The Passionate Fire Officer

Over the past month or so I have found myself in many discussions with various fire service professionals, both career and volunteer, across this great nation. Topics ranged from politics to training to what is our biggest gap in the fire service. To my surprise the end result always seemed to come back to what I didn’t want to hear: “the passion for the fire service.” This just knocked me to my knees and I have been soul searching for strength and words to begin an effort to change this problem.


Why have we lost the passion for the fire service? In many of my conversations it never failed that each individual would say, “these folks today have lost the vision and are becoming an officer for the wrong reasons — they just want a title and/or the money and not the responsibility.” Sadly, this is true. Reflecting back over my career and while doing some soul searching, I reflected upon a time I decided to follow my heart, leaving a fire chief role to focus on repaying the many gifts given to me through focusing on mentoring and training. This move was out of passion and love for training, not money, as I did take a pay cut, not rank as I dropped in rank, but for the heart burning passion I have for training fire service professionals.

My leaving of course created a position for someone to move to fire chief. That position was filled with someone who was about to retire. I am sure he took it for the boost in his retirement, I can’t blame him as everyone needs a dollar to survive, but did he do it for the right reasons? My question is, was it the passion to serve others, the community or was it for the money and prestige? This is not uncommon as we travel across the United States that we see this very thing in a lot of departments. The wrong reasons for becoming a fire officer exist. So how do we live passionately for the fire service?

Do Something Drastic

Passionate fire officers will take some risks and get out of the rut. This means get out of the recliner or whiner mode and go to work, be a shiner! Go out and train with your crew, mentor to a younger firefighter who is eager to learn, wash that nasty gear, try being safe for a change and that nasty burned up helmet really doesn’t impress true leaders.

We as fire officers get into a rut and we do the same thing over and over, expecting different results. We all know what this is the definition of — insanity. But it is true that most don’t like change. In fact most hate it. I on the other hand, I guess am a little weird, embrace change and hate mediocrity or status quo. I think we need to be looking for ways constantly to affect good and positive change. Hey, if it is not broke let’s break it, let’s find a better way!

Most folks probably just cringed at the last thoughts. However, we have to look at the facts. We know what is causing firefighter line of duty deaths. We see the NIOSH and investigative incident reports come out. Getting some firefighters and worse yet officers to read these reports is difficult as they think it is not applicable to them. I have heard that for years now, as fire service personnel would say well we are not Hackensack or we are not Charleston. My answer is always, “You are correct! Very good observation but let me ask you this, isn’t it worth learning what happened and what went wrong so you may not make the same mistake they did?”

Unfortunately, even if they take time to read these reports, does it change them? Most likely not, so have they done anything drastic? Heck, drastic to some folks in the fire station is getting out of the recliner or actually doing some training, real training where they participate. As an officer and instructor this drastic effect is hard to get individuals to do. They are scared of change because most times they have never kept up and know they will show a weakness. Get over it! Do something drastic; make changes for a safer fire service.

Take a Faith Walk

Most of the individuals who got into the fire service 15 years ago or longer remember the true test of faith in your brothers and sisters — the steeple raise. For those of you who may not recognize this, it was a common practice to set a good size ladder up, mine was a 55-inch banger ladder with the tormentor poles straight up. That is correct 90 degree angle. It was controlled by the ropes and the people who were holding those ropes. The walk of faith is that you climbed up the ladder to the top crossed over and came down the other side. Talk about a walk of faith — being that high in the air and being at other people’s mercy teaches faith.

Now looking back, this was not the safest thing we did in the fire service, but do you truly have faith in the people you work with? Do you trust them with your life? I know everyone always says yes to this so here goes my bull crap flag. I know by just sitting around listening in a fire station the bad mouthing that goes on about their brothers and sisters that the walk of faith is lip service in a lot of cases.

Secondly, do you trust administration and the officers? My favorite comment is that “those folks in administration have lost touch with reality.” Well sitting on the other side as administration, I would say that you have not or are not willing to take that walk of faith with administration. Most of what I found is when people used that line to me as a fire chief that when you explained the totality of the situation some had no clue of what was even said or what it meant. Most times people do not have the true understanding of all of the components and complexities that might be associated. I remember saying in one particular case that if I were the officer, I would not make that decision. It was a terrible decision.

