How to kill a Fire Department

The sad truth is that it happens everyday. All across the Country.

What’s even worse is the fact that I’ve seen it first hand. I’ve watched from the cheap seats and, unfortunately; from the front row as well.

In my opinion, it all boils down to leadership. ISO ratings, National Accreditation Stickers or any other achievements for that matter have no bearing on the morale or the “state” of a Department without strong, true LEADERSHIP.

I’ve had to try to take some time to calm down and collect my thoughts prior to attempting this post and, I’m still not sure if I’ve reached that point. Lately, several issues have continued to grow and fester in my mind and the more I think about them, the madder I become ( I’m not sure if I’m more mad or disappointed … I guess maybe my expectations are just too high).

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There have been some serious local issues around me lately and, quite honestly; their outcomes have had me feeling like I could “puke in my mouth” (this statement will come back up later in the post … you’ll understand more at that point). I feel sick to my stomach.

I know of a Department here in SW Virginia that is sinking FAST. From my personal knowledge and conversations with it’s members, it’s obvious that Department morale is at an ALL TIME LOW.

It’s a SHAME. This Department was at one time (in many’s opinion) the most well respected and desired employer in the area. Today, it’s simply an “option”. It’s better than being unemployed and  will at least look good on an application to anywhere other than there. It’s become a “stepping stone”.  A vast expanse for what Scott Mutter and I used to call “tumble weed employees” blowing through to bigger and better places.

The demographics don’t seem to offer any logic either. “Playing the numbers” just doesn’t work. Employees are MORE than a number … more than a statistic. NOBODY wants to work or stay in workplace environments such as these. Even closer to home for me, the Roanoke Times  recently published an article on the diversity of the Roanoke Police Department. In that article, they spoke of the hiring and recruitment practices of the City and their desire to become more diverse. Read that article by CLICKING HERE .

What they failed to mention in that article is the problem within the City as related to RETENTION of their members.

In my mind, you can’t talk about one without the other … they go together …recruitment and retention.

Rhett had an excellent example involving the City over on the just the other day. The “Junior Member” of his company, who happens to be a “minority” left the Fire Department to become a Police Officer within the same City.

Read about Jason Gardner’s last shift HERE

This is a young member … a good, desirable employee. Do you mean to tell me that a Department that used to boast 30+ year careers now can’t keep a member longer than 5 years? Not even the minority members whom they actively recruit?

J.G is not the first young member to leave either (minority or not). The “turnover rate” within this Department since (approx.) 1995 to the present has far exceeded the same  numbers from its inception to that date. I wonder why nobody is looking at these numbers? Is this a “generational effect” or the result of low morale …. poor management / leadership?

Another local example can be found in last week’s Officer Seminar held in Roanoke. I’ve spoken several times here lately about Chris Naum being the featured speaker at the 5th Annual Southwest Virginia’s Officer Seminar for 2012. Chris is a great speaker with a remarkable resume. How many times do you get a speaker of this caliber in your area? One who travels the “National Circuit”, well educated, published, a contributing writer to Firehouse and Fire Engineering Magazines, founder or contributor to various websites such as The Secret List, Firefighter Close Calls and Everyone Goes Home.

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The event was open to the entire region yet only approx. 160 members attended (approx 160 over 2 days, 80 each with the same presentation). It’s EMBARRASSING. Do the members of Southwest Va know it all? Do we NOT need training such as this…. a different view or perspective? Have they become complacent or is it simply a lack of motivation? Or, could  this too be related to low morale and poor LEADERSHIP / MANAGEMENT?

I spoke with a Chief of one of the larger Departments eligible to attend. This was a career Department who’s members could have attended AT NO COST. They had less than 10 members in attendance (that’s over BOTH days of the 2 day Seminar… 10 members!).  In the past, this Department has even sent “on duty” companies down to listen in …. NOT THIS YEAR.

I asked one of the Chiefs if the turnout was embarrassing to him and/or his Department. I asked his thoughts on the poor attendance. His reply was no, it was not embarrassing.  The explanation he gave was that his Department had instructors of this caliber “in house”. His members didn’t need to attend functions such as this to receive quality training.

