IAFC 150 anniversary logo

Relationship Modes for Fire Officers

To reach the first level of supervision in their organizations (for example, lieutenant or captain), people typically have to work there for four to six years; anything less than three years is rare and probably involves extenuating circumstance.

Part of the reason is that the fire service—notwithstanding our educational programs, professional development tracks and civil service processes—still relies heavily on a transfer of applied knowledge through informal apprentice or mentoring relationships.

The benefit of these methods is that they provide discernment in the application of technical skills; they provide wisdom. The detriment is that they take time. At the rate our aging workforce is leaving the fire service, time to develop supervisors and eventual leaders is becoming scarce.

Also, many of our best lessons learned come by way of failure, by experiencing what didn’t work. The frequency and severity of our learning mistakes can make the transition to first-line supervision difficult because those around us observe and experience our growing pains.

If junior officers genuinely own and learn from their mistakes, their peers will follow and respect them. If they deny and repeat their mistakes, their peers will merely comply and tolerate them.

Senior officers are very good about stepping in to mitigate tactical errors of new officers during emergencies; we’re not as good about stepping in to mitigate the interpersonal errors of our new or emerging officers. One way to contribute to the interpersonal success of new and emerging officers is to help them recognize and manage the three relationship modes they’ll have with their crews: command, daily operations and mutual respect.

Command mode involves settings and situations like rookie school, emergencies and calls for service. It requires a high degree of compliance with orders and directives unless they’re illegal, immoral or suicidal.

This mode doesn’t tolerate debate, has a small span of control, requires formal communication and enforces strict recognition of rank or incident structure. Crews will spend up to 10% of their time relating in this mode.

Daily operations mode is similar to a typical business-office setting. There are standing orders, chores and duties that people adhere to.

There’s more freedom about how people accomplish their tasks and they’re largely self-directed unless a question comes up. Open and respectful discussion is encouraged, final decisions are followed. This mode has a larger span of control, and crews will spend up to 70% of their time relating in this mode.

Mutual respect mode is informal and typically occurs during dinner or other shared down time. Rank has little application here and crewmembers are seen as equal. Up to 20% of the time crews spend together, they need to relate in this mode.

The unique supervision challenge for the fire service is that we have three relationship modes to manage where most business models have just one: daily operations. The intentional management and transition among these modes is essential for successful first-line supervision.

Human resource directors and development methods can have a blind spot about these modes and the transitions between them. This is an area senior officers are uniquely qualified to help new and emerging officers navigate through. We can’t have officers barking out fireground commands in the office, allow firefighters to conduct dinner table debate on the fireground or apply a common business-like approach during emergencies or down time.

After explaining these modes, I ask these six questions to help new supervisors understand and manage them:

  • Which mode are you in? The point here is to make sure you’re situationally aware about which mode you are, or should, be in. The truth is that you’re always in one of the modes; the question is whether you’re there intentionally.
  • Does your crew know which mode you are in? This is about making sure you clearly behave or announce which mode you’re in.
  • What behaviors do you expect from your crew based on your relationship mode? You must make your expectations for each mode clear beforehand and not deride the crew for failing to meet unspoken expectations.
  • What are your rules for the transition or grey areas? This is about letting your people know when you’re moving from one mode to another.
  • What are the consequences when people misunderstand or misuse these modes? Using the tactical consequences of mixed offensive/defensive modes on the fireground helps make the point here.
  • What are the consequences when you are inconsistent in the application of these modes? The point here is that you can’t accomplish the steps above without being consistent.

How do you answer each of these questions?

Related News
You are not logged in.