Choosing to Make a Move

To consider pursuing promotion to a senior leader position, a firefighter first needs to become competent and know his work thoroughly. (Photo by Pixabay.)
To consider pursuing promotion to a senior leader position, a firefighter first needs to become competent and know his work thoroughly. (Photo by Pixabay.)

Progressing from a competent firefighter to a senior leadership position hinges a great deal on the experiences encountered within the work environment, especially how an individual copes with different situations. Within the fire service, providing professional development opportunities and introducing rewards for specialist skills are also important factors when it comes to assessing the leadership abilities of individuals and determining when promotions are in order. Indeed, professional development opportunities allow firefighters to broaden their experience and knowledge base, which in turn helps them to consider whether they would like to pursue a rise in rank.

What Is the Difference Between a Competent Firefighter and a Leader?

To consider pursuing promotion to a senior leader position, a firefighter first needs to become competent and know his work thoroughly. According to Heath Hudson, who has been a firefighter for the Branson (MO) Fire Department for three years, “A competent firefighter is somebody who knows his job inside and out and knows what leadership expects. He is someone who can successfully perform his job without too much supervision or guidance.”

Nathanael Jones, engineer for the city of Branson, agrees with Hudson but adds that firefighters can, through the experience gained from performing their duties, become great leaders. The sign of a leader is someone who doesn’t have to micromanage, he says, adding, “They have a broader view. They don’t look at the nuts and bolts, so to speak; they can look at the big picture.” In terms of how long it might take to become a leader, Jones says, “I think that varies per person. There are people I have seen who have been great leaders from the first year, whether it is a formal leader or informal leader.”

For Colt Boldman, a probationary firefighter for the Branson Fire Department, “Leadership is about bringing people together and working with them in a way that they can perform their job the best.” In other words, true leadership is about teamwork and harnessing the strengths of that team.

How Do You Know When You Are Ready for a Rise in Rank?

Perhaps the most difficult question is: How will firefighters and their supervisors know when they are ready for a raise in rank? Hudson highlights some of the signs, stating, “You are confident in your abilities and what you do on a day-to-day basis, and you have been groomed by your superiors, which is your captain or your engineer. You kind of throw yourself into it, and you are ready for more responsibility.” In this respect, he believes, “You are always a frontline worker, but as you take on more responsibility, you mold into a leader.” Hudson adds, “Most people who come into the fire service aren’t seeking leadership positions. Maybe a small few decide one day that they want to be fire chief, but many of us come in because we like to work, and we like to work hard; we like being the guy carrying the fire hose rather than being the guy telling someone to tug the fire hose.”

Hudson believes that most firefighters are A-type personalities - people who usually exhibit the trait of competitiveness or ambition. They also have a heightened sense of urgency and do not handle what they perceive as wasted time well. These are excellent traits in a firefighter, whose sense of urgency can make the difference between life and death. The ambition displayed in Type A personalities does, however, also provide the motivation needed to achieve professional goals, including promotion.

Clearly, leadership ability isn’t just about training but also about personality and mental makeup. Shannon Wagner from the School of Health Sciences, University of Northern British Columbia, and Melanie O’Neill from the Department of Psychology, Vancouver Island University, have studied the relationship between personality and job satisfaction in firefighters.1 They found that those with a neurotic personality who were more independent reported less job satisfaction than those firefighters who exhibited mental toughness or toughmindedness. Those who display mental toughness have a high degree of self-confidence, self-discipline, and emotional control. They tend to be risk takers but only when the risk has been calculated and assessed to be worth taking. Mental toughness is, therefore, an important trait to possess in frontline services, as it is required for higher job satisfaction and opportunities for promotion. These are the same traits that are needed for the successful transition into a position of leadership. As a competent firefighter develops his own mental toughness, he is also developing his leadership skills.

How Can Organizations Help Develop Leaders?

Research such as that carried out by Dr. Judith Glick-Smith, founder and CEO of MentorFactor, Inc., examines the concept of flow-based decision making (reacting instinctively) within a non-profit organization of firefighters, the Georgia Smoke Diver (GSD) Association.2 The instinctive reactions of flow-based decision making are based on both experience and intensive training, as provided at the GSD. The aim of the training within this particular organization is to improve situational awareness and adaptability as well as enhance decision-making skills, thus reducing the risk of injury or death. The findings of this research emphasize the core values of training that need to be incorporated into professional development programs aimed at training leaders in the fire services. These include the following:

  • Leading by example.
  • Creating a sense of purpose for the members of a firefighting team by emphasizing the mission of the station daily.
  • Having a stable infrastructure that provides a work environment facilitative of flow-based decision making.
  • Social collaboration through the development of rituals and knowledge sharing.
  • Honoring and encouraging creativity and innovation among individual team members.
  • Motivating team members through positive reinforcement and immediate feedback.

These factors provide the framework for a positive team flow where all members of a team work together in unison and everyone knows their role and fulfills it without the need for instruction. This, in turn, creates leadership opportunities for firefighters.

Providing such training opportunities is important when it comes to developing leadership skills in firefighters. The success of firefighters is determined by knowing their duties and responsibilities inside out, and organizational leaders need to communicate a clear career development path for competent firefighters to follow should they wish to take on positions of leadership. Providing the training and experience needed to follow the career development path that has been chosen, whether it is by the firefighters themselves or by a manager who can see the firefighters’ potential for leadership, is crucial for meeting these personal and professional goals.

There are a number of programs that allow volunteer firefighters to transition into the fire service as a full-time career. However, once firefighters are working full time within the fire service, the steps to determine promotion are best served through the Commission on Professional Credentialing (CPC), a United States and international accrediting organization. The CPC focuses on professional development, continuous improvement, and the development of the firefighter as a whole. The CPC guidelines can help firefighters set goals to achieve their technical competencies to map out their career path for promotional purposes.

Leadership Isn’t for Everyone

Don’t worry if you are content being competent at your job and have no desire to lead. As Jones points out, “I have known firefighters who have served for 25 years, and they have no desire to move up in rank simply because they love what they are already doing. For me, it was two years before I got hired as an engineer because I felt like I wanted to take on that additional responsibility.”

Through extensive training and experience, firefighters who are drawn to positions of leadership can begin to grasp the criteria that determine their path for competency and promotion within the fire service. The fire service needs leaders who are confident in themselves, can recognize the strengths and weaknesses of others and encourage them along their career path, and maintain a professional demeanor at all times.

So, are you happy being a competent firefighter or do you aspire to lead a team? How you answer this question could shape your future career.


1. Wagner, S. L., and O’Neill, M, “Job, Life, and Relationship Satisfaction for Paid-Professional Firefighters,” Journal of Loss and Trauma, 2012, 17(5), 423-438. doi:10.1080/15325024.2011.650129.

2. Glick-Smith, J. L, “Flow-Based Leadership,” Integral Leadership Review, 2015, 39-43.

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November 2017
Volume 12, Issue 11