The Difficult Conversation


Officers: YOU are what you make your company to be, good AND bad


One thing about the fire service, the implications of us not being prepared are much more significant than the average worker.  Nothing against landscapers, or painters, but if they are not 100 percent on a given day; well usually only their work suffers.

Firefighters are different however.  Almost everything we do has implications for the safety and well-being of others, whether the general population or our co-workers.  Yet repeatedly we see or hear of examples where mediocrity reigns supreme and close enough is good enough.  How many times have you seen another crew make a mistake, all the while knowing they have spent more time in the recliner than drilling?  How many times have one of your people screwed up and you have decided to “pick your battles” rather than address it head on?

So why is that?  Why do chief officers allow poor company officers to slide?  Why do company officers allow sub-standard firefighters to coast?  There isn’t one simple answer, many times the ‘system’ doesn’t allow for an easy remedy.  Many times it is because no one ever told them how hard it is to have that difficult conversation and that that is part of being a leader.

"I am not going to treat you all the same. I don't like you all the same, you don't like each other all the same, you don't like me all the same. I hope I will be strong enough to not permit my personal likes and dislikes get in the way of how I get you to perform. I won't like you all the same, but I'll love you all the same." John Wooden

People perform at a variety of levels due to many different reasons.  Natural ability and interest, poor previous leadership and training, fear, dislike for authority, and lack of motivation are all reasons why someone may perform poorly.  So often the root of performance failure comes from bad experiences or someone else’s mistakes. If you take the time to work with the firefighter, you may find that the reason they aren’t doing well is because they haven’t been given the opportunity to do so.  In other words, everyone has ‘good’ in them; they just may not have had the chance to show it to you yet. A leader’s responsibility to the department, the crew, the individual and himself is to determine why the firefighter may not be meeting expectations and then work with that individual to correct the issues.  Seems simple, right?  Well it isn’t necessarily that easy and it is something that few that get promoted are ever taught how to do.

While many fighters are not up to the task, very few will be willing to admit it.  These conversations are not easy to have, but if you are concerned about doing this job the right way and bringing your crew home, they are absolutely necessary.

To be fair to the underperforming firefighters of the world, as a boss it is critical that you lay out you expectations from day one and then consistently hold your people to that level.  You can’t expect them to do something you never told them they should.  Likewise you can’t get upset if they do something you never told them not to.

But back to that difficult conversation, why is it so hard?  In one conversation I had about this the answer came easy, “we all want to be loved.”  Telling Firefighter Smith that he is not performing as expected will most likely cause Firefighter Smith to be unhappy with you.  Depending on how he relates your conversation to the rest of the shift (and he will, don’t worry) you could be viewed as the bad witch from the Wizard of Oz.

While you shouldn’t be a dictator, you shouldn’t let how you may be perceived prevent you from enforcing your standards and keeping your crew safe.  Everyone on your team requires that everyone else do their job correctly.  While telling someone they are not up to par may be uncomfortable, it will be much less difficult than dealing with the after effects of a failure you did nothing to prevent.

The not so simple to all of this is that, while we are friends with the members of our crew, we are also professionals.  We are responsible for the lives and safety of our communities, as well as our co-workers.  This requires personal commitment, training and attention to detail.  As an Officer it is our responsibility to set the goals and expectations, and then prepare our people to meet them.  Since their success or failure is a direct reflection of you as their leader, if they fail you have failed.  There is no need to look any farther than the mirror for the answer as to why.

Photo courtesy of Billy Adkins/



Dave LeBlanc is a Captain with the Harwich, Massachusetts Fire Department. Dave entered the Fire Service in 1986 as a Call Firefighter with the Dennis Fire Department. He worked full time during the summers in Dennis, while attending the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. While at the University of New Haven, Dave studied Arson Investigation. He also was a volunteer with the Allingtown and West Haven Fire Districts in West Haven. He spent his sophomore year as a Live In student with the Allingtown Fire District. His education included internships with the Aetna Insurance Company and the Boston Fire Department Arson Squad.

In 1993 Dave went to work full-time with the Harwich Fire Department as a dispatcher. In 2000 he transferred into suppression and was promoted to Lieutenant in 2008. In addition to his regular duties, Dave also manages the Department’s Radio system, is responsible for conducting Fire Investigations, and assists in maintaining the computers systems.

Dave’s blog tends to focus on current day issues and maintaining a commitment to the ideals and principals that created the fire service, while keeping today’s firefighters safe.

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Backstep Firefighter

β€œTo provide a point of critical thought about certain acts and events in the fire service while incorporating behavioral education and commentary in a referenced format.”
Ben Waller
Women and Children First by Dave LeBlanc
Actually, the "Women and children first" idea cane from the sinking if the HMS Birkenhead. Now known as "The Birkenhead Drill", this stemmed from the ship beginning to sink, an inadequate number of lifeboats, and the Royal Marines and soldiers on board being called to formation and standing in ranks while the ships crew put…
2014-08-21 11:25:14
Ron Ayotte
Women and Children First by Dave LeBlanc
2014-08-21 02:49:30
Brian Gary
Women and Children First by Dave LeBlanc
Very well written. I couldn't agree more with your statements. The problems are many, but they perpetuate and increase with every new class of recruits that are poisoned with the idea that anyone who feels unsafe has a responsibility to act and stop whatever is going on. When I came on, my instructors told me…
2014-08-21 02:04:23
Ric Jorge
Women and Children First by Dave LeBlanc
Atta boy David, customer service or customer satisfaction? The line is fine, and more often than not we can accomplish both with action, and a kind demeanor.
2014-08-21 01:41:12
The Discussion EVERY Shift MUST HAVE
Thanks for having the stones to put this info. out there. If through your efforts and others we can save one brother or sister then you have made a positive change in the fire service and that is really what we should all aspire to do in one way or another.
2014-08-13 14:00:30
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