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Reinvent or refocus? How fire service leaders should direct their energy

Sometimes we simply need to be real and lead with a heightened focus on our mission


“Leadership in its plainest terms is about taking people where they need to be,” Bashoor writes.

Photo/U.S. Fire Administration

We hear a lot of discussions that start something like, “The problem with the fire service is ….” Those discussions usually lead to epiphanies that start something like, “We need to reinvent the way we ….”

Let’s be real. Most of our fire service problems revolve around a lack of effective leadership. Don’t agree with me? Then YOU are likely part of the problem. The good news: You can be part of the solution. All of us can.

What it means to lead

Leadership isn’t about advanced degrees, operational experience, political prowess, speaking at conferences, recruitment and retention success, grant writing or the host of other things we deal with every day. Leadership in its plainest terms is about taking people where they need to be.

Education, training and career development in general are all critical components of building your leadership skills. In addition to many other topics, leadership will include dealing with ALL the issues referenced above. The key: We cannot let these issues alone define our leadership.

Culture and environment

You’ve probably noticed that when people discuss the ails of the fire service, the concept of generational differences inevitably finds its way into the mix. We were all raised in unique cultures and environments, and in general, we adapt our own style and belief systems based on that culture and environment.

I’d like to think that we all have certain core expectations of human decency and ethical efficacy. It is those beliefs and that basis I’ll use to make the case that we don’t need to reinvent ANYTHING. We simply need to lead.

YOU, chief, are responsible for fostering a culture within your organization that not only values human decency and promotes sound ethical behavior, but also values diverse opinions and cultural differences. YOU need to foster a culture that provides for an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and appreciated. A tall order by any measure but one for which YOU are ultimately responsible.

Successful organizational cultures embrace atmospheres that promote inclusion and place high value on training and professional development. The organization isn’t about “the chief” or any one person; it’s about providing service and about the brotherhood and sisterhood.

This does NOT mean you need to reinvent anything – except maybe yourself. Just as we’ve evolved past bucket brigades, open cabs, back steps, rubber coats, three-quarter boots and D-cell flashlights, we have also evolved past a firefighting force that is made up, almost exclusively, of white men. Leading in 2023 requires forward-thinking chiefs who embrace this evolution and who understand that this isn’t their grandfather’s fire department any longer.

Grandma Jones doesn’t care

Our internal organizational struggles will only be distractions when the bell rings. WE as chiefs must lead our people and our organizations through all periods of change in a way that builds internal and external trust. The fire service mission focuses on the work – “where the rubber meets the road” – and the public trusts that we’ll be there for them at the right time, with the right people and equipment, to do the right thing.

In the past, I’ve introduced you to Grandma Jones. In their darkest moments, NO ONE who needs the fire department cares about the complexity of your leadership. NO ONE cares whether you’re a man or a woman, nor whether you’re part of or affiliated with any particular demographic, religious or political group. Grandma Jones doesn’t ask to send the paid firefighters or the volunteers; she simply asks for help.

Focus on the mission … and the future

Again, I contend that we don’t need to reinvent anything; in fact, maybe it would be better said that we just need to refocus. Less focus on “us” and more on the mission. Answering Grandma Jones’ calls for help MUST be our primary mission focus. It is imperative that you preach the avoidance of mission-creep into areas that don’t directly and indirectly support the service mission.

It is also important to understand that our service mission includes all the common community risk reduction (CRR) strategies that help improve safety in our communities. Those CRR strategies help us focus on critical needs, like broader residential sprinkler requirements and political advocacy for better fire safety resources in our communities – all things that need leadership and will improve conditions for Grandma Jones.

This really is all about leadership. If you feel like you have to say, “We need to reinvent …,” well, then maybe your need to reinvent yourself.

Chief Marc S. Bashoor joined the Lexipol team in 2018, serving as the FireRescue1 and Fire Chief executive editor and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board. With 40 years in emergency services, Chief Bashoor previously served as public safety director in Highlands County, Florida; as chief of the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Fire/EMS Department; and as emergency manager in Mineral County, West Virginia. Chief Bashoor assisted the NFPA with fire service missions in Brazil and China, and has presented at many industry conferences and trade shows. He has contributed to several industry publications. He is a National Pro-board certified Fire Officer IV, Fire Instructor III and Fire Instructor. Connect with Chief Bashoor at on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Do you have a leadership tip or incident you’d like to discuss? Send the chief an email.