Clear the Path For Your Firefighters [Article]

Here’s one of my Company Officer Development articles published on October 31, 2007 at

Photo by Tim Olk

What stands in the way of your firefighters doing their job? Take a moment and look at your fire department; its operations (policies and procedures),  training and facilities. Now look at you, their leader. Do your fire department’s systems — operations, training and facilities — and your leadership provide a clear path for your firefighters to accomplish their goals? How can you, as their leader, remove the obstacles that clutter the path to their goals?

Picture your crew’s workday:

  • A station full of modern technology that can be confusing and sometimes difficult to operate
  • Policies telling them what they can’t do and procedures telling them how to do everything
  • A training division pulling them in different directions (fire, EMS, hazmat, etc.)
  • A fire station and equipment that must be inspected and maintained

And then there’s you, their leader, and your requirements and expectations. There’s more to learn, more to do, and much less time to get it all done. How can you help your firefighters get past all of those obstacles and accomplish their goals?

As their leader, your goal is to enhance your firefighters’ performance and personal satisfaction by focusing on their motivation. Your challenge is to use a leadership style that best meets their motivational needs, one that makes the path to their goals clear and easy to travel through coaching and direction.

Simply put, I believe the role of the leader is to provide the necessary information, support and resources over and above those provided by the fire department to ensure both your firefighters’ personal satisfaction and effective performance. Company leaders must work with their firefighters to define goals, clarify the path to reach those goals, clear the obstacles from that path and then provide the support needed to accomplish the goals.

Company officer leadership defines goals, clarifies the path, removes obstacles and provides support.

Company leaders can help their firefighters along the path to their goals by using specific behaviors that are best suited to fit their needs and the situation they are working in. The following leadership behaviors, used at the appropriate times, can help you clear the path for your firefighters:

1. Directive leadership is behavior toward providing structure to your firefighters — letting them know what they are expected to do, scheduling and coordinating work, giving specific guidance, and clarifying rules, regulations, and procedures.

2. Supportive leadership is behavior that addresses the satisfaction of your firefighters’ needs, displaying concern for their welfare and creating a friendly and supportive environment where they are treated as equals and with respect.

3. Participative leadership is behavior that invites your firefighters to share in decision making — consulting with them, obtaining their ideas and opinions, and integrating their suggestions into the decisions.

4. Achievement-oriented leadership is behavior that challenges your firefighters to perform at their highest level possible — it’s when you are confident that your firefighters are capable of establishing and accomplishing challenging goals.

Unfortunately, one practical outcome of these behaviors is that they treat leadership as a one-way event, where everything the leader does affects the firefighters. This may cause your firefighters to become dependent on you to accomplish their work. It can place a great deal of responsibility on your shoulders, and much less on theirs. This can become counterproductive if it promotes dependency on you or if you fail to recognize the full capabilities of your firefighters.

Based on these leadership behaviors, you should be directive when tasks are complex, and when tasks are dull you should provide support. You should be participative when your firefighters need control, and achievement-oriented when they need to excel. The important thing is that you must carefully assess your firefighters and their tasks and then choose an appropriate leadership style to match.

A firefighter’s day is filled with many obstacles: responding to emergency calls, training requirements, rules and regulations, station and equipment maintenance, new technology, and many other potential hurdles. As their leader, your goal should be to motivate them to be productive and satisfied with their work.

Your team’s effectiveness will depend on the fit between your behavior and the characteristics of your firefighters and their tasks. Clearing the path for your firefighters, by directing, guiding and coaching them along the way, will help you and your firefighters reach your goals.

What do you do to clear the path for your firefighters? How do you motivate them so they are productive and satisfied with their work?

Perception Equals Reality – Even in Training Drills [Article]

My recent article published at FIREFIGHTERNATION.

Make sure your training drills are realistic and effective

Photo by Tim Olk

By Billy Schmidt
Published Thursday, July 5, 2012

The stairwell was filled with smoke and we had trouble seeing. We stretched the hoseline from the floor below and charged it, but the situation became one big mess. We hadn’t deployed a high-rise pack in a while. At the last high-rise training drill, we were assigned to water supply and didn’t even enter the building. We should have trained more on this!

There are two things all fire departments must do: 1) respond to and mitigate emergencies, and 2) prepare to respond to and mitigate emergencies—and training is the foundation for both. That’s why fire departments must make the right investment in time, effort and—yes—funding, so that training can occur regularly and effectively.

Your training mission should be simple and unchanging: Get your firefighters and officers ready to respond to and handle anything, at any time. But that’s a daunting task, and too often trainers believe that just any training drill will do. Or maybe training takes the first hit in the budget cuts. Despite these challenges, you must utilize realistic and effective training to build a healthy, educated fire department that’s ready to handle anything safely and effectively.

Trainers must be creative thinkers and willing to make an extra effort to prepare and deliver training simulations that offer realistic incident operations and learning environments that lead from thought to action. Realistic simulations build the skill and will of individual firefighters while improving team performance. Perception equals reality, even in training drills.

