Reading Is Back!

New fire leaders are waking up to the fact that they are in charge of their own leadership growth

There’s a cultural shift coming on in the fire service: Books and reading are on the wave of the future.E33 Bookmark-crop

The big professional publishers and conference industry doesn’t get credit for this. Oh, they’re hardworking and certainly blast the message (and products) onto the scene. Credit goes to the new fire leaders, who are passionate and seem to be collectively waking up to the fact that they are in charge of their own leadership growth. That’s called self-leadership.

If you believe that “good” leadership is important, then self-leadership will help you get there. Be part of a trend and read more!

Be very careful what you ask for, you may get it… and get it… and get it…

Firefighters are problem-solvers; they always have suggestions. Fire chiefs need to know what’s needed on the front lines, and who better to tell them than the firefighters working on it.

How do fire chiefs get the right information to tackle the right problems?

They don’t get it from inside of a box. They get it by breaking down the walls, working across divisions, and developing true teamwork and collaboration. They build a “team of teams.”

What We Learned From Each Other About Building A Command

3 days of training on how to calm the chaos at a mega event

It all began with a high rise fire at the Phoenix Towers on Singer Island, Florida. Fire crews knew the building and had responded their many times for this type of event, a fire alarm. What they thought might be a routine alarm, suddenly became a mega event, full of the chaos that comes from a high rise building where upper floors are filled with smoke and lots of occupants need help. They also discovered they needed some help too.


The Phoenix Towers condominium on Singer Island, Florida. Photo by Billy Schmidt.

The Riviera Beach Fire-Rescue Department serves the City of Riviera Beach, Florida, which includes Singer Island. The Department has 4 stations located throughout the city, each housing a fire suppression unit and a medical transport unit. Every day there is a minimum of 17 personnel on duty including one battalion chief. It’s a diverse city that keeps the fire department busy on any given day.

The fire occurred at 1721 hours on a Sunday evening in a 25-story residential high-rise building. Initially dispatched to a fire alarm, units arrived and reported “nothing showing from the exterior.” An investigation revealed a smoke detector activation in the penthouse and several residents stating there was smoke in the hallways on the upper floors. Requests were made by the first-arriving crews to upgrade to a high-rise response and for additional units to assist with evacuation. The requests were denied by the responding battalion chief because there were multiple other calls in the city at the same time and their resources were stretched. The crews ascended the stairs and confirmed the presence of light to moderate smoke on floors 14 to 16. When they reached the remaining floors they encountered heavy smoke and several occupants needing assistance. The battalion chief arrived on scene and assumed command. The crews informed command of the smoke conditions and again requested more units for assistance. Command requested that dispatch upgrade the alarm to a full high-rise response and to send additional units for assistance. After some time, the crews found the origin of the fire and extinguished it with a dry chemical extinguisher. Resources from surrounding agencies, including tactical units and command staff, arrived on scene and assisted with ventilation and the successful evacuation of all occupants. There were no civilian or firefighter injuries or deaths. The entire incident lasted approximately 6 hours.

Adaptability is Important on the Fireground

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. -Helmuth von Moltke

We pre-plan the building and train for the situation. But things rarely go exactly to plan. That’s why it’s important that we are observant and adaptable in every situation. Our preconceived notions about what is going to happen, because we’ve been to this fire alarm before, are likely to change before we even get started.

Complicated incidents, a fire alarm at a high rise with lots of occupants, quickly becomes chaotic when things don’t go according to plan. Critical cues, unexpected things, begin to appear that trigger a revision to our initial plan. Sometimes, the event outgrows our ability as a single fire department to safely and effectively apply the operations and support needed to bring order to the chaos. Building a strategic command team while working with other agencies can be cumbersome, but is necessary to establish a manageable span-of-control and provide for comprehensive resource management. Like firefighters, fire departments must be adaptable.

