Climbing up the Ladder

When I began my career in the fire service in 1982, I aspired to one day become a chief. I believe that many young firefighters share that dream of one day serving in a leadership position in the fire service. I am not sure, however, that we always properly prepare our rising leaders for such a position. Nor do I believe that we equip them to sustain themselves once they reach their destination. Climbing the career ladder can be very fulfilling. But it can also be dangerously overwhelming at times.


To be as inclusive as possible, I define a fire service career as simply one of serving. You may be serving as a paid firefighter or as a volunteer firefighter, or in some cases both. Regardless of the classification, you are still called to serve in a professional capacity that I define as a career. So this message applies equally to my peers in both the paid as well as the volunteer fire service. And while leading a paid staff does differ from leading volunteers, the skills needed to become and remain a leader apply to everyone.

There are steps — or in our case rungs — that we climb throughout our career as we move from the position of rookie firefighter to fire service leader. There are generally some proficiency requirements that we must master as we move up the ladder. In theory, we should be well versed on the basic skills necessary to do the job. Then we should receive additional training to effectively manage and lead our organization before we are actually assigned that responsibility.

I have found that the promotional process up the career ladder is often based more on technical capability than leadership capacity. We all know that one firefighter who was an outstanding nozzle man or an extraordinary fire equipment operator, and was subsequently promoted to a company officer because of their strong technical proficiency. Yet once promoted, we see that same fire officer struggle to manage his/her people. This occurs because we have not prepared our folks for leadership positions.

I have also seen how the concept of promotion based on popularity can elevate folks who are quite likeable into positions that they are simply not equipped to undertake. Many volunteer fire departments still elect their leadership positions. I’m sure that in some cases the outcomes have been favorable. But as a rule, voting someone into a leadership position is more about departmental politics than it is about leadership ability. And such a system can have disastrous consequences for everyone involved.

So, if you are a fire chief — or someone in a senior leadership role — or if you are aspiring to serve in that capacity, do you want to be leading an organization that is not actively developing the leadership potential of the future fire department officers? Interestingly, there are chief officers who do not want to provide their folks with such training. Some of the comments I have noted include:

“If my people know more or can perform better than me, I will surely be replaced.”

“I learned about leadership the hard way. They should too.”

“Leadership training is that touch-feely crap. Our folks don’t want any of that.”

“I am the fire chief. My people don’t need to know about leading the department because they will begin to second guess me. My job is hard enough already.”

Knowledge is power. We have all heard that before. And no doubt it is true. But more powerful than knowledge is well intended empowerment and delegation. I have never met a chief who has the answer to everything. I have met some very intelligent chiefs who knew that their effectiveness was in their ability to prepare, train, equip and empower a leadership team to successfully carry out the mission. A good motto to work by is simply, “teamwork makes the dream work!”

I think we all agree that the fire service cannot survive without men and women who learn the basics of fire fighting and are able to carry out the organizational mission. That is what we do. I would now ask you to consider taking that one step further. The fire service cannot flourish without equipping our folks to serve as leaders in addition to training them on the necessary technical skills. As chief officers, are we committed to that process?

If the leadership of the organization is not 100 percent committed to a process, then that process will inevitably fail. If the chief is not on board, there is little chance that the governing body — Board of Directors, Council, Commissioners, etc. — will even know about the initiative, let alone support it. And rest assured that those folks reporting to the chief certainly would not feel compelled to run with the program without the necessary support.

So what happens when there is no support for organizational leadership development, empowerment and delegation of responsibility? In most cases the fire Department does not cease to operate. Most firefighters will continue to work or volunteer because it is in our DNA. However, the safe and efficient operation of fire protection may be diminished because personnel lack motivation due to low morale or personnel have chosen to leave the department thereby reducing staffing to potentially unsafe levels.

Furthermore, when morale is low, departmental tensions normally run high. Who wants to come to work or hang out at the fire station when there is always some drama to contend with? No one wants this type of atmosphere nor does the leadership ever strive for such a negative environment. It just seems to happen over time. And this is what leads to a separation between the leadership and the membership of the department. Once separation occurs, it becomes increasing difficult to reunite.

Separation inevitably leads to isolation. If we consider that the strengths of our organization come from teamwork, empowerment and delegation, the effective fire service leader must remain engaged, not isolated. Engagement requires effort. Effort requires commitment. Commitment requires passion — that same passion we all embraced when we began our careers in the fire service. Serving as a chief officer is more than simply sitting behind a desk or commanding incidents. It’s all about the leadership.

Effective chief officers harness their passion for the good of the department. They prepare themselves for leading the organization by attending professional development programs, by learning from other fire service leaders, and by immersing themselves in a culture of continual improvement. Effective chief officers understand the importance of preparing future generations to lead the department one day. They serve as positive role models and mentors. They encourage leadership development.

Climbing up the ladder requires a number of positive attributes. For example, important qualities include confidence, determination, dedication, proficiency, commitment, and resilience just to name a few. The ladder may be an extension ladder on the fire ground or a career ladder within the fire department. These characteristics are appropriate for personal development in either case. Climbing up the ladder means that we never stop learning and we never stop leading.

Serving in a leadership capacity as a chief officer will be very fulfilling and rewarding as you develop your leadership skills as well as those skills of others. Equipping yourself for success is paramount. Delegating responsibility and empowering others for success will bring you great satisfaction in your career. While climbing any ladder can be challenging, reaching the top and helping others climb with you makes the effort all the more worthwhile.

Steve Marks currently serves as the assistant chief for the Cove Creek Volunteer Fire Department in Vilas, North Carolina. He has been involved in various capacities within the emergency services community since 1982, working in both operations and administration. As a certified instructor, he teaches leadership, disaster management and multi-agency coordination. Marks earned a Graduate Certificate in Community Preparedness and Disaster Management from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a Masters of Science in Emergency Management from Jacksonville State University.

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