Being the First-line Supervisor Ain’t Easy

By:  Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

A while back I received the following comment to one of my blog posts in this space from a newly appointed first-line supervisor in a fire

Our Mission The Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation: Working to extinguish fire fighter cancer.  Contact the Foundation at,

Our Mission
The Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation:
Working to extinguish fire fighter cancer. Contact the Foundation at,


Hi Robert,

I haven’t done the research yet, but figured I’d start with you. I’m looking for articles on not wearing bunker gear in the bedrooms. I’ve been leaving my bunker pants at the truck for the past 7 years or so, because of the by products of combustion that remain even though they get washed.

I’m out on the floor now [as a new supervisor] and am looking at how I can convince some of the guys to break the habit of taking them into the room. I need to sell them on the idea of health safety and not beat them with “because the chief said so”. Any help would be appreciated.

Monique (Name changed by me to keep up the author’s anonymity)


Thank you for your inquiry. First off, I applaud you for having the good sense to keep your bunker gear out of the dormitory area of your station. You obviously “get it” when it comes to the contamination hazard that’s present on our structural PPE when it’s soiled.

My first inclination was to give you some of the great resources that I have come across in my research and various writing, both for and for my blog, Talking “Shop” 4 Fire and EMS. Fear not, I will offer that info later in this message.

Firefighters at work 1Before I go there, my counsel to you as a first-line supervisor is to focus on your role as the “Fire Chief”. Yes, I see that you’re a Lieutenant and that your department has a Fire Chief, but the reality is that your Fire Chief expects you–and every other officer in the department–to represent him or her in your interactions with your direct reports. You are his or her agent.

So it’s not a case of you saying, “Do it because the Chief wants it that way.” Instead, you say, “We’re doing it this way because it’s the department’s policy and my job is to make sure that we follow policy. It’s also my job to make sure that we are always operating safely, effectively, and efficiently. So yes, we’re doing it this way because I say so.”

The company officer (first-line supervisor) is the toughest “gig” in any fire department, but too many of those officers make it harder than it needs to be by not wanting “to be the bad guy”, i.e., the officer who follows policy and procedure and makes everyone else follow them as well.

A colleague of mine who made several trips out west to aid in fighting wildfires once told me of some good “bossing” advice that he received Wildland FFsfrom a “grizzled veteran” crew boss of wildland firefighting.  The crew boss told him:

“It’s easier to start as a ‘hard ass’ when I get a new crew and then ease back a bit after we’ve worked together for a bit, then to do it the other way around.”

So that’s my take on your situation, Monique.  Now here are some of those resources that I promised you earlier in this piece.

Developing Your Firefighters

Responsibility, Authority and Accountability: These Aren’t Synonyms

Here’s one of my most recent posts with several good points on firefighters and cancer.

What You Don’t Know about Smoke Can Hurt You

Good Guys and Gals Wear a Mask–and the Rest of their Gear

Suggestion for Revised Firefighter Oath

I hope this helps. You can also search on my blog for other cancer related articles using the tags, cancer and firefighters.


About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].