REALLY? My mouth must have hit the floor. I know this Department. They have some GREAT members. Some GREAT instructors, motivators and leaders but I haven’t seen them offering classes. I found myself quickly racking my brain in an attempt to remember if I had overlooked any training opportunities offered by this Department. I hadn’t.  I couldn’t help but think … where are these great instructors? Why isn’t this Chief promoting them and offering their knowledge and talents to our Valley? Why were these instructors not at the Seminar to support Naum?

I wonder if the thought of low morale ever crosses this Chief’s mind. I wonder if he has ever considered that morale in his Department is so low that his member are not going to spend their day off in a class that they are not going to be compensated for (even though compensation shouldn’t matter when it comes to quality training… there were plenty of Volunteer members in attendance at the Seminar).

I wonder if he even realizes what an insult his statement was. An insult to Chris Naum, to the members of the committee that has put this Seminar together over the last 5 years and an insult to the Fire Service in general.

I wonder if he even knows that this type of attitude towards training (if it is indeed the case) should be a HUGE WARNING FLAG for the Command Staff of his Department.  Members not motivated to attend training at this level. It doesn’t matter if it’s due to the  lack of compensation or for other reasons. Even if you don’t agree with the entire presentation, at least you’re likely to come away having learned something! Even this Chief revealed a  mind set of not needing “outside” help. Maybe it’s more like not “wanting” outside help / influences (what if these “outsiders” made him look bad? What if they revealed his short comings?). I doubt he even understands what he said. It’s the culture that’s been bred into this new generation of firefighters / Departments. It’s the  mind set of many of our leaders today.

Nobody is looking after the members anymore. It’s not about the men … it’s all about the numbers. Yea … we’ve heard so much about the “Culture of Extinguishment” vs. a “Culture of Safety” that we haven’t even noticed the development of the  Culture of “ME”.

Chiefs are seemingly too busy making their bosses happy. Cutting budgets, station closures, manpower cuts, consolidations, brownouts …. anything to balance a budget, save money and make themselves look better in the eyes of whomever. It’s easier than having to stand up and justify their needs.

Cover ups, misdirection, deception and even outright lies are not unheard of anymore. Yet we (the members) are held to a seemingly higher standard … MORALES AND ETHICS.

In a lot of cases, the members are no better….stomping on the backs of their Brothers and Sisters just to get ahead. Forget right and wrong … in today’s Fire Service, it’s whatever it takes to make yourself look good in the eyes of the bosses….. even when / if they’re wrong. Some of these members are the exact ones that you would have never thought of having this attitude.

It’s the age old tactic of divide and conquer. As long as the members buy into this management style, their voice will never be heard. If it is, it’s a single voice … not the collective. As long as there are Chiefs out there who haven’t EARNED their position, it will always be an uphill battle for the boots on the street. These types of managers can’t understand the challenges we face … they’ve never been in our boots.

I had a Chief tell me one time that the reason I was skipped for promotion was that I was too close to the men. His rational was that you can’t be a Boss and a friend. I say you can. You can IF you also have their respect.

If the members respect you, they will never put you in a position or test Boss vs friend.

As far as earning your position / rank, this same Chief once said that a pilot of a 747 airbus never had to learn the job of loading baggage to become the pilot. His relation of this to the fire service was that a member doesn’t need to work as a Firefighter, a Lieutenant, Captain or Battalion to serve as a Chief Officer. A manager is a manager … big business or small Fire Department.

Again, I disagree. By “coming through the ranks” a Chief (hopefully) EARNS the respect of his members. Even when coming from the outside in, knowing that a Chief has walked the same path we have earns him the benefit of the doubt.

I’m kind of getting off point here but it also brings me to it. LOW MORALE is what kills a Fire Department and the morale of any Department starts at the top.

Low morale leads to no confidence in an administration. High morale motivates a Department to perform to higher standards. That said, leaders who are well respected, who have worked through the ranks and understand the feelings, needs and sacrifices of  their members are better equipped to motivate those members. They understand that even the little things can make a big difference. They know that it’s better to tell the hard truth rather than leading the members on with misgivings, deceptions  and lie after lie. They understand that as firefighters, we can handle the bad news …. we see it everyday!

