If we constantly look out for one another, we are going to thrive
By Larissa Conroy
It’s hard to believe that I’m coming up on the years I will use to promote. I constantly feel like I’m not ready to be in charge of myself, let alone other people. I feel like it was just yesterday that I was starting with my first department. I can’t help but think back on all the leaders I have worked with over the years. As I begin my path to what will, hopefully, one day be a chief, I think about what kind of leader I want to be. What have I learned over the years from working with great leaders that will impact my leadership style? There is no simple answer to that question. I have learned many great things just by observing. I can’t say I know exactly what kind of leader I want to be. However, I know the qualities of the leaders that I loved working for, and I know the qualities of leaders that I didn’t like working for. I have formulated opinions of what leadership and education should look like over the years.
With the fire service deeply rooted in tradition, becoming a leader isn’t as easy as a regular business or an organization. The fire service doesn’t require you to have a degree to get hired; however, it requires you to have a degree to promote. Most people who came up through the ranks, until recently, came up on a system that was purely mentorship. What happened if you were brought up under a mentor who was not a good mentor but did not know? You have the potential to foster another generation of poor leadership without knowing the cost of your actions. This can lead to alienation, poor morale, and lack of trust or faith in your leadership.
Going ahead in the fire service, I would love to see positive changes in the way of education. Many departments only require pertinent certifications to be considered for hire. In the future, I would love to see a change that you would need the level of an associate degree to be considered for hire on a department. To be considered for promotion, the level of bachelor’s degree should be a requirement as well as your Fire Officer 1 certification. A promotion to chief should require a master’s degree and your Fire Officer 2 (possibly Fire Officer 3) certification. This seems farfetched; however, managing a fire department is very similar to managing a business. Every other career path requires degrees and higher education. Why should the fire department be any different? Why do we continue to promote people who do not value the proper education or seek a higher level of education?
What School Did Not Teach Me
There are many things I have learned about leadership and management of people. I have learned these things from taking classes toward a business degree. There are many things a general business degree can teach you about personnel management and budgeting that can be carried over to the fire department very effectively. However, there are some things about leadership that school did not teach me:
True leaders lead from the front. I have yet to see an officer whom I haven’t absolutely loved working for kick his feet up on his desk and command for certain things to be done. These leaders are the most respected by their subordinates because they continue to stay as close to the job as they can as if they didn’t promote past the level of firefighter. They continue to work hard and don’t command something of their people that they wouldn’t do themselves.
Leaders are not afraid to have difficult conversations. There were many times over the years that I and others were passed over for specialty positions that (on paper) we were more qualified for. The “leader” who passed us over never bothered to have a conversation with us and explain the reasoning behind why the most qualified personnel were not being selected for specialized positions. This person was never required to have that conversation. However, if he would have been able to talk to his people, it would have saved the morale of the people who worked for him. On the other side of that coin, I had a leader who was never afraid to talk to his people. He once called me to explain that I had been transferred to another station before I could find out through other means. He knew the transfer would upset me and he knew I was very happy at my current station. After that phone call, I got the feeling that he felt personally responsible for not being able to keep me at my station with my crew. It was a feeling I will never forget. He could have let me find out through e-mail like every other person. He was never required to have that conversation, but he did it anyway. It seems to lessen the blow of being transferred a bit.
Leaders know they don’t know everything. This is something I feel many people seem to lose as they promote through the ranks. Rank does not mean you know everything. The ability to defer to other people who may know more about a certain topic (be it emergency medicine, technical rescue, or other research) shows real strength. The ability to admit you don’t know something but you’re willing to learn gets you more respect than denying you don’t know or pretending you understand.
Leaders can accept constructive criticism. Understanding we don’t know everything is just the beginning, but being able to look at your other officers and ask, “Is there anything I missed?” or “What would you do differently?” not only opens the door for conversation and constructive criticism but gives you the ability to see a situation/call from someone else’s perspective. There is more than one way to do things.
Leaders advocate for positive change. It is my belief that the death of the fire service lies in the phrase, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” It halts all progress in its path under the assumption that the way we’ve always done things is not subject to change. Change can often be a good thing. At all levels, from firefighter to chief officer, we seem to resist change because we get comfortable in the way we have always done things and accept them as they are instead of pushing for a better way.
A leader always looks out for his people. No matter what rank, this is an important aspect of the fire service. If we constantly look out for one another, we are going to thrive at every level. If you always look out for your co-workers through the beginning as a firefighter and push for what is right, it becomes just that much easier as an officer.
A leader doesn’t lose his cool. Although it has not happened to me personally, I have heard about situations where another firefighter is yelled at by a superior. This is unacceptable at any level. Any officer I have ever worked for has been able to keep a cool and collected demeanor no matter what the situation.
As I look to promote through the ranks, I look toward the future with hope. I remind myself of these things I have experienced over the years and I try to catch myself when I act any differently. The aspects of the leaders I have loved working for all stem from one human aspect that we sometimes lack: humility. I know I have co-workers and close friends I can trust to keep me in check if I ever stray from those values that I feel are important. Hopefully, we can continue to push forward and make this great career even better. If no one ever told you when you got into this job: Leave it better than when you started. That’s what I intend to do.
Larissa Conroy is a firefighter/paramedic for the Orlando (FL) Fire Department. She has an A.S. degree in emergency medical services; Fire Officer 1 certification; and several specialty certificates including Hazmat Technician, VMR Technician, Confined Space Technician, and many others.