This concept is the key ingredient to safe and effective emergency operations, and it doesn’t have to drain your budget. For better readiness, reshape your training delivery by starting simple and building complexity along the way; focus on individual confidence and team cohesion that ensures the ability to think and act clearly; and remain open-minded and make adjustments to enact safe and reliable performance.

Plan Realistic Training Drills 
Highly dynamic training requires sound and organized thinking—and a good plan. Planning is critical for developing realistic incident training. A training need exists where there is a gap between what’s required of a firefighter or officer to perform their work competently and what they can actually do. Here are three key components for designing and delivering realistic training simulations.

1. Where they are: Determine the current skill level of your firefighters.
What’s the skill level of your firefighters and officers today? To determine their current skill level, first observe their performance during training and actual incidents. Then ask them what skills they aren’t comfortable with and need to improve on. Following are example questions you may ask:

  • How well prepared are you to handle an apartment fire on the sixth floor of a high-rise building? A residential liquid propane (LP)gas leak with a fire?
  • How many times in the last year have you completed a ventilation task at an actual structure fire?
  • How many times in the last year have you practiced forcing entry through a real door?

Asking these types of questions will help you determine the necessary training and establish the desired outcomes you’re looking for. A thorough needs assessment, while time consuming, will provide more accurate information to build on.

2. Where you want them to be: Identify the skill level you want your firefighters to attain.
Not all firefighters are alike. They will perform at different levels and you must determine at what skill level you want them to perform. This should be a combined effort between the training staff and a cross section of subject matter experts (SME), usually officers from the field. This group can better identify the skill levels needed and prioritize what training needs the most attention, how often it should be completed and by whom.

3. Develop a SMART plan to meet your training drill goals.
Use the acronym SMART to develop your plan (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely). Producing a believable and achievable SMART training plan is the best way to get “buy-in” from your firefighters and ensure consistent training. All realistic training should begin with basic instruction and practice that builds to a collective simulated exercise. For every simulation exercise, your training objectives should be:

  • Specific: What do you want to accomplish? For example, if you are delivering a high-rise drill, your specific goals might be to have crews practice deploying hoselines in stairwells, ventilating stairwells, searching smoke-filled apartments and moving victims down stairwells. Make sure crews know these objectives ahead of time so they can practice the tasks before the drill.
  • Measurable: What is the maximum time allowed to complete fire knockdown, search and rescue, or ventilation? How do benchmarks fit into the incident command picture? The learning outcomes must be measurable.
  • Achievable: What can be achieved? Do not expect crews to perform beyond their capabilities. One crew of firefighters cannot attack the fire, search the building and remove multiple victims. Overloading them will only decrease motivation and teach bad habits.
  • Realistic: Set realistic objectives so that the crews go into the drill believing they can do it. While experiencing failure is an important learning lesson, no one wants to continually train to fail. Remember, the goal is to build confidence, not tear it down.
  • Timely: Time at a chaotic and stressful event is really about tempo. And tempo is the relative speed in time it takes to identify opportunities, make decisions and act faster than the situation. Tempo is central for firefighters to maneuver during an incident, and the aim is for them to learn to seize the initiative—allowing them to better control the chaos of the event. Learning realistic time elements helps firefighters adjust their tempo as a team during real incidents.

Training Approaches
To create training sessions that most effectively prepare firefighters for the real thing, trainers need to focus on several strategies.

Balance Complexity: All training should be seasoned with the right amount of physical and mental complexity. Avoid introducing multiple layers of complexity that do nothing more than overwhelm or test the crew’s limits. Ensure that crews are thoroughly trained on the fundamental skills and tactics before factoring in complexity. Start with basic scenarios and build complexity as the crews develop their skills and strengthen their confidence.

Train to Think Outside the Box:Complex and dangerous situations demand creative thinking so firefighters must learn to think creatively, or outside the box. Remember: There are always multiple ways of doing things. Creative thinking is inclusive thinking; it considers the least obvious as well as the most likely approaches, providing different ways to look at a problem. Exclusive thinking, which excludes other facts and perceptions, smothers imagination and intuition. Firefighters who think inclusively have a willingness to explore all approaches, keeping an open mind to more effective solutions in stressful and ambiguous situations.

Effectiveness over Efficiency:Effectiveness should be the key component when developing training drills. When setting organizational goals related to the training drill, always focus on the outcomes. Ask, “What is it we expect the firefighters to do? What is it we expect the officers to do? How do we expect the teams to perform?” Once those questions are answered, design training programs that focus on effectiveness over efficiency.

Include Boyd’s OODA Loop in training drills as an effective way to process information and make fast decisions. Letting firefighters practice the process of observing what’s happening, becoming oriented to the situation, then making decisions and acting on them to accomplish the objectives will produce effective outcomes, not just efficient drills. The more firefighters realistically train, the faster they’ll be able to intuitively put into action the learned responses built from practicing observation-orientation-decision and action.

