The “Ins” of the Successful Fire Officer

New contributor Ron Ayotte ups the staffing on Backstep Firefighter as a chief officer.

A few months ago I had an appointment with a Scout who is going for the rank of Eagle. One of the merit badges he was working towards was in fire safety.

Part of that requirement is to talk with one of the fire officials in the community about the fire department, fire prevention and fire safety.

I have done many of these interviews for Scouts. The young man’s last question got me to thinking…

It was “what is your opinion on what it takes to be a successful fire officer?”

Now, this is something that I and many others have answered in a firefighter forum or two… but it was the first time that a teenager ever asked it.

I told him that I had a standard answer, but that he deserved better than that. I asked him for his email address and told him that I would get back to him. While I was detailing my 2006 Mustang GT to enter it in a show, I came across an ad from my insurance agent in the glove box that I read and adapted for my answer to the potential Eagle Scout.

What I came up with was the”ins” of being a successful fire officer. In answer to his question, this is what I sent to him.

To be a successful fire officer, one has to follow the “ins”.

Successful fire officers have to take the initiative… to make the most of every opportunity, situation and challenge that come their way.

Successful fire officers need to have insight. They have to be passionate about the job and serve the best interests of their personnel… even when they feel that they are being wronged.

Successful fire officers have to innovate. They have to think outside of the box on occasion in order to see to what the “big picture” looks like. They should also cultivate innovation amongst their personnel. Not all of the brightest minds in the fire service wear bugles on their collars; some are content with being the grunts and doing the job.

Successful fire officers have to have integrity. They are held to higher standard by virtue of their rank, from the newly minted LT to the grizzled old Chief. They have to meet the needs of the Department as a whole and build relationships across the ranks with professionalism.

Successful fire officers instruct – passing skills, expertise and knowledge on to others in order they become more skilled, knowledgeable and experts in their own right.

Successful fire officers have instinct….it’s the only thing we that we can trust on the fire floor. It’s the memory of past fires and remembering what worked and what didn’t. It will never be put into print or on a power point. It is created through trial and error and the ability to critique yourself after every job, good or bad. No two fires are alike but every flame is the same.

Successful fire officers have to be involved with their personnel. When someone in your crew’s mind is elsewhere, it could be because of problems in their personal life… a breakup, separation or divorce, a sick child, a dying parent, or a diagnosis of a terminal or life altering illness. Lend a sympathetic ear. You may not really get along with that individual, but humanity links us all. If the problem is between members of the company, work to resolve them before it tears the company apart and lowers morale.

In life, successful fire officers have to balance their family and personal life with the professional side. Ignoring one or the other can lead to problems at home and at work.

Ron Ayotte is a 29+ year veteran of the fire service and holds the rank of Deputy Chief with the City of Marlborough (MA) Fire Department. He also works per diem in the Support Services division of the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services/Massachusetts Firefighting ACADEMY.

We encourage and support constructive dialogue and debate. View our comment policy.

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  • Nick says:

    “Successful fire officers have to be involved with their personnel.” What about fire officers who say “buddy to boss” and use that to avoid etching past the surface of an employee? And what of officers who dislike innovation unless it’s their idea, and believe that they are above mistakes?

    No one is perfect, but I as a line firefighter sometimes scratch my head (and pound it against the plaster) to understand my officers. I sometimes have this impression that they have their own agenda, whether for themselves or for political reasons. Self-interest is as natural to humans as a football to the Super Bowl. But when do we not just ask nicely of our officers and plainly demand they do their jobs?

  • Taj Meyers says:

    Hell of a job gonzr! Hope to read more from you!

  • Steve says:

    Not meaning to start a debate with you Nick. But, If you have problems with your fire “officers” instead of just one “Officer” and if you are the only one who has the problems.. Maybe its not the Officers who have the problem. It is not unusual to disagree with an officers call. But, Quite often after seeing the result. The answer of why the call was made becomes obvious. Sometimes you need to really look hard to see it. But, its there. Other times..You may be right in second guessing. But, Not every time with every officer. if that’s the case the problem is probably not the officer but, a close look in the mirror is the answer.

  • Ron Ayotte says:

    Nick… when one becomes an officer, the entire perception of the personnel changes. In the firefighter’s eyes and midset, the newly promoted fire officer goes from “being one of us” to “being one of them”. By the same token, some newly promoted fire officers let the rank go right to their heads. I know of one who immediatelty alieneated everybody on the group (he was promoted to Captain, their Captains are shift commanders) with is “my way or the highway” approach. When a Chief gets requesst for transfers from everybody on that group, that is a sign of a problem. Luckily, after a bit of “divine intervention”, aka an ass chewing from the Chief, he was able to pull his head out of his alimentary canal, make amends with his personnel and now has a great relationship with his crew.

    There are those who feel that because they are BFFs with their officers, they can use that to avoid some of the work details that are part of everyday life at the firehouse. Favpritism tears a group apart and has a detrimental affect on the company level.

    For every rank I have achieved and group that I have been transferred to, my philosophy has been the same…

    “I’m here to do a job, you’re here to do a job. I’ll do mine, which is to make sure that you end your tour of duty and go home to your wife and kids or significant other safely. Your job is to make me look good. We both do our jobs, it’s going to be a great ride.. but try to use friendship to avoid doing your job, we will have a problem. You can choose to be friends or not. I don’t expect a personal relationship, but I do expect a professional one.

    To add to what Steve said… “If you look around and believe what you’re seeing is that everyone else is the problem, then the real problem is you.”

  • Nick says:

    May I send my thoughts to someone here for their rational take? I “have problems” with only a few people at our organization, and these are things that some other firefighters and a few officers see too. It’s something that has worn on me enough to consider my place in the fire service.

    Thanks. And it’s a real address, I swear. Used for back-up for school.

  • Thanks for the well-composed and motivating read. I look forward your next offering.

  • BigJohn says:

    Nick, your concerns with these officers are certainly valid as long as they aren’t on a personal level. I can tell you from 21 years of experience with 3 different departments, serving from tailboard to Training Captain and time spent as an Instructor for my State Fire Academy, there will unfortunately always be officers who you are going to dislike and question.

    If they are doing things you don’t agree with or are just plain jerks, I’m sorry, but your gonna have to deal with it. Remember, very few people are born leaders. It is a process that is learned over time for most. If they are doing things improperly that violate SOPS’s or HR procedures, then you have a legitimate position to file a complaint. If these officers are making unsafe decisions that put themselves or others at risk of harm or injury, this is a situation you need to get handled immediately.

    Follow your department’s SOP’s and utilize the chain of command so you have a record of properly submitting your complaint. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind on these issues but do so professionally and REPSECTFULLY! This is the one thing I see so many not do in these circumstances and that takes away from the validity of their complaint.

    Lastly Nick, sit down and do a true assessment of yourself, these officers, and your department. Don’t doubt your place in the fire service over the concerns of these officers. If they are the exception to the rule, do your best to help fix the problem. If you find that you may be the problem, seek advice on how to change if you want to stay in the profession.

    Remember, our job is the best one out there and it is an honor to serve within our profession. Things aren’t always perfect, but we can do our best to make it that way as long as we don’t give up. I sense your passion for this job through your frustrations. Don’t lose that passion Nick. Those we are called to help need it.

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