Finding Firemanship in the Fire Service [Article]

My recent article published at FIREFIGHTERNATION.

Firemanship encompasses many essential traits for firefighters

By Billy Schmidt
Published Sunday, February 3, 2013

Trail Park VFD battling a house fire. As public servants, they understood that fighting fires was something special; they had a firemanship attitude. Pictured is my father, Assistant Chief Billy J. Schmidt (white coat and helmet).

Trail Park VFD battling a house fire. As public servants, they understood that fighting fires was something special; they had a firemanship attitude. Pictured is my father, Assistant Chief Billy J. Schmidt (white coat and helmet).

There’s a lot going on in the world, and as a result our work continues to evolve and become more dynamic. Our communities expect a lot from us; they consider us an essential resource. We don’t just save lives and protect property anymore; we’re called on to handle just about any complex, crazy situation you can think of. It’s not your daddy’s fire service anymore.

But while many things have changed, including technology and equipment, rest assured that our mission, our core values and our responsibilities as firefighters have remained the same. Our version of “combat ready” hasn’t really changed since “The Manual of Firemanship” was issued as a practical handbook for firefighting in England in the 1940s.

Defining “Firemanship”

“The Manual of Firemanship” was issued as a practical handbook for firefighting in England in the 1940s.

“The Manual of Firemanship” was issued as a practical handbook for firefighting in England in the 1940s.

“The Manual of Firemanship” is made up of a series of books and book five, called “Practical Firemanship,” has an introduction that says it all: “No two fires are alike,’ is an old and very true Fire Service saying, and therefore technical knowledge must be backed up by intelligence and the ability to grasp the fundamentals of the situation, to initiate a plan of action and to improvise on the spur of the moment.”

First, know that firemanship is not about gender; rather, it refers to the basic knowledge, skills and abilities that the fire service has used for generations. I’d like to explore the concept of firemanship, its definition and basic components, and explain why it’s important to have a holistic view of firemanship when developing safe and effective firefighters.

Let’s start with a question: What exactly is “firemanship”? Again, we can look to “The Manual of Firemanship” where it describes firefighters as:

  1. Physically fit because working a fire involves great physical exertion
  2.  Courageous, yet calm
  3. Patient, because it can be difficult dealing with people who are in a state of considerable stress;
  4. Taking the  initiative and having the will to keep going;
  5.  Being able to cultivate their powers of observation and have inquiring minds;
  6. Disciplined and able to follow orders; and
  7. Servants of the public (the most important characteristic).

So firemanship is basically the sum of your attitude and firefighting skills. Although those characteristics are a great start, there’s one other very important attribute that all firefighters must have: the right attitude.

Firemanship Attitude

The firemen of the Trail Park Volunteer Fire Department in Lake Worth, Fla., in 1965. They were public servants in their community. Pictured are my father, Billy J. Schmidt (top row, second from right) and my uncle, Edward Schmidt.

The firemen of the Trail Park Volunteer Fire Department in Lake Worth, Fla., in 1965. They were public servants in their community. Pictured are my father, Billy J. Schmidt (top row, second from right) and my uncle, Edward Schmidt.

Attitude is very important in regard to firemanship, because it affects how we look at ourselves, and it starts with a healthy sense of self-esteem. To keep attitude in check, you must perform a self-assessment about who you are and how you value yourself as a person, both privately and publicly. The objective: to keep your sense of self-esteem balanced and healthy. A balanced sense of self-esteem allows for a healthy sense of fairness, dignity and self-respect. Our attitude can also be shaped by our physical and emotional health. A healthy and balanced attitude toward ourselves puts us in the best position to extend dignity and respect to others, the most fundamental ingredients we can strive for.

A firemanship attitude also involves the desire to be and excel as a master firefighter. A master firefighter is someone who strives to obtain expert knowledge, excellent practical skills, a high standard of ethics, behavior and work activities, a sound work morale and motivation. Master firefighters understand that the job is more than having a certificate and getting paid, or forcing a door and stretching a hoseline.

Lastly, a firefighter who exudes a firemanship attitude is someone who realizes that successful firefighting requires the right combination of attitude, firefighting skills, technical skills and social skills. A master firefighter understands that as firefighters, we have a moral and ethical responsibility to ourselves and to others.

