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Firefighters' Top 8 Characteristics of Effective Leaders

A Chief Officer’s Greatest Informal Asset

One day in 2013, I was looking at how to set up a mentoring program when I was fire chief in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. We all know that mentoring is the best way to pass along both historical and institutional training and knowledge we have obtained over the years to those coming up to take our jobs. It is no secret that the fire service is “graying” and we, as today’s leaders, need to prepare the future leaders and not take what we have learned and simply go into the sunset without passing it along. 
On this day, I had a meeting with one of my BC’s, Tom Gaeta, and we spoke of mentoring and his plans for the future as he was an up and coming officer in the department. We spoke of his desire to complete his Master’s and then took on the EFO program, which both he eventually completed. He told me of an informal survey he had started using of the members of the Cherry Hill Fire Department (CHFD) at the time. He called it the Senior Man, and while not politically appropriate for today’s fire service, I will stick with this traditional term but mean it for both men and women alike who serve their communities. I thought it was an exciting idea but put it away thinking nothing of it until now when, as I was reading an assignment from one of my students at Columbia Southern University, the topic of the Senior Man was part of the assignment. This got me thinking of the article that I stuck away and how it can help today’s fire service leaders prepare tomorrow’s leaders. After finding the article and reviewing it, I decided to incorporate many of BC Gaeta’s ideas and use it to how important that Senior Man is to you as you work to prepare those rising stars in your department to take over your job one day. 
This is not a research project or a scientific study by any means but one that uses the everyday firefighter that you all have. Doing this allows you to replicate this same informal study and see if it is the same for your department. The first step was to distribute an informal survey internally that asked the members two simple open-ended questions: What is a good firefighter? And what is a Senior Man? The information that BC Gaeta passed along to me did not come from research or what was read in some leadership book but the honest thoughts and opinions of everyday firefighters who deal with the Senior Man, good or bad.

The top answers to the Senior Man question were: 

  1. Someone who leads by example
  2. Someone who shares knowledge 
  3. Someone who supports the officer 
  4. The position is not based on time on the job 
  5. Someone who’s opinion is trusted by the officer 
  6. Good firefighter 
  7. Informal leader of the company
  8. A mentor 