Motivated members make a Department prosper. A Department that shines makes its City, County etc shine. Somewhere along the lines, we’ve made a wrong turn … we’ve got it backwards. It’s not a Chief or his hand picked administration that makes a Department …. it’s the members …. from the newest recruit up.

Have ya ever heard the saying that it’s the Company that makes the Captain look good? Well, it’s true. Keep em happy and they’ll do a good job for ya. Be their friend but LEAD them. Give direction. Listen to their needs and concerns. Be there for them. Be strict but fair…. open and honest.  Set goals … have high expectations and share them. Meet them … hell EXCEED them but do it TOGETHER! If you got there “right”,  then they’ll know it and that your intentions are true. They’ll follow you … after all, you’re one of them … you’ve been in their boots.

Chief Rick Lasky says it best in his Pride and Ownership presentation. If you’ve never heard Chief Lasky speak, you’re missing out (and to the local Chief I spoke of earlier, I guarantee you’re Department doesn’t have many speakers of this caliber “in house”).

It just so happens that Chief Lasky is presenting Pride and Ownership in Staunton, Va this weekend; October 6th. Whats even better is that the cost of admittance is simply a donation of canned food which will to donated to a local food bank….. now THERE’S and Administration that GETS IT!

Learn more about the Staunton Va Fire / Rescue Department by clicking HERE .

also visit

Agusta County Fire and Rescue HERE

The event is to be held on Saturday, October 6th from 8am-5pm at Robert E. Lee High School (1200 North Coalter Street, Staunton, VA 24401).

For more information, contact Chief R. Scott Garber @ 540-332-3884 or via e-mail at ….

Rhett and I will not be able to attend due to our obligations at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend in Emmitsburg, Md that weekend. If you are ANYWHERE, this weekend; I hope it’s at either of these two events.

Thanks for indulging the “rant” ….. Stay SAFE and in House!

Captain Wines

  • Keith Kemery

    Great read!!! Those in authority need to know its about those doing the job. Those doing the job need to remember that we must live up to the privilege of wearing our badge every day that we go to work. It works both ways. One side can’t get it done without the other. We’re in tough times brothers and sisters, there is no doubt about it. Remember to keep yourself straight while we ride out the storm. We must do this for our own sakes as well as for the sake of the person who’s world just came crashing down and 9-1-1 is the only answer to the question, “Who you going to call?”.

  • Division Chief (Ret.) Steve Poff, RCFRD

    Being from the area, i sure would like to meet those in-house instructors as good as Chris Naum, i’m sure there are some, but very few indeed. He is outstanding. I know i spoke to at least 30 to 40 County guys in the weeks prior to the seminar and each time i encouraged all to go see and hear Chris. I hope they did.

    • Chief,

      There were plenty of County guys/gals there this year. You should be proud of your firefighters taking advantage of such a great training opportunity!

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  • Anonymous

    Great article! I’ve seen two separate symptoms that come together to contribute to this type of problem. First, I see a very distinct culture surrounding “our way of doing things”. At the firefighter level, there is little to no desire to examine other techniques, to learn, and perhaps change how we act. The cover-all word “tradition” is often cited as a primary reason to never examine other techniques. So why would anyone want to learn from an expert if they believe different is tantamount to poison?

    Second, it is my belief that we try to train our command staff to be operational commanders, but very little training is afforded to make them good managers. Just because you are a skilled incident commander does not inherently mean you are skilled at managing people outside of the fireground. The private sector has developed a huge body of knowledge around good management skills. It would be nice to see some of that trickle in to the fire service.

  • Jason Myer

    Hey Cap… you know its a bummer….I am always chomping at the bit for good training I can make it to… I try to find good stuff going on in my some what local area, but seem to keep drawing a blank…IF I could afford to look further out….which I might be able to start doing I might find more…but it seems a lot of larger departments are either “keeping the training in house”, or just defaulting to the local, or not so local, Jr college or university. Anyhow…great article sir, thank you. And if you happen to talk to Chris again find out if he’s coming to south Texas any time soon. lol

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  • Captain Wines,

    Hall of Fame NFL receiver Raymond Berry said he didn’t aim for the bulls eye, he aimed for the center of the bulls eye. You hit the center here.

    “Slow Down to go faster” is a post IN THESE BOOTS that I wrote about this pandemic in our service.