A Final Word
The world is a complex, often dangerous place. We as firefighters have a responsibility to our communities to serve as their primary resource when they are in danger or at risk. To be a reliable, professional, successful resource, we need the right knowledge, skills and abilities.  We need to practice the art of firemanship. It begins with attitude, but there’s more. In my next column, I will discuss other skills needed for the art of firemanship.

Be safe and be good.

Great Britain. Fire Service Dept: Manual of Firemanship: Theory of firefighting and equipment. H.M. Stationery Office: 1963.

Micromanagement Can Create Zombie Firefighters [Article]

My latest article published at FIREFIGHTERNATION.

Leadership must keep firefighters thinking instead of turning them into brain-dead followers

By Billy Schmidt
Published Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Zombie firefighter image courtesy of Len Peralta.

Zombies seem to be all the rage these days. Becoming popular with the 1968 horror film “Night of the Living Dead,” today we find these characters in various books, films, TV shows and video games. Beyond the walking dead, the term “zombie” is also used to describe a person who is unaware of their surroundings—someone unable to think for themselves. They are ambulant but require outside direction.

So what do zombies have to do with leadership in the fire service? The next question should offer a clue. Can micromanagement create firefighting zombies? The answer is yes, and here’s why.

Management Theory
One of the most important functions a fire officer has is management. I read an article a few years ago that described this important function as X = -Y (see graph). X represents the level of firefighter brain use, ranging from “brainless zombie firefighters” to “thinking responsible firefighters.” And Y represents the degree of management provided by the fire officer, varying from “allowing full autonomy” to “micromanaging every detail.” So the obvious point here (unless you too are a zombie) is that the more you micromanage your firefighters, the less they will use their brains, making it more likely that they will become “zombies.”

Ask any fire officer which they prefer: thinking firefighters or mindless zombies who respond only as directed? The answers would most likely be, “I want smart firefighters who can think and adapt to any situation, firefighters with initiative who perform safely and effectively without detailed direction.” Then ask those same fire officers what their management style is, and none of them will admit that they’re micromanagers.

Now, ask any firefighter which they prefer: an officer who empowers them through trust and responsibility, or a control freak who second-guesses everything they do? Again, the most likely answer will be, “I want an officer who believes in me and helps me grow.” Then ask those firefighters what they really think about micromanagers.

Micromanagement Symptoms
Do you work for a micromanager? Are you a micromanager? What causes someone to act this way? Most micromanagers are driven by one, or all, of the following issues:

  1. Micromanagers are insecure.A lack of personal confidence can be devastating to a fire officer. Under the stressful and strenuous conditions of the fireground, firefighters demand that their officers be competent. No amount of “badge authority” is likely to command respect or obedience in complex and dangerous situations where lives are at risk.
  2. Micromanagers cannot handle workplace instability or pressures.Again, insecure officers quickly fall prey to the stress and pressure to meet the daily performance demands of their firefighters, including training, responding to calls and just plain getting along with each other.
  3. Micromanagers think they can do it better.These fire officers believe that no one can do it better than them. They have to make every decision, take a lead role in every task and, in some cases, dictate every step a firefighter takes.
  4. Micromanagers don’t trust anyone.This fire officer has studied and practices Douglas McGregor’s Theory X that assumes that all firefighters are inherently lazy and will avoid work whenever they can. They believe that they have to keep a close eye on their firefighters because they can’t be trusted.

Micromanagement Cures
So, does that sound like you? Or, does it sound like the person you work for? If it does, here are some things you can do to change that.

If you are a micromanager:

  • Admit it! Then start to deal with the micromanaging forces that drive you to control everything.
  • Strengthen your confidence by becoming more competent. High-risk situations demand competent officers.
  • Believe in your firefighters and trust them. Build relationships by rolling up your sleeves and doing the dirty work with them.
  • Invest in your firefighters’ training and help them learn to make the decisions or do the tasks that need to get done.
  • Stop treating your firefighters like zombies, because if that’s how you treat them, that’s what you’ll get. Take some risks and give them a chance to prove what they can do. Help them grow.

If you work for a micromanager:

  • Learn to speak up. Help your officer delegate more effectively by prompting them to give you all of their expectations up front.
  • Make sure to communicate with your officer regularly. This will discourage their need to constantly come to you for details.
  • Remember, your officer is human and changing micromanaging habits is difficult. Help them.

Final Thought
Anyone who has been in the fire service for any length of time has been exposed to some form of micromanagement. Micromanaging is immediately recognized by firefighters. Officers who micromanage inhibit firefighter development, restrict organizational growth and turn firefighters into zombies.