From Command To A Team

There are new rules for engagement in our complex world, so says General Stan McChrystal in his book, Team of Teams. The ability to react quickly and adapt is critical, and its becoming more important in today’s fire service. Mega events, such as high rise fires and terrorist attacks, require new ways to communicate and work together. All agencies, fire and police especially, must learn to break down the silos, work across jurisdictional lines, and master the flexible response that comes from teamwork and collaboration. They have to be able to work as a “team of teams.”


Agencies must learn to break down the silos, work across jurisdictional lines, and master the flexible response that comes from teamwork and collaboration. Photo courtesy of Artie Werkle.

Practicing And Growing Together

In recent years, fire departments in Palm Beach County found themselves confronting more dangerous and complex incidents than ever before, requiring different levels of effort from all agencies and credible emergency management capabilities county-wide. The fire chiefs and training officers in the County recognized this and decided to do something about it. A county-wide command training program was created to improve incident scene management capabilities that would save lives and protect property, combine individual fire department efforts and increase resources, enhance jurisdictional flexibility to handle large-scale events, and provide for a safer, more accountable emergency scene.

The command training was modeled after the National Fire Academy’s Command & Control series, using a case method practice and decision-making exercises. Regardless of size or current capabilities, all fire departments within the County were invited to send personnel, with focus on potential incident commanders. This inter-agency approach would create an environment for open discussion and collaborative learning. The goal was to build stronger command teams to better handle mega events.

Using the Case Method and Staff Ride Concept

Fire instructors teaching incident command often use stories drawn from historic emergency events that will enliven their presentations and illustrate their points. Much of it is lecture with exciting pictures or video and little, if no student interaction or critical thinking. Instead, this county-wide command training promoted the use of decision-forcing cases that would enhance awareness, strengthen decision-making, and empower action from the front line officers.


Decision-forcing cases enhance awareness, strengthen decision-making, and empower action from the front line officers. Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

The purpose of staff rides are to further the development of fire service leaders. They are planned learning events that recreate previous incidents at the actual site of the events to produce a fireground analysis in three dimensions. It promotes maximum student involvement through a pre-study of the incident and the building, an instructor facilitated site visit, and an instructor facilitated dialogue session.

Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

Staff rides are planned learning events that recreate previous incidents at the actual site of the events to produce a fireground analysis. Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

 What We Learned From Each Other

The recent fire at the Phoenix Towers on Singer Island was the motivation for the latest county-wide command training hosted by the Riviera Beach Fire Rescue Department. Having facilitated the previous county-wide command training sessions, I was asked to help with this one. Over a three-day period, firefighters, company officers and chief officers from a variety of fire departments came together to review and practice command operations at a mega event. Using the recent fire at The Towers as a case study, participants worked as teams in a strategic decision-making exercise to identify the problems, communicate clear objectives, and implement executable plans to manage a high rise fire.

Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

Over a three-day period, firefighters, company officers and chief officers from a variety of fire departments came together to review and practice command operations at a mega event. Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

The incident at the Phoenix Towers was a big event. While the fire was determined to be electrical and not large in scale, the smoke it produced filled ten floors and required the evacuation of approximately 20 residents. Here are some of the lessons we learned:

  • Recognize the size of the event and call for additional alarms early to reduce the reflex time for needed apparatus, personnel and other resources on any large building or long duration incident.
  • Expand command before the demand. Preemptive actions to front-load a command team will ensure rapid, concise decisions and actions.
  • Build trust between strategic commanders (chief officers) and tactical units (company officers) to better evaluate and act on the CAN reports and information provided by on-scene units.

It’s great to see so many fire departments come together for a common purpose. These are the people who will be out there handling these mega events and the more training they can do now, the better success they will have in the future. I plan to continue working with all fire departments to help them build better command teams that will calm the chaos.

Are You Building A Harmonious Team?

Wildland Fire Leadership
November 10, 2015

There’s more to it than just saying you’re a team. In complex and dangerous situations, teams have to work together, harmoniously. Like the improvisation of a jazz quartet, each member knows when to step in and when to hand it over to another. They’re connected.

Read here Pam McDonald’s take on Unity Through Harmony, or how fire leaders build cohesive teams to work in high risk environments.