Well, I found myself in that officer’s role not too long after I had made that comment. I was faced with the same situation and had to make a decision. What I found was that eating my words tasted extremely bad as I found that I did not have all the information when I was shooting my mouth off.  When I found myself in the same role I had criticized, I had a better totality of the picture with much more knowledge and realized just how bad I looked being the critic.

Let’s break it down to simple terms — to be a passionate fire officer you have to take a walk of faith every day. We always want some guarantee or insurance policy before we get on board. If we can maneuver around in smoke filled atmospheres without sight and trust our other senses we need to be able to develop the trust and faith in and of others. If you show and demonstrate your true passion for the fire service and others, they will take a walk of faith with you.

Responsibilities of Fire Officers

1. We should be members of the fire department.

The following passage was written by a great fire service leader, Chief Rick Lasky from his book “Pride and Ownership.”

“The fire service is a very special organization and one that is second to none. As a matter of fact, there are many in the private sector, many corporations, who wish they could model themselves after it. It has been said for years that there are Fortune 500 companies that would kill for the marketing advantage the American fire service has, and that’s mainly due to that fact that the public trusts us. They trust us with everything! At a time when the American family is struggling with divorce, abuse, and a lot of other problems, the fire service continues to serve as a role model for honesty. So many of our firefighters and officers have worked hard to get the fire service to where it is at today; for that very reason, we need to protect it. We’re all about family. We’re all about taking care of people. We’re all about supporting and promoting family values. We need to protect what we’re all about.”

But for us to continue this journey well into the future and to protect it for future firefighters, we need to ask ourselves some questions. We need to be honest with ourselves.

  • Who owns your fire department?
  • It’s been said for years that being a firefighter is the best job in the world. Why is it the best?
  • What kind of a leader does it take to provide that feeling?
  • Just as important: What kind of firefighter does it take?
  • Do you own your fire department?
  • Do you know where it all started and why?
  • Do you have that pride, that love for the job, or do you just show up?

The reality is that some people are not cut out for the fire service. They just can’t seem to make the commitment that is needed. But that’s okay, because it’s not for just anybody. It’s for those who can commit to core values such as Pride, Honor, and Integrity. It’s for those who can commit to a life of selflessness, to their brothers and sisters, and to the public. If this is you, welcome. I promise you it will be the best career choice you could have made. If you’re already one of us and just need a shot in the arm to reenergize you or a “systems check” when it comes to you and the fire service, we will move you in the right direction.

2. We should be role models of true fire service character.

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time in the great State of Nebraska training with a group of outstanding emergency services professionals at the Les Lukert Conference. What a breath of fresh air. The amount of energy that was delivered to my starving body was incredible from spending just 72 hours with such great fire service leaders. I was able to see years of leadership that was still going strong. That’s right fire service personnel who have 30, 40 and even 50 years of experience. The best part is they still look at everything in a progressive, proactive philosophy of saying ‘look at that opportunity.’

As leaders of the fire service we must look at opportunities with vision. We must be able to decode the ‘”mess” into “opportunity.” It is paramount that we focus on the concepts that it shouldn’t be this way, but we can make it something else. These are truly hectic times we live in. Times that can challenge even a seasoned leader. A successful leader must have a clear and well defined vision of where the organization is going.

3. We should be teachers of the fire service.

Company officers have more of an impact on the education of the fire service than most care to recognize. It is the day in and day out constant preparation of companies by the company officer that is the backbone of the fire service training. So how do we prepare company officers for this task of training the fire service for tomorrow? The base area we need to address initially is the attitude they have towards everything, especially training. That’s right, training is about attitude, but what is attitude? Let’s take a close look at several areas that hold the answer to this question.

First, we must evaluate to ensure our training is current and realistic. Training that is not realistic will not prepare the personnel for what could occur. They will not have the knowledge of tactics that work and don’t work; they will have not made mistakes to help develop information for cued decisions.

Secondly, is your training progressive? To prepare personnel to respond to emergencies and properly mitigate them safely, we must provide training that will help them be prepared for the tasks at hand. Keep in mind that we can do progressive training like high angle or confined space, but is it realistic. If you have no confined spaces in your district, this training is progressive but not realistic.