Finding the appropriate balance between directing, delegating and doing is one of the many challenges for fire officers today. The goal is not to create mindless zombie firefighters, but to grow adaptable, thinking leaders. The message is simple: Don’t be afraid to manage, but know how, when and where to do it.

Related sources:
Gallo, A. (September 22, 2011). Stop Being Micromanaged. InHarvard Business Review. Retrieved November 2012, from

Murnighan, J. (August 25, 2012). Micro managers: Learn to trust your people. In CNN Opinion. Retrieved November 2012, from

Zombie firefighter image courtesy of Len Peralta.

Are you a recovering micromanager? How did you recover? Have you worked for a micromanager? How did you handle it?

Where Leadership Starts [Article]

My latest article published at FIREFIGHTERNATION.

Can Leadership be taught or learned in the fire service?

By Billy Schmidt
Published Friday, October 12, 2012

Leadership has always played an important played role in the fire service. Leaders are responsible for everything their firefighters do, or fail to do. Everything we do in the delivery of our service is about leadership; it’s who we are and it’s what makes us different from most organizations. Leadership is our lifeblood.

Future Leadership

At FRI 2012, Astronaut Mike Mullane says that leaders must be able to make mid-course corrections while remaining focused on the goal. Photo courtesy IAFC.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the leadership required for the future fire service. During his keynote address at the Fire-Rescue International 2012 conference in Denver, astronaut Mike Mullance described how leaders must set lofty goals, accept the unchangeable, make mid-course corrections around obstacles, and tenaciously remain focused on the goal. In other words, leaders need to be self-aware and adaptable. Specifically, fire service leaders must be able to use their situational awareness to adapt to changing conditions and not get stuck in a static command mindset. In other words, they must be able to master transitions in the chaos of 21st-century fire service operations.

Being adaptable allows leaders to successfully handle unexpected situations, providing them with something that author and leadership pioneer Warren Bennis calls a “crucible experience.” A crucible experience is a defining moment for leaders that unleashes abilities, sharpens focus and forces critical decisions. It’s a moment or event where a leader finds out who they really are. Bennis believes that adaptive capacity is the critical quality that determines how a leader will fare in a crucible experience. Adaptive capacity allows leaders to observe and orient themselves with the right information, and then make decisions and respond quickly and intelligently to constant change.

The Core Assumptions of Adaptive Leadership
There are two core assumptions of adaptive leadership. The first is that leadership is about skills and can be learned by anyone. The second is that the capacity of fire departments to adapt to new realities depends on whether the culture expects leadership throughout the organization or just from the top-ranking officers. Let’s now explore the two core assumptions in greater detail.

Leadership can be learned: The issue of whether leadership can be taught or learned has long been debated. I personally believe that leadership is learned more than it is taught. Leadership, in my mind, is not just a theory to follow or a particular set of words to use, especially during complex and dangerous situations. Real leadership is adaptive to each situation; it must be innovative and mentally agile. In today’s dynamic environment, leaders must be more creative and confident as they learn to handle the complexities of an uncertain world. Leadership isn’t developed through the teaching of theories in the classroom; it is accomplished through the individual desire to learn how to lead—something that builds skill and enhances education. Leadership isn’t something that someone can teach in a class; it can’t be broken down into basic steps that people must follow to become leaders. Rather, leadership is learned over time and through experience.

Where does the leadership reside? An organization’s capacity to adapt to new realities depends on whether the culture expects leadership throughout the organization or just from the top-ranking officers. We should have realized by now that, in rapidly changing situations where firefighters on the fireground must constantly adapt to new and unanticipated realities, the creativity and judgment that are elements of leadership must come from everyone in the organization. Leadership is needed at every level, in every situation, all the time.

Get Adaptable
“Adaptability” should become a buzzword throughout the fire service because of the new way we do business. This is the fire service’s introduction to the next generation of firefighting. In order to move toward becoming “learning organizations” where leaders practice adaptability, the fire service must change its culture—especially the way it develops leaders. It’s a tall challenge, but the future looks good.

So, how is the leadership in your organization? Where does the responsibility lie for developing leadership—in the classroom or with the individual? Do your firefighters have the necessary skills to adapt and survive in the accelerated dynamics and uncertainty of the fireground?

These questions are a good place to start.