Leaders Are Problem Solvers

After a long day, we sat quietly in my office at the firehouse just staring at each other. It had been an usually busy first half of a 24-hour shift that was filled with the typical calls for help from the community, combined with some very unique personnel issues that had caused lots of friction in a couple of our firehouses. We were refereeing conflicts; solving people problems.problemsolvingLeadership guru Seth Godin says, “The future belongs to those who can do two things: Lead and solve interesting problems.”

The greatest thing we do as leaders is to find solutions to unique problems. We should expect to encounter the occasional broken system, ineffective team, or personnel conflict in our fire department. That’s why we are the leaders. That’s what leaders do!

While much of our day is spent on managing our tasks list, the first item in our leader’s job description should be “solving problems.” We are problem-solvers, both on the fireground and in the firehouse.

5 Leadership Lessons: Leading Above the Line

Leading Blog
November 2, 2015

Leaders build trust, set clear standards, and then equip and inspire people to meet that standard.

Read here an excellent book review of Coach Urban Meyer’s new book, Above the Line: Lessons in Leadership and Life from a Championship Season.

Here’s a quick look at the 5 lessons:

  1. Winning behavior will not thrive in a culture that does not support it.
  2. If your habits don’t reflect your dreams and goals, you can either change your habits or change your dreams and goals.
  3. Do whatever you can to reinforce someone’s confidence by helping him to achieve small victories.
  4. When things aren’t going right, the most important thing you can do is slow down, go deep, and figure out why.
  5. You can’t lead people to a place that you are not going to as well. If it isn’t happening in you, it won’t happen through you.

Keep Calm And Party With A Chaplain

What We learned about saving our own from a Fire Chaplain's Conference

Several people of various ages and backgrounds gathered for three days last week in an ordinary hotel conference room to talk about the personal challenges that firefighters face today. But the week was anything but ordinary.


This was not your familiar conference where firefighters learn to force doors and drag other firefighters to safety. But it was a meeting of the minds, some very concerned people wanting to learn more about how to save our own in the firehouse, just like we do on the fireground.

The 2015 Federation of Fire Chaplains Conference began on the right note, literally. It opened with the Star Spangled Banner, sung beautifully by the entire room, creating an enthusiastic vibe that carried on throughout the week. Nothing compares with singing for bringing people together. We were no longer strangers, but a team of people with a strong desire to help others.

The Takeaways

The energy continued with the high-powered, straight talk that included real-world advice from some fire chiefs, strong recommendations from health care professionals, spiritual guidance from chaplains, and personal stories from firefighters and their spouses. Here are a few of the take-a-ways:

  • We help everyone. We never leave anyone behind.
  • Who’s helping the firefighter families? We need to work together to better help our own; the mental health community, the chaplains, peer support teams, and the fire department administrators.
  • Issues unique to firefighters are complex and we have to be ready for the moment when we can help. Sometimes, only firefighters can help firefighters.
  • Get to know your people and connect with them. Don’t forget their families. One simple text or phone call from someone at the right time can help.
  • What is the firefighter’s spouse exposed to when the firefighter comes home? How do we handle it? Have three hard conversations: re-entry time, harshness and hallows humor, and handling the rough runs.
  • Tragedies touch everyone in a different way. Taking care of your own requires trust. Without it, you can lose others.
  • Don’t wait for a tragedy to start a chaplaincy. Chaplains don’t work for the chief, they work for the members.
  • The human heart is exquisitely fragile.
  • Chaplains must grow other chaplains.
  • Conversation is important. It’s all about emotional wellness.

We must become a team of teams

I had the honor to close out the conference and here’s some of my message:

Our world is dangerous and chaotic, both on the fireground and in the firehouse. We see the worse of it. All of our fire department members experience it at some level. We need new ways to lead and to work together. We need to break down the silos and work across divisions in the big firehouse, where the administrative chiefs work.

We have to build cohesive leadership teams, because the first step to a healthy fire department is to have the big firehouse working together.

We need to shift from efficient organizations to adaptable teams that are effective.