    I hope someday to see and hear those instructors who are as good or better than Chris Naum and Rick Lasky, who in my view stand on top of the stack.

  • Bart Lewis

    As a retired firefighter with 41 years on the job, 19 of those as a fire chief, I can tell you that chiefs of successful, highly effective departments:
    1. Look out for the public first
    2. Take care of their people and empower their people
    3. Lead from behind
    4. Take a true interest in the welfare of their members and in the quality of their organization
    5. Always strive to make things better
    6. Work to educate their bosses to understand what we are and why we do what we do and what we need to do our jobs

    Guys/gals that don’t subscribe to those philosophies are not real leaders…

  • Joel Holbrook


  • Lochney

    So, I have been on a mission the past few months. My mission was to read every leadership book I can find. I’m almost done with book 8 . I dont know if its my new prescription of adderal since being diagnosed with ADHD or the leadeship examples I have seen from the officers at my fire department. I do know I have seen to many young guys come in the door with drive and excitement. To only have it destroyed by insecurity and hazzing. Me having one example of a 20 year old kid a week out of the academy being told we are not pulling hose and his job is to wax the dumpster. What!!! Well, I wish that was my only response, but it wasn’t I waited for the kid to walk out and boom! I los it. starting by telling the Lt. What I thought. Well that baught me a day. But, you know what..fuck it! The culture of my fd is hazzing. It is the culture of every department. That is a big part of what is killing morale. I am so sick of this crap I hear about how horrible all your departments are. And how bad your bosses are. I’m also so tired of hearing that young kids don’t have drive. Why don’t they have drive???? Why arnt you giving them values and drive. That’s our job! To pass it on. Who cares what you Chief does or has you do.Do it without a complaint and that will boost moral. Also!!!, leave our wages for the f*%&$*% union meeting and not the kitchen table. You want to boost moral. Drill! Even if its you all alone on the bay floor tying knots. If you want good leadership, be that leader. Turn off the tv and other people will follow maybe not at first but eventually. It is pissing me off to find these posts and see everyone complaining. The amount of people who feel they have the answers is makes me vomit.What we need it s fucking fire service revolution. If all of us just dust off our pants and not care if the LT likes you, or the drinking buddys want to watch football. Let’s grow a pair and be that leader. Not be scared to get in trouble or be the odd man out. Because sorry to say. These young guys who come in behind you. They are they ones you need to impress not the ones in front of you. They will be looking to you for leadership someday. Or they will go to the MUTT watching tv. But if we want to hang the poems that say I’m here to protect average Joe And preach the fire service needs leaders.Let’s stop complaining about union bullshit and Chief garbage and Let’s take our beating, cross the line and make a change.I know that’s where I am at. Because when my daughter asks me what I did with my career I can actually say it with dignity and teach her to follow her dreams. Not be the mutt who played firemen.

  • I swear, its like this was written about my department. We’re having the exact same issues. A chief who was appointed from out of state, and hasn’t walked the same path as the members, a complete disregard for retention (actually forcing out those who have been here for “too long”), and the mentality that this department is a place to go to get your certs and pad your resume before moving somewhere better. I know men fresh out of recruit school who have seen how the administration is treating the membership, and have already started looking for new jobs with other departments. I myself have been told repeatedly by more senior members that I should get out while I still can.
    Unfortunately, the focus now is on ISO ratings and accredidation, and not on how the department is hemmorhaging membership, or how those who do stay can barely afford to do so, since pay hasnt increased for men on the line in over a decade. Methods for communication with the administration have been all but cut off, since the chief knows what the membership wants changed and doesn’t want to hear the complaints anymore. I wish we could hold this article up as a mirror for the administration to see how far we’ve fallen, but I know better than to think it would make a diference.

  • We have a paid call fire department here that has had 42 members join and quit in the last 2 years. The chief is a total loon and the other fire departments in the area will not train with this department (or provide mutual aid). A firefighter died of heat stroke at this department during a training evolution and the chief was not terminated for this screw up. He will not hire any experienced firefighters he is obsessed with hiring teenage boys and girls to be firefighters. He won’t listen to any members of the public at commissioner meetings-he walks out of the room when a member of the public speaks directly to him. He has been on the department for 41 years and he needs to LEAVE!