Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks

We all join the fire department for the love of the job. As rookie firefighters, promotion is often never a thought. You hear guys say, “They’ll never get me off the rig,” or “There is too much paperwork involved with being a captain.” 


But as we become more seasoned, we begin to realize that promotion is not out of the realm of possibilities. We have all had poor leaders and supervisors, and to some extent I feel that “teaching us what not to do” is just as important as it somewhat cements the realization that we can become proficient leaders and supervisors. We have all heard a million times the difference between supervisors, leaders (informal and formal), etc.

I was recently promoted to captain and assigned a completely new realm of responsibility. Not only was I new to the supervisor role and responsibilities (formally) but I was placed in a unique position to supervise a large aircraft firefighting and rescue component. I had held leadership roles previously in a volunteer organization, so I had some familiarity with tactics, personnel issues, etc. It was a great foundation and paved the way for me, but I can assure you people respond differently when it is their paycheck on the line. Emotions run much higher and the consequences of your actions carry much greater weight. True, lives are in your hand in both capacities, but as a career officer you determine changes in peoples lives that they face every day. The possibility of getting seriously injured or killed on this job is always in the back of our minds but making sure we can pay the bills next Friday or buy more diapers is usually at the front of our minds.

As a new officer coming in, it is crucial to get to know the folks under you. I have made it a point to sit down individually with everyone under my supervision and formulate a game plan. This can be followed by company meetings or station meetings. You must let them know that you are invested in them as a leader. As a leader it is up to us to guide the mission and the personnel in the right direction. I passionately believe that we should be “training our replacement” and developing people in their specific field. One of the first things I covered in this meeting were “expectations.” It is imperative that your folks know what they can expect of you and were you stand on certain issues. It does not have to be a long list, but give them a minimum standard from jump street. This needs to go both ways. After stating your expectations make sure you give them an opportunity to let you know their expectations of you.

My list is kind of a Frankenstein of some of the other more popular authors out there. You may recognize some of their insight. They do not have to be only firefighters either and you’ll see some of these names later. Find what works for you and make it your own. My expectations for them included the following headlines: Be Professional, Be honest, Do your Job, and ALWAYS do the right thing. What exactly do these topics mean?

Be Professional

The firehouse is a tight knit community. We love to talk shop, talk smack, and to some degree we must be comfortable around each other. After all we do live together and, in some cases, spend more time (it seems like) at work than we do at home. But when the bells drop, when we are at the grocery store, or someone stops by the station asking for directions we need to be professional. Have your shirt tucked in, treat them with respect and treat each other with respect.

Be Honest

We all know a hundred dollars could sit on the kitchen table all day and no one would touch it. But what about being true to your word? Be honest with each other, the men under you, and supervisors above you. Let them know that if they are honest with you about a sensitive issue you can be trusted not to repeat it. Don’t try and “trick” them. If they give you their personal phone number, you better not call them for overtime. If you burn that trust, you will never get it back as a supervisor. If you tell them you are going to do something make sure you follow through. If you must, keep notes. My guys know if I do not write it down, I’m going to forget. But I owe it to them and myself to follow through and be trustworthy.

Do Your Job

We all know this one can be difficult sometimes. But we are here to do a job and do it efficiently. Establish the expectation of this but also acknowledge that while you do expect 100 percent on calls, your men need down time too. Do not rush the rookie up from the table, he needs his meal too. But let them know you expect 100 percent on training and throughout the shift 110 percent on a call. We could write a book on training and proficiency. The groundwork to this is going to be established before you take the helm. But you may have to significantly revamp training and expectations on calls based on who was in the position before you. Being professional can be tied in to this as well. It is our job to have our sh** together when the public needs us.

Do the Right Thing

I saved this one for last because to me it is the most important one. Hands down. Always do the right thing. If you can justify doing the right thing, I will back you up 100 percent of the time. Even if you are wrong. If you made what you thought was the right decision at the time and can articulate that you will have my support. This does both ways too, because you will get in trouble and you will make mistakes as a new supervisor. When your boss asks. “What were you thinking?” Take the opportunity to explain your thought process and why it was the right decision. In EMS we are taught at the end of the day to “do what is right by the patient.” It is the same concept put into different words and actions.

