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Are officers allowed to have a bad day?

We can’t allow a bad day to be that reason one of our members doesn’t go home


“As a leader, your crew cannot afford for you to have a bad day, as you could put their lives at further risk,” writes Sedlacek.

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By Michael Sedlacek

When I was growing up, my parents would often give these little directives or admonishments, many of which were common for kids to hear:

  • “Start what you finish.”
  • “Chew your food – and stop eating so fast!”
  • “Close that door – you’re letting all the heat out.”

There was one phrase that really stuck with me, though – one my uncle had shared with my mother years before. He has been working in Cleveland emergency rooms for years, so you know he has seen some stuff. When someone would tell him they were having a bad day, he would simply say, “Make it a good day. The choice is yours.”

I heard this in my head for years, but it took me a long time to have the proper context to really understand the power I held over my day. I did try my best to make conscious decisions to better my day whenever I was having a rough one, but I needed tools. I would too often become a “victim” of my day or circumstance and would be left wondering why or how I ended up in a mental or emotional hole.

Recently I was visiting family and had the opportunity to see my uncle. I let him know that I remembered his words from my childhood. He laughed and then added to his previous guidance: “You can have a bad 10 minutes or a bad hour. But the decision to have a whole bad day or a good day is totally on you.”

Your bad day

Now let’s bring this concept into the firehouse. Ask yourself this question: As an officer, is it OK for you to have a bad day?

I am sure that many of you answered “Yes, of course,” because we are all human, right? We can’t have a perfect day every day, and none of us ever do. That being said, I would argue that we gave up our right to have a bad day when we promoted.

Leadership 101 tells us that as officers, we are the ones who set the tone for our station – and our day. One unchecked bad day can begin “the bad decision cycle.” It’s like once you tell the lie, you have to keep telling the lie, or you have to dig yourself out with the truth. One bad decision starts a cycle that you have to catch up from – you’re working from behind the proverbial 8 ball.

Let’s consider the question from another angle. If you were the one who had to make an injury or LODD notification to one of your crew’s family members, and they asked you the cause of the event, could you tell them it was because you made a bad decision due to your bad day?

As an officer, your people place a high measure of trust in you and your leadership ability to get them home after every shift. They give YOU partial responsibility for their lives. Your organization has signed off on your ability to make decisions under pressure and stress. Every member of your crew is ready and willing to follow orders from you, their officer. You won’t have to convince them, poke or prod at that moment. There is no need for a motivational speech or battle cry. You simply give the order, and they move.

We must remember at all times that our crews are more than just firefighters. They are mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, friends and colleagues, the list goes on. When we connect those dots, our responsibility becomes even more sobering. If your order is not clearly and strategically thought out or you are not in the correct mental space, your order could be the cause of a misplaced sacrifice.

We can’t allow a bad word or day to be that reason. In our line of work, we see tragedy and death, but we cannot allow our personal bad day to be the reason that sorrow touches our department.

Refocus your mindset

This is not meant to scare you but rather refocus your mindset.

Everyone has their own brand of conflict resolution, and many books address how to deal with adversity. However, there are other, more positive perspectives for refocusing our mindset. One in particular is rooted in the “law of attraction.” Simply put, when I focus on the things that are going wrong, everything seems to go wrong. When I focus on the things that are positive, the bad things don’t slow down my positivity.

Think back on the worst day you’ve had in recent history and analyze how your attitude played a part in it. Now if you took that same day and focused on the things that were positive, can you picture your day going differently? So much of our emotions are rooted in our perspective and keeping a growth mindset.

So, when you find yourself in the negativity spiral, how can you get yourself out? Here are some tips:

  • Practice gratitude: Close your office door and think of five things for which you are grateful. It’s hard to be negative when you allow gratitude into your mind. Here’s an easy one: “I’m thankful for the best job in the world.”
  • Relax: Walk out to your vehicle, to the back patio of the station, or to any place where you can clear your mind and take a few deep breaths. Close your eyes, calm your mind, reset and relax.
  • Call your positivity accountability partner: A positivity accountability partner is someone who you can depend on to pick you up when you are in doubt. This is the person who can see when you’re off your rocker and need support. This should be a shared support system – a balance of give and take between the two of you.
  • Exercise: Quite simply, the hormones released when you exercise make you feel good. Take a walk or go hit the weights for a few. The feeling of accomplishment along with the lather you worked up can do wonders for the soul.
  • Stop doing what you were doing: In other words, stop the activity that you were doing when you realized you were having a bad day. We teach people to remove themselves from harm, so practice what you preach.
  • Listen to music: That’s right, JAM SOME MUSIC! Music has been shown to boost spirits and bring us joy. For me, it’s the Blues.

These simple steps can protect the sanctity of your mental health as an officer and keep you from entering that bad decision cycle.

The choice is yours

As a leader, your crew cannot afford for you to have a bad day, as you could put their lives at further risk. The crew culture could also be negatively affected by how you respond in difficult circumstances. They look to you for reinforcement, to feel like everything will be OK. Your negative response could eat up leadership capital, which frankly, you cannot afford to lose.

So, let’s go back to the original question: As an officer, can you have a bad day? You can have a bad 10 minutes, but you need to make that a conscious decision and not allow it to become a bad day. The choice to have a good day is yours and yours alone.

About the Author

Michael Sedlacek serves as a captain with Madison (Alabama) Fire & Rescue and paramedic with Huntsville Emergency Medical Services. He designed the Fire and Safety Technology VR program for Madison and teaches in the CRR sections for the Alabama Fire College and the National Fire Academy. Sedlacek holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Safety and Emergency Management from Grand Canyon University. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Managing Officer Program, Leadership Greater Huntsville, as well as the Alabama Public Safety Leadership Academy.