How to Fix a Stupid Rookie: Rethinking our expectations of company officers
As I drove the fire department SUV up to a brush fire scene, not far down the utility access road, I noticed the first arriving engine buried to the center of its hubs in the mud. The location lay underneath a series of high tension power lines, the easement essentially an overgrown swamp. The slow-moving fire line was at least another quarter mile away. As I stepped out of my vehicle, my foot sank into the mud past my ankle--not a promising outlook on the possibility of our brush apparatus advancing any closer.
Our area had experienced an unusually high amount of rainfall in the weeks preceding. While this precipitation had created difficulties for our apparatus to navigate, it did have the beneficial side effect of slowing the fire's spread through the brush. As the incident de-escalated, we realized that three apparatuses were stuck in the mud--one engine and two brush vehicles. Command ordered the vehicle operators to dump their water to reduce the weight of their footprint, hopefully aiding in their retrieval.
A few minutes later, I noticed that one of the operators allowed the water from his tank to backflow through his suction intake. I walked over to him and highlighted that the runoff was only compounding his current situation, suggesting instead that we pump the water off and away from the unit. I watched as he proceeded to fiddle with starting the pump until it became evident that he was unfamiliar with the vehicle's operation. The color of his helmet's shield indicated that he was fresh out of the latest recruit school. I quickly learned in conversation that it was his first time operating the unit, and he hadn't received any prior training. I stepped in, and together we pumped off the unit's tank water. When we had finished, he looked at me and said:
Sorry Capt, I know you have better things to do than
teach a stupid rookie how to pump a brush truck.
His words broke my heart, transporting me back in time to a similar point in my career when I worked for a boss who made me feel that same way. Each time I had approached that officer about working with me on a check-sheet for career development, he replied that he was too busy doing paperwork to train with me. When I presented him with tactical questions after calls or during walk-throughs, he chose to disparage me for not knowing something obvious to him instead of providing answers. He particularly enjoyed doing that behind my back, cutting my legs out from underneath me to feel better about himself. This officer never set up or led company training but was all too quick to throw his people under the bus whenever the Battalion Chief poked his head around because things didn't go so well on a call. This officer, well, I think you get the picture that he sucks.
Rethinking Our Expectations Of Company Officers
Unfortunately, regardless of the organization's size or paid status, bad leadership still exists in the fire service. After working for a terribly toxic and selfish officer for as long as I did, I began to think that maybe his actions and attitude were the accepted standards of any company officer. And here I was more than 14 years later, hearing the same thing from this probie. Well, enough is enough, and it's time for us to raise the standard of what we will accept from company officers.
As a leader, every shift offers you an incredible opportunity to invest your time and talents toward developing your team. Personally, I can't imagine a better use of any leader's time than teaching a person something about this job they need to know while helping them feel good about wanting to learn more. Leaders should keep in mind that there was a time where someone had to show them the ropes, as no one shows up to this job knowing everything they need to. Rookies tend to become reflections of the standards set by their crew and company officer. So if you don't like your rookie's performance, perhaps it's time to look in the mirror and start by fixing the performance of the person looking back at you. Here's a list of ideas to get you started
Balance expertise with an unwavering sense of humility. Great leaders can fiercely debate job knowledge while somehow creating a space where people aren't afraid to weigh in on an issue or ask questions if they want to know more or don't understand.
Share and invest time with the team. Leaders have a people-first mindset and understand that their role as stewards of the organization means their primary function is to care for and develop team members.
Spend time creating awareness of both current challenges and successes. Leaders actively search for ways to help their teams understand and proactively overcome what's standing in the way of them meeting their mission. They make it a point to share whatever information they can with others to empower them.
Collaborate. Leaders spend the time to solicit both concerns and solutions from their teams. Leaders frequently check-in with their people, creating an environment where employees feel welcomed and compelled to share their concerns and solutions because they think their input will contribute to the bigger picture's success.
Stay in control of your emotions. Leaders understand that yelling at someone doesn't show them you're actually in charge. The leaders who can get things done around them, whether for people up or down their chain, are the ones who possess the ability to temper their response to potentially distressing information, regardless of where it comes from.
Focus on what's going right: Great leaders have a way of sweating just the right amount of detail in the mission, but not to the point it becomes repetitive or, worse, paralyzing for their team. High-performing teams don't have the time to bitch about the way things are because they are too busy working to improve things for everyone else. Don't forget to pause long enough to help the team celebrate when wins come along.
Author Bio: Benjamin Martin has over eighteen years in public safety and currently serves as a Captain with a large metro fire department in Virginia. He is an international speaker on Leadership, blending his public safety experience with his ongoing Ph.D. study of human behavior and motivation to provide an entertaining and unfiltered view on a variety of leadership topics, including communication, command & control strategies, conflict management, organizational culture and climate, and emotional intelligence. You can find his work published in Fire Engineering, FireRescue, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife. He is the founder of EmbraceTheResistance.com, which features training and support for existing and aspiring leaders. You can email him at BMartin@EmbraceTheResistance.com.