It isn’t easy to define what a Senior Man is, because there are so many examples and opinions. A Senior Man in the fire service will surely differ from that of industry but may more align with the informal position in the military, you judge. These top eight sum up the thoughts of the members of the CHFD and may well differ from your department. It is a position of responsibility without rank or pay. It is a conscious choice to be a Senior Man. In the Sacramento Fire Department, it is known as the “First Whip” because the position goes back to the days of horse-drawn equipment. It is a hundred-year-old concept that isn’t in the manual of operations or the policy books. We all know of many of these sayings that have been passed down but can’t find them in books. It’s something we all know of but can’t easily define. However, they help us uphold some traditions as we move into the new world of firefighting that started after 9/11/01. 
The top answer is someone who leads by example. He/she is someone who picks up trash and washes the rig because they want to. This person will fix what’s broken, whether it is equipment or a person who needs some help. The Senior Man wears the uniform proudly and represents the company as we all should. There is obvious respect among the company for their Senior Man. An excellent example of this can be found in the documentary “BURN,” about the trials of the Detroit Fire Department (DFD). The DFD uses FEO (Fire Equipment Operator) as a position in the company. Engine 50 of the DFD had a man named Dave Parnell as the FEO for the company. FEO Parnell started every day by washing the rig and specifically cleaning his windshield carefully. FEO Parnell had over 35 years on the job and still cared enough to be the guy to clean his windshield every day. When he took a nap on the recliner, the guys left the old guy alone, as a result of obvious respect for his position in the company. He knew his district, the people of the neighborhood, is a perfectionist with his apparatus and had a watchful eye on his company at all times. He earned this respect, and it was not given to him simply because he was around the longest or is the oldest member. He retired at the end of the documentary; his company surely misses him. I am sure there are examples of these members in your organization, but they are rapidly retiring, and you need the future Dave Parnell’s to step up and carry on this tradition and lead by example. This will make your job easier and provide a sense of pride to your Senior Man as this is as high in the organization as many of these experienced members will go. 
The Senior Man also shares knowledge much the same as the “good firefighter” we identified earlier. This is because the Senior Man was a good firefighter first and became a Senior Man later. The Senior Man is someone who not only trains but passes on experience learned in the past and applied to how things are done today using a new technology too their advantage. He/she holds that “slide tray” of information in his/her head and is willing to share whenever the situation allows. The Senior Man may pass the nozzle to the probie or talk you through a chimney fire because you’ve never done it. This mentor is someone that you, as an officer, needs as they can sometimes get more done to prepare good firefighters than you can as an officer. Embrace this unofficial position as a vital part of the department’s succession plan. 
The Senior Man supports the officer both in the station and on the street. He/she may give directions or recall a hydrant hidden in the weeds. They will handle the mundane tasks of the station so the officer can concentrate on the more essential things. Either way, his/her mission is to ensure the officer and the company is successful through this coaching and mentoring even though it is not in his/her written job description. He/she will notice trouble brewing in the station, whether it is an attitude or personality problem, and will intervene before it becomes the officer’s problem. A good sports analogy is the Captain is the Coach on the sidelines giving general directions as to how they want the team to operate in the game and locker room, but the Senior Man is the Quarterback in the huddle that gets the team to operate as a cohesive group through actions and respect. The officer feels free to ask the advice of a Senior Man because his job is to assist in any way possible and not to criticize. There is a mutual respect that is apparent in the relationship between the officer and the Senior Man. You must make sure to develop these relationships to gain the confidence and trust of not only the Senior Man but the entire team or organization, depending on where you sit on the organizational chart. This Senior Man concept does not merely apply to the fire station crews. As chief officers, we also must look for that Senior Man among the officer ranks and rely on them to help you, as the fire chief, make sure everything is running smoothly and mentoring is taking place at all times. It is your responsibility to develop a succession plan, and this can and should start with the Senior Man. 
The Senior Man is a position of honor and respect, not time on the job. Time on the job is for the vacation book. Just as time on the job builds an experienced firefighter, a veteran firefighter who negatively impacts the company environment will never achieve the admiration and respect of a Senior Man position. This is something that we, as officers, can struggle with at times. However, to have a cohesive and well-oiled team, we need to realize when the most senior person is not always the Senior Man and deal with this head-on. Time on the job is preferred of a Senior Man; however, at times a more junior member will step up and fill the position. The Senior Man must be the one who steps up always and consistently. Simply stated, the functions of the Senior Man are based on actions and not the luck of the draw on transfer day or when somebody retires. Respect is a two-way street. We all respect the Senior Man, right up to the fire chief, just as he respects others.  
The officer must trust the Senior Man's opinion. That is because he understands the concept of loyalty. He is loyal to the officer, the company, and the department. This loyalty breeds trust, not only in opinion but trust in the person that they know what is right and will do it at all times, even when nobody is watching. The Senior Man must be trusted by the officer for this informal position to function well. Every officer needs help in some situation as we can’t be everywhere all the time. The all-knowing Oz, who stands behind the curtain and pulls the strings does not work here. A Senior Man would never speak ill of the officer for asking advice. Every officer and firefighter have strong and weak points; the Senior Man is the same but will work to improve the weak while capitalizing on the strong for every member of the company, including themselves. The officer values his opinion such that the Senior Man completes the connection between the officer and the crew. The Senior Man understands the necessity for orders to complete the tasks at hand. He/she lives by a code of ethics and exhibits integrity at all times and exemplifies the values of the department.  
The Senior Man is also a mentor for the newest members of our organization. He or she will keep a junior firefighter or a probie on track. They understand that we are all part of a bigger picture. He/she will teach leadership, sharing, trust, honesty, integrity, and respect to those who are new either to the department or the company. A Senior Man gives informal orders as a mentor and the informal leader of the company. The probie or junior firefighter understands that the Senior Man is conveying the wishes of the officer and will follow those orders as from a trusted leader, because he wants to, not because they have to. Those who are destined to be a good firefighter will pay attention and learn all they can from the Senior Man, and some will excel and become a Senior Man in good time. 
For anyone of us to be successful in developing our members and implementing a good succession plan, we must rely on the Senior Man concept. Just because you have achieved the officer rank does not mean you know all and can handle everything with no assistance. Use this informal position of Senior Man to your advantage in making your department better. However, this does not mean every crew will have a Senior Man as defined in this article. Placing the wrong person in this position can have negative consequences if they are not on the same page of the organization. We have all seen this and have had senior members that are not a good fit to be your Senior Man. This is where you, as the leader, can and must mentor and coach the right person that you can work with to fulfill this lofty position. 


Chief Patrick Kelly started his career in 1974 in Baltimore County, Md. and served as fire chief in New York, Florida, Arizona and Cherry Hill, N.J. Chief Kelly is a Professor at Columbia Southern University in the Fire Science Program and is the past-chairman of the EFO Section within the IAFC. Kelly is a 2003 graduate of the EFO program, holds a CFO designation and is a graduate of Loyola University in Maryland with an MBA. 

Battalion Chief Tom Gaeta is retired from the Cherry Hill Fire District #13 after 25 years of service. He is an Executive Fire Officer graduate, designated Chief Fire Officer and holds a master’s degree from St. Joseph University.

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