The other extreme is teaching the use of booster reels for vehicle fires. This is not a standard tactic any more due to the changes that have occurred to the designs and powering of motor vehicles. However, to be progressive we must cover the immediate training needs of your response area and then begin to train for the future changes that are destined to occur.

As company officers and/or instructors we have to change the mindset of “it has been done this way for 25 years, why do we need to change it?” Good change is excellent. No change is to regress or embrace status quo. If it is not broke, let’s break it — let’s find a better, safer and more efficient way.

Training must be interesting or it will not be effective. So how do we make training interesting? If you ask most firefighters they will say that hands on makes it interesting. Reality is that not all training can be hands on, some must be didactic. So how do we make that interesting? First come up with different and exciting ways do cover the material. The use of digital programs and pictures enhances any lecture. The presentation of real case scenarios that have occurred where firefighters can see tangible results is a good way also. Most of all put some energy into the presentation instead of being that guy up front who really doesn’t want to be there.

Finally, every portion of your training should be centered around meeting and fulfilling the mission and vision of your department. The mission and vision gives you a direction to expand your training into new areas and programs.

4. We should be mentors of the fire service.

Mentoring is about the circle of life and the passing on of knowledge. It is as old as humankind. For millennia, generations have passed on knowledge to succeeding generations. There is no greater gift than sharing your skills or knowledge to help another person succeed.

Mentoring is not a one-way street. However, it is not always a senior generation teaching a newer generation; it really is each generation teaching members of other generations. Having multiple generations in the workforce may complicate the mentoring process, but it also provides a wonderful opportunity for us to learn from several perspectives at once.

Stopping the Loss of Knowledge

Statistics indicate that over the next 10 years thousands of baby boomer fire officers and firefighters will leave the profession. They have done their duty, and they are looking forward to a well-deserved retirement. These colleagues possess such a wealth of knowledge that it would be a shame to lose it; however, this potential for loss is on our horizon.

Additionally, we have thousands of fire officers in leadership roles who are blessed with clinical and administrative knowledge. They know the ins and outs of the war years, the changes from legacy to modern fuel loading, staffing, budgeting, capital equipment prioritizing, employee assistance and development, and schedule coordination. The next generation of fire officer is entering a world of tight budgets, looming staff shortages, an aging population, and a fanatical drive for efficiency by the public, board of directors and governments.

The fire chief should equip officers to lead. Officers should lead their subordinates positively and equip their subordinates to lead as well. We have lost this art of mentoring in our business. I can relate to coming along as a young officer wanting to grow and learn. I can say I am the most blessed man in the entire fire service history to have had the type of mentors I had. Individuals that had the true passion for the fire service, that gave endlessly and tirelessly to me and others at that time. These individuals are my true inspiration and taught me all about passion. To these guys who know who they are, thank you for the gift! Now, if you are with me in receiving this gift as well, then it is time to pay back your debt. You can only pay this debt by passing it along to others.

5. We should be magnifiers of the fire service.

Often we lose our sense of urgency to serve the community and our department. We are focused more on what is in it for me and not what is the best for the department and the people/community we serve.

As fire officers we have to ignite the flames of passion back into the fire service. Will you be part of this movement as an officer? If not, my suggestion is quit, retire, leave, whatever, but don’t get in the way because you are part of our problem and not part of the solution. It is time to reignite that passion. We have to quit engaging in rowboat tug-a-war and start doing Viking ship rowing. We have to focus on reigniting the passion, being a passionate positive team player. You have to be all in!

Douglas Cline is Chief of the Training and Professional Development Division with Horry County Fire Rescue. He is the Executive Editor for The Fire Officer and Executive Director for the Command Institute in Washington D.C. A 36 year fire and emergency services veteran as well as a well-known international speaker, Cline is a highly published author of articles, blogs and textbooks for both fire and EMS. As a chief officer, Cline is a distinguished authority of officer development and has traveled internationally delivering distinguished programs on leadership and officer development. He also has a diverse line of training videos on leadership, rapid intervention team training, vehicle fires, hose line management, and emergency vehicle operations and fire ground safety and survival.

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