We must help our own. We must become a team of teams.

How does your fire department help it’s own?

Resources to help you help your own:

Rosecrance Florian Program

Firefighter Family Articles at Fire Engineering Magazine



Help, My Job Is Killing Me

Captain Jeremy Hurd to talk about helping our own at FDIC 2016

We prepare and practice for our fireground challenges, but what are we doing to take care of our own in the firehouse?

Follow Captain Jeremy Hurd as he helps the fire service tackle the real issues in the fire service: firefighter health and safety.

Where It All Began: 6 Pioneers Of Fire Behavior

FireRescue1: Fire Chief Digital Edition
October 21, 2015

In days of old, fires were ferocious and demanded that firefighters learn on the job. There were no water systems or building codes to slow the fire to give firefighters the time to respond. Many people, including firefighters, died trying to save lives and protect property. They had to make decisions, and fast. The fire service needed pioneers to design tools and develop ways to do it better. A few individuals have stood out for their contributions to do just that.

Read here in the Fire Chief Digital Edition about where it all began.

To learn more about the history of the fire service go here to

Constructive Conflict

Managing tough conversations in the firehouse

When firefighters talk openly, developing ideas together, debating different perspectives and blending those views, they work better together. They work as a team.

Photo by Tim Olk.

Photo by Tim Olk.

Because different ideas and opinions are examined, that team will move forward together, actively aligned and ready to tackle any objective. Yet many firefighters avoid constructive conflict.

Do you and your team of firefighters have tough conversations? Do you air every concern, reservation, and alternative, without holding anything back? Do you debrief your training and the incidents you respond to? Do you walk away from your meetings knowing that you can count on them to do what they say and to support you as you move the team forward? Are you able to focus your energy on the team’s objectives?

Many times we see constructive conflict turn into destructive conflict, which creates tension and resentment. It undermines relationships within the team and distracts from the team’s common goals. Or, if the team avoids conflict, it becomes guarded and shares fewer ideas. Questions remain unasked, ideas and opinions go unchallenged, and members of the team do not feel united. This can lead to a lack of support in each other’s decisions, which will compromise safety and execution.

How can you and your team of firefighters encourage constructive conflict and avoid sliding down into destructive conflict? The combination of three principles can help keep your team’s conflict positive: listening up, sharing a common commitment and creating a climate of trust.

Listening Up

Leadership authority Stephen R. Covey makes a relevant point in his bestselling book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” The fifth habit he lists is: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.”

The cause of almost all conflict is often a lack of understanding. If we don’t listen to others, then how can we truly understand the situation? We must learn to listen with more than just our ears; we must listen with our eyes and our hearts. Listen to the words being said, but also get a feel for how the message is delivered. Listen to the tone and watch the body language. To really understand what someone else is saying, we should listen first, and talk second.

A team that shares a common purpose is inspired to work hard together. Team members working towards a common goal will be more willing to engage in tough conversations. Bringing everyone together in an open discussion lets them see the cause and effects of the issues facing the team. Being part of the planning process triggers a valuable buy-in from everyone. When everyone feels that they have collective ownership, they will come to know and trust one another.

Climate of Trust

Trust doesn’t just happen — it has to be earned, and it’s earned best by giving it. When trust is present, people can usually set aside their egos or individual wants and focus on the team. Because they value their relationship with the team, they can now feel comfortable communicating their intentions and perceptions or making amends as necessary. Teams that foster trust become stronger and more productive through frequent and open communication.

In recent years, the fire service has experienced an alarming number of firefighter injuries and deaths because of a lack of communication or the inability of firefighters to speak up.

Creating a cohesive firefighting team has never been more challenging. The interpersonal dynamics of a team or crew can change constantly. Members of great firefighting teams openly express themselves in ways to understand and improve the organization.

They must be willing to address conflicts, constructively, when they occur. Teams that practice constructive conflict make better decisions and are more productive.

Open communication, a common commitment, and trust will keep your team positive and productive.

This post on Constructive Conflict was originally published for The Company Officer Series at on July 30, 2007.