Talk about What Was Learned:The first questions firefighters should ask themselves, and officers should ask their team, are “What was done right? What can be done better? What did we learn?” Time and effort should be given to ensure that the correct learning outcomes were delivered. What firefighters and officers take away from training will guide their decisions and actions at real events. Every training drill should end with a debriefing and critique that includes everyone involved. Too often, training drills conclude without providing time for facilitators and firefighters to discuss their training performance. For every training drill critique, do the following:

  • Do everything possible to get everyone involved and talking. No one person should do all of the talking. Real dialogue from everyone will provide a mountain of information for learning and improvement.
  • Officers should be given ample opportunity to critique their team’s actions, which will provide a clear indication of the officer’s capability to learn and further train their team. Facilitators, and the officer’s immediate supervisor, can observe what was learned and how future training can be supported just by listening to the officer.
  • Position everyone at a vantage point where they can see the area where the training action took place. Draw sketches on a marker board or walk back through the scenario to discuss the good points and areas for improvement.
  • When covering points for improvement, don’t say, “You should have done this,” or, “You should have done that.” It’s much better to ask probing questions that can bring out detailed answers. For example, ask, “When you entered the smoke-filled stairwell, what action was taken?” Follow that question with, “What did you think of the action?” Using a series of questions will draw everyone into the discussion. More importantly, everyone has ideas and this can elicit contributions to the discussion—which is essential to the learning process.

A Final Word
Firefighters and officers are faced with unique and dangerous challenges everyday; our decisions and actions can save lives and protect property. The way we train is crucial to addressing these challenges. Training cannot become a “numbers game” focusing just on preparedness rather than readiness. Training must be shaped to meet the reality of today’s incidents and the people who will work together to face them. Providing realistic training drills will condition everyone to be ready for any situation—to be more decisive, deliberate and correct in their actions.

Until next time, get prepared, be ready and stay safe!

Do you balance complexity in your training? Do you train to think outside the box?

Trickle-Down Customer Service

Customer service trickles down from leadership, through members, to customers. Photo by Kim Fitzsimmons.

Customer service trickles down from leadership, through members, to customers. Photo by Kim Fitzsimmons.

Every organization serves customers. Retail stores, governments, hospitals and restaurants they all serve customers, both internally and externally. So, shouldn’t meeting the needs of all of their customers be a top priority? Trickle-down service may be the most effective way to serve everyone.

Fire departments, like other organizations,  are trying to make their way through tough economical times while maintaining, or improving, their customer service. But operational decisions made while weathering a storm must not ignore your organization’s first customers, your members. Making drastic changes, even if needed, must be done with care in order to meet the service needs of your members first. Take care of your members first, and, as a result, they will feel better about what they do. Your members deal directly with the community, so customer service is a key part of their responsibilities. Here are some ways to trickle customer service down through your organization:

  • Customer service trickles down from leadership, through members, to customers. Bypassing your members will not improve your customer service. Your members are the people on the front lines with your customers. You have to go through your members first.
  • Happy members make customers and the organization’s leaders happy. When your members experience good customer service they are happy. When your members are happy they serve their customers better. When your members and their customers are happy, well then, your organization’s leaders have no choice but to be happy. Everyone is happy!
  • Happy members help the organization work better. Unhappy members do not make extra effort to help, and sometimes make things worse causing more financial problems and less efficiency. Whereas, happy members contribute and take responsibility to make their organization better. They take initiative and go the extra mile. To improve your organization, keep your members happy!

How is the customer service at your organization? How have you tried to increase it through your members? Are your members happy?

Recommended Reading & Viewing



Burton Clark – Fire/EMS Safety & Health Week: Rules vs. DNA

From Ben Franklin to today, all firefighters have the same DNA made up of six genes: fast, close, wet, risk, injury and death (FCWRID). These genes have been passed down for generations from firefighters and the public. Our gene sequence has driven our behavior and rule development throughout our history (Clark, 2011).

Your firefighter DNA genes (fast, close, wet, risk, injury and death) will trump rules every time. Most of the time, one abnormal gene does not negatively affect the outcome, but when two or more mutate, turgidity can results.  Changing your DNA is hard, but you can change your behavior if you know what is driving it.


The Art of Manliness – Leadership Lessons from Dwight D. Eisnehower: How to Make an Important Decision

The complexity of planning and executing Operation Overlord — the largest amphibious assault in world history — was truly staggering.

How had Eisenhower found the nerve to make one of the heaviest, most consequential decisions in history? “I had to,” he later explained, “if I let anybody, any of my commanders, think that maybe things weren’t going to work out, that I was afraid, they’d be afraid to. I didn’t dare. I had to have the confidence. I had to make them believe that everything was going to work.”

Dan Rockwell, The Leadership Freak – Stop Barking up the Wrong Tree

Leaders who work to extend their influence are barking up the wrong tree.

Mike Myatt, N2Growth – The History of Leadership

…. an interactive historical timeline of the world’s greatest leaders dating as far back as 2000 BC.


Seth Godin – Doing the big work (at the little table)

Most of the day is spent in little work. The obligation is to carve out time for the big work.

High Performance Leadership – The Trouble with Critical Feedback

How do you respond to a situation that provides only critical feedback?


Terin Izil & Sunni Brown, TED-Ed – The Power of Simple Words

Long, fancy words designed to show off your intelligence and vocabulary are all very well, but they aren’t always the best words. In this short, playful video Terin Izil explains why simple, punchy language is often the clearest way to convey a message.