When you have laid out the expectations give them a chance to give you their expectations of you. This is most important especially when it comes to the senior guys under you. They have been around and know the workings of the crew, station, operations, etc. For me this was imperative. I went from riding the acting on a structural engine here and there, to riding an ambulance everyday as a paramedic, to being a captain on the aircraft side of operations. This was something completely foreign to me. I had zero experience when it came to airfields, airfield emergencies and aircraft. I laid it out for those senior guys in the very beginning. They were all told “I’m relying heavily on you and I can’t succeed without your help.” Senior guys under you will make or break you. I also was able to give them some creative responsibility helping with truck assignments, coordinating training and giving them freedom to express concerns and invest in the company. This gives a trickle-down effect and if you are willing to listen to what they have to say and their suggestions they will make you shine.

Inform them of your desires to handle issues at the lowest possible levels. Start small and work your way outward. There are some things that don’t need to ripple outward. It will compromise you as a leader and may spread bad information about your crew. Once you have pushed through expectations on both sides of the coin, take a chance to relieve the tension in the room and ask about the person in front of you. I’m all about handling business first (expectations) and then fun stuff. If you don’t know these men and women ask about them. Ask about their families, how many kids they have, where they live, what they enjoy doing in their free time etc. Show them you are invested in them. This gives you a solid background on them and may give you some insight when issues arise. Is someone just not invested? Maybe they have a family member fighting cancer or other serious illness. Maybe they have a newborn at home and just aren’t getting the sleep they need. If you have some of these conversations ahead of time they will be more comfortable sharing with you and it will give you an idea of who and what to look for.

The other important conversation piece is to determine what you can do to help them grow. Not everyone is looking to make rank. Maybe some want to pursue a paramedic certification, peer support training or other unique training or avenue. This is where you come in to develop your people. It gives you the forethought to begin keeping an open eye or ear to training that may be applicable to opportunities for them. You may be able to detail them to a specific duty or throw their name in the hat for specific collateral duties. Don’t be afraid to share your experience with them about promotional processes, exams, etc. This is one of my pet peeves. If you are so worried about sharing information and giving someone else a leg up you weren’t very competitive in the first place.

Lastly do not forget to continue developing and working on yourself. When you receive a new assignment, it is almost like being a rookie again. Take the time — maybe even your off time — to drive around and learn your response area. Participate in drills that you hold to learn and better yourself. This does not mean holding a clipboard while they are crawling around in gear but participating and getting your hands dirty with them. If you are afraid to appear weak in an area and avoid it, the men and women will see right through you. As a firefighter you had some down time to yourself, but as a captain there isn’t time for that. Develop yourself while by reading up on materials and reviewing notes you’ve made.

Develop a reading list for yourself and remember that “Leaders are Readers” (Thanks Chip). Lasky, Willink, Salka, Blaber, VonAppen, Sergi, are some names you should be familiar with. I am adding to that list every day and I apologize for not including everyone on there. Some of the brothers I was lucky enough to receive some wisdom from are no longer with us. Take advantage of that now. Brad Clark we miss you brother. My father Marvin Castellow, a retired firefighter had so much insight to this job and I wish I could pick his brain every day. Take advantage of those resources and wealth of knowledge before they are gone. Establish a network of your resources and people you can trust to continue developing as a leader. Come in early and meet the day head on putting your gear on the rig early and reviewing email and staffing needs for the day. Always make time for a cup of coffee with the men. Stay Safe and Keep doing great things.

THOMAS W. CASTELLOW is a Captain and NREMT-P with Navy Region Mid-Atlantic Fire and Emergency Services, volunteer firefighter and former Deputy Fire Chief in Moyock, North Carolina. He has more than 15 years of experience in public safety and has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration and an associate degree in fire science from Columbia Southern University. He is a member of the North Carolina State Fireman’s Association as well as the International Association of Fire Fighters.

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