential that we stay sharp on our skills during these lull periods, but it is essential to keep morale strong. Getting hot and sweaty may be a chore, but after relevant, realistic and challenging training, firefighters seem more upbeat. This reflects on the fireground, and the focus shifts back to the mission.
Officer or not, buy-in takes some soul-searching at times. Showing up early for work isn’t always easy. Some shifts you just want to survive your time and go home. This is the time to step back and take a moment and reflect on why you are here. We all got started in this career for a reason. Remaining positive all the time is unrealistic to ask of people when we are exposed to so much tragedy. But the buy-in of those around you may be enough to keep you focused on the bigger picture. The buy-in of each other as brothers and sisters may be enough to keep someone going. When everyone is “all in” on the bigger picture, the smaller issues seem to disappear.
So next time A-shift steals your ketchup, step back, relax, and remember this is still the best job in the world with some of the best people in the world.
About the Author
Adam Yelich is a second-generation firefighter and 11-year veteran of the fire service. His experiences range from a 16-year-old cadet on a combination department to a firefighter in Memphis, Tennessee, to a shift officer of an evolving rural/suburban fire department in southern Indiana. Yelich is a passionate instructor, holds Fire Officer 2, and serves as an FDIC HOT safety officer as well as a lead instructor of an engine-oriented HOT class taught in mid-central Indiana.