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The Cornerstones of Fire Service Leadership

It seems that leadership is one of the "hot button" topics many chiefs are discussing. I agree with the emphasis being placed on leadership. Without good leadership, your organization will be like a boat adrift without a rudder. I also think we are missing a vital link in the development of good leadership. Mission statements and command philosophies are essential, but to me, they are steps in a process that should start with what I call cornerstones. 

Like building a house, a good organization should start with a good foundation. Mission statements tell us what we will do, and command philosophies say to your members how you will lead. In my opinion, cornerstones are the bedrock. They give direction for our mission statements and command philosophies. The cornerstones are those items that everyone in the organization should clearly understand and use to focus their actions. The cornerstones that I have used are, Operational Excellence, Being Trusted Partners in Our Community, Having a Genuine Concern for the Health & Development of Our Members, and Being Good Stewards of Our Profession. 

Operational Excellence 

We can argue that a state of excellence is a lofty goal all day long, but it is really what the public expects us to deliver when they call the fire department. Due to budget, staffing, and a whole host of other constraints, our organizations might never reach excellence, but this pursuit of excellence should be a goal that drives all our actions. Many organizations incorporate the drive for excellence into their daily routine, but unfortunately, many fire departments never even mention excellence, much less taking actual steps to achieve excellence. 

In a complex world, the fire department often finds itself called on to deal with various emergencies. The current COVID-19 pandemic is just one in a long list of occurrences that can overwhelm our field forces. As important as it is to deal with the increasing threat picture, we must never forget the fire department's primary mission is to save life and property endangered by fire. I see numbers every week that range from 70 to over 100 people killed in residential fires in the U.S. We are the frontline force that can prevent these tragedies. As long as the side of the apparatus says fire department, we owe a commitment to operational excellence for our communities. 

As leaders, you get to set the tone. Make operational excellence a priority, and back up your words with actions. When firefighters see chief officers participating in drills, when incidents are evaluated on markers such as the amount of fire spread — from the arrival of the first due to under control when a demanding recruit training program exists, and taxing promotional processes are the norm — the members will know that leadership is striving for excellence. 

Being a Trusted Partner in Our Community 

The goal is simple; every time a member of your community drives by a firehouse, they think to themselves that the fire department adds value to their community. Many organizations do an excellent job around Fire Prevention Week, but the goodwill I am speaking about takes more effort than that. How transparent is your organization? Do you publish your yearly operating budget for all to see? What steps is leadership taking to ensure financial health for the long term? Our firefighters and officers do a great job maintaining an incredibly positive image for our community. Leadership must go beyond giving out coloring books and plastic fire helmets to build the trust I am talking about. You must not only send a good message; leadership must be present in the community. Goodwill is produced in large part by getting out of the office and interacting with the community, listening to what they have to say, and when possible, responding to their request. 

Being trusted also means that you actively communicate the importance of values to your membership. I am not talking about words on a sign that hangs at the firehouse door. The firefighters, company officers, and line chiefs are those who will send the trust message to your community. Fire departments that understand this topic put more emphasis on building trust than just a three-hour block of instruction at the fire academy. The message must be right, but it also must be delivered by a trusted messenger. 

Having a Genuine Concern for the Health and Development of Our Members 

We have all heard the adage that an organization's most valuable asset is its people. What a great saying for a motivational poster, but what type of action do you take that ensures this is an organizational reality? Battalion Chief Curt Isakson says if you want to know what an organization does for their people, look at how much they budget for training. When I was a fire chief, my goal was two thousand dollars per member, plus training supplies, plus training site maintenance. Not everyone got the two thousand spent on them individually, but we had sufficient funds to support a robust training program. This information should not be kept top secret, let the staff know your priorities. How do you prepare your people for promotion? Some departments do a great job, and some hand you a badge and say, "good luck." I often tell my subordinates that it is my job to put you in the position for you to be successful. 

Don't forget the personal touch too. A drop-in visit to say happy birthday or a small gift card on the arrival of a son or daughter is a simple gesture that sends a strong message. We talk about being in the people business, but sometimes we forget the people in our firehouses. A telling sign is, how do you treat your people when there is a performance issue? Are you dealing with the behavior or the person? Even after you take corrective action, you should still show some type of empathy for the person. Some of the closest, and I would say most loyal, relationships I have are with firefighters I’ve had to discipline. 

Being Trusted Stewards of Our Profession 

We walk in the shadows of great men and women, and as leaders, it is our responsibility to pass this information along. If you want to do a quick reality check, go ask a random sampling of your personnel to tell you the story behind the Maltese Cross. The cross is an iconic symbol of our profession that dates back centuries, but I am willing to bet that many organizations do not tell the Maltese Cross's story to their recruits. How many firefighters can name at least five firefighters who were killed on 9/11? This was the most significant one-day loss of life in the line of duty for the American fire service, and there are people riding fire apparatus today who probably cannot name a single 9/11 LODD. In our Recruit Fire Academy, we would assign the names of firefighters killed in the line of duty to each recruit. The recruits would have to research the incidents and report their findings. As they did, we would put a picture of the fallen up on the screen in our classroom. Our goal was to build a sense of respect and honor in our recruits for our profession. From several conversations I have had, this technique works. 

Being good stewards extends past the boundaries of your jurisdiction. Unless you work for a large metropolitan fire department, there will come a time when you will need your neighbors. Having a good relationship built ahead of time will be a critical asset at the four-alarm fire. Do you have a unique operational capability, and if so, have you made it known that this capability is readily available? If you have determined a need, there is a good chance the department next door might have the same need. Do you open your in-house training to the surrounding agencies, and do you attempt to schedule regular training with your auto and mutual aid partners? When these actions are done from the perspective of "we are here to help," not "look how great we are," it will show that your department is clearly a good steward. 

Every fire department will, at some time, be tested. The foundation that you lay for your members will decide how you will survive the bad times and take advantage of the good ones. If you craft your mission statement and command philosophies around the four cornerstones I have described, I think you will put everyone in your organization on the road to success. 

If you want any additional information about the specifics, I have discussed, please feel free to contact me


Dennis Reilly is a 44-year veteran of the fire service and is currently a retired fire chief. Dennis has worked in a variety of organizations advancing from firefighter to fire chief. He was one of the original members of the New Jersey Urban Search & Rescue Task Force 1 and deployed to Ground Zero on 9/11. He holds an MPA from Penn State and is a CFO. In addition to his fire service career, Dennis is a combat veteran of the U.S. Army and worked as a private security contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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