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Flashpoint: March 2011

I have a very good friend with whom I don’t play golf as often as we would like. When we do play we have a great time but he doesn’t play very much (not that I claim to be anything other than a hacker) and I always have to remind him of some basic rules and points of etiquette.

March 1, 2011  By Peter Sells

I have a very good friend with whom I don’t play golf as often as we would like. When we do play we have a great time but he doesn’t play very much (not that I claim to be anything other than a hacker) and I always have to remind him of some basic rules and points of etiquette. He grounds his club behind the ball when playing out of a bunker, for example. Sometimes, after he putts, he walks straight forward to his ball or to the hole without regard for the putting lines of others. No big deal, really, but if you get paired with a couple of strangers who take the game more seriously there could be some awkward moments. So, I take a moment and explain the rule in question, then we have time in the cart to go over it if we need to. The nature of our friendship and mutual trust allows us to give advice and correct mistakes as they crop up in our lives.

Without that trust and confidence to address undesired behaviours, no development will occur. This is a hallmark of true friendship and the essence of supervision and leadership.

Undesired behaviours in a fire-service context could be exhibited on scene, with tasks being performed incorrectly or in an unsafe manner. These are usually quickly identified, corrected and reinforced with a drill session if necessary. In a command context, most officers are comfortable and confident in the power of their ranks and make the required calls. However, command is just one aspect of an officer’s job and, actually, is among the least difficult functions of leadership.

The undesired behaviours that show up in the firehall, classroom or office are problematic for many new, inexperienced or underdeveloped officers.


The TV room is full of warm bodies yet the station duties haven’t been completed. Certain instructors miss important points in their lessons, do not use time efficiently or put their personal views ahead of the department’s policies. The blue language or inappropriate behaviour in the inspectors’ office causes issues with civilian staff or the public. I’m sure you have some specific examples.

Unlike barking an order to fix an incorrect hose lay, dealing with some of these behaviours requires insight, tact, discretion and courage. There are lots of reasons why undesired, non-emergency workplace behaviours go uncorrected but it comes down to the last of the requirements I just listed – courage.

It may seem sacrilegious to suggest that fire officers lack courage, but courage in the face of danger and courage to act upon a behavioural issue are two different things.

Typically, officer-development programs focus on the delivery of emergency service and tasks in immediate support of that mission (staffing, paperwork, equipment/apparatus/station maintenance). As a result of that development, experience and practice, officers have the confidence to face their fire ground duties. This is necessary, of course, but time and effort must be dedicated to the development of officers’ skills regarding our most important resources – our people.

Fire conferences are full of presentations with titles such as Is the boss still one of the boys, or So you’ve been promoted – now what? The fact that such titles show up in conference programs is evidence that there is a skill deficit when it comes to supervision and leadership. Some of the teaching points from these talks are:

  • The buck stops with you – if there is a problem to be fixed, you are responsible to fix it. Your department has policies to deal with an assortment of issues (harassment, performance assessment, attendance management, progressive discipline), or at least it should have. It is up to you to know your responsibilities under those policies and to act on them.
  • If you ignore it, it will get worse – you don’t have the luxury of time or avoidance.  In fact, a pattern of non-action may feature as part of some later corrective legal action that will be embarrassing, expensive and painful for all concerned.
  • Walk the talk – I hate that hackneyed phrase but it expresses the concept well.  You are an officer, so dress like one, speak like one and act like one. Slovenly appearance, a potty mouth and a lackadaisical manner will not inspire your team to perform like professionals.

Courage comes from confidence that you have the ability to tackle a problem and win.  Seek opportunities to develop such confidence until you are as courageous talking one on one with a team member to correct a thorny problem as you are on the fire ground.

And remember to repair your ball marks on the green. It’s considered polite.

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire-service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor.

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