Throughout my career in the fire service, I have noticed certain similarities in firefighters. Among these, the one that has inspired me the most, whether I was in Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, or Saudi Arabia, is the passion I see to lead and make the fire service better.
There are many paths to leadership, both formal and informal, and many wonderful fire service leaders to help us get there. It can make your head spin reading the many articles and books on the subject. However, it has been my experience that all leadership material has one common thread: being a good example or, as I like to call it, “Exampleship.”
In my career, there have been many great leaders. The good example they set–the Exampleship they displayed–made me want to be a better firefighter. Chances are, you are who you are in the fire service now because you had a mentor, formally or otherwise, whose example made you want to follow their lead. Being a good example to other firefighters is a great place for you to start your journey as a leader. Below are some ideas to demonstrate Exampleship, no matter where you are in your fire service career.
Exampleship as a New Recruit
Leading starts the day you enter the fire service and should always be in front of your mind as you navigate the ups and downs. Most recruit classes have an unofficial leader in the group—the one who helps get everyone where they need to go, that person who spends part of the lunch break helping struggling cadets with ropes and knots. That person is showing good exampleship.
In my training academy in Lexington, Kentucky, I had several good recruits that exhibited this trait. The best ones didn’t even realize they were doing it. They knew the importance of teamwork. Not surprisingly, these recruits grew into leadership roles in the department and still lead through being a good example.
Three traits make for good exampleship as a recruit firefighter:
• Take time to help other recruits. It will help them learn a skill and reinforce it for you.
• Arrive at the academy early and encourage others in your class to do the same. You can get your chores and PT done early, leaving more time for training.
• Use every opportunity to study. Let the instructors and firefighters know you are taking this opportunity seriously.
Exampleship as a Firefighter
My first few years in the fire service were, by far, my most formative. Riding backward taught me more about the fire service and, more importantly, introduced me to some of the best examples that I still try to emulate today. For example, once you are on a shift and riding backward on a truck, your daily house chores are usually less than glamorous, but they matter. If you attack cleaning the bathrooms or sweeping the halls like you attack a fire, aggressive and with passion, then you are practicing exampleship.
When I was blessed with the honor of cleaning the bathrooms in my firehouse, I would buy my own cleaning supplies and bring them to work. My captain at the time noticed this and said, “The department buys us cleaning supplies. If you buy your own, they will start to expect it.” I told him, “Cap, my job is to clean the bathrooms, and I want to do a better-than-average job.” He may have disagreed with me, but I’m quite sure he remembered the passion he once had at my level. I wanted to practice good exampleship by taking every aspect of the job seriously and with the same passion. I would rather have been practicing forcible entry, extrication, or vent-enter-isolate-search, but I realized that to do the big things you must master the little things.
Here are some tips for firefighter exampleship:
• Give 110% on every chore, no matter how menial.
• Learn the job above you and, when it’s time, teach your job below you.
• Arrive early and spend time with the off-going shift. Learn from their runs and experiences.
• Keep your mouth shut and listen.
• Train and train some more. Become a master in your craft.
• Fight the urge to be part of firehouse gossip. Don’t be a grape in the grapevine.
• Set the standard high for those coming behind you.
Exampleship as a Company Commander
Company commanders are the tip of the spear for the firehouse and, arguably, the fire department. Whether they know it or not, because of their rank they are in a unique position to have direct influence over the firefighters under their command and, therefore, have the potential to set a good example or a bad one, both of which can have serious consequences on the fire department.
For example, I have worked with company officers who were so out of shape that we rarely spent an entire bottle inside a fire. I have worked with officers who constantly scrutinized every decision the administration made to the point their comments became rote and predictable. These officers showed exampleship–just not the kind you want. A bad attitude is just as contagious as a good one, and these officers’ attitudes made the day less enjoyable. There was little I felt I could do at the time to offset the negatives these officers exuded, so I kept plugging away, learning my craft and mentally putting them in the “don’t” column.
Fortunately, I had many more officers who enjoyed their job, had a passion for the craft, and shared it either directly or indirectly with me and their crews. These are the officers who motivated and inspired me. They oozed positive exampleship and made a much bigger dent in my passion for the job than the others, who were just city employees. I may not have agreed with every decision they made, but there was no doubt they were leading from the front and had the company’s best interest at heart, because they demonstrated that daily.
I worked with who I believe are some of the best captains in the business. Of the long and varied list of behaviors that made them so good at exampleship, here are just a few:
• Know your job thoroughly and the jobs of your crew.
• Train often and train hard. You set the standard for your crew.
• Exercise EVERY day. Make physical exercise a crew thing. Make the workout simulate fireground activities.
• Take classes outside the department. Try to recruit others to do the same.
• Don’t search for the negatives in your crew; they will show up all on their own. Search for the positives and praise often.
Exampleship as a Chief Officer
Being a chief officer has a much different skill set than those riding the trucks. It can feel like it is time to slow down and maybe coast a bit. The truth is, exampleship is just as important as before, maybe more so.
When I was promoted to a chief officer, I knew all eyes would be on me. I had seen from experience that the biggest breakdown of exampleship is often between the company level and the administration. I didn’t want that to be my legacy as well. I thought about those who had to lead the way in the past that I respected and tried to model my foundation from their exampleship.
My first captain in Lexington became my major a few years into my job. I only worked with him for about five years, but he made a huge impact on whom I would become as a firefighter and a chief officer. He was firm but fair and put an emphasis on training and teamwork. He always took his job seriously and set high expectations for those below him. I don’t remember him ever badmouthing the administration regardless of any new policy or procedure. I knew I wanted to follow in his footsteps.
However, I also knew I had to forge my own way and try to carve out my own leadership style. My passion lies in training, safety, and exercise. I truly believe that if you focus on these areas, then everything else in the fire service falls into place. As a chief officer, I found these would be a large part of my own exampleship.
For each officer, the opportunities for exampleship will vary, but here a few that are important to remember:
• Be fair not only to your shift or platoon but to all firefighters in your department.
• Train with the crew. Not only is it fun to pack up and run drills, but it also reminds you of what your crews must deal with.
• Make safety a number one priority at all times. Your crew may not want to wear self-contained breathing apparatus during overhaul, but it’s imperative for their safety.
• Exercise. Make it a daily thing and make sure your crew sees you doing it. If possible, exercise with your crew. It allows for an informal staff meeting.
It doesn’t matter where you are in your career or what rank you hold. It’s not about being a career or volunteer firefighter. It’s not about whether those above you are good leaders. It all boils down to you and your effort in the fire service to make this a better place than you found it. If you find yourself in a rut, try to remember how you felt when you found out you got the job at the fire department, the pride you felt when you put on the uniform for the first time, and the first time you were promoted to the next rank. Then use that feeling to set a better example. You will fall short of others’ expectations and even your own, but that is part of it. Keep moving forward. It’s about progress, not perfection. It’s about being a good leader. It’s about positive exampleship.
Jake Barnes is the battalion chief of training for the New Albany (IN) Fire Department. A 25-year veteran of the fire service, he began his career as a USAF firefighter and was a firefighter with the Lexington (KY) Fire Department. He has an associate degree in general studies and a bachelor’s degree in fire protection from Eastern Kentucky University.