Engaging Our People in the Fire Service

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

How can we, as fire service leaders, become more effective in engaging our most important resource: Our people (After all, many fire departments list people as their most important resource, right?).

I recently saw this photograph posted on LinkedIn as a post advertising an upcoming webinar on the topic. This got meEmployee Engagement to thinking, how do the following relate to the fire service?

  • Recognition
  • Clarity
  • Autonomy
  • Stress
  • Relationship
  • Growth
  • Fairness
  • Workload

And how can we get better at using these concepts to encourage and engage our men and women in the fire service?


In an earlier post, How to Create an Atmosphere that Supports Motivation in Your Department, I wrote of the Slide19importance of employee/member recognition as part of a triangle. Together with information and communication, this triangle comes together to create the right conditions that encourage the employee/member and the their individual level of motivation.

Clarity and Autonomy

For me, these two are closely related. People–especially those who enter the fire service–generally want to be successful and feel like they are making a contribution to the organization. Lack of clarity from their organizational leaders, and especially their first-line supervisor, in the form of clear expectations can be a significant “roadblock” to their success.

Those same employee/members want and need autonomy, which put more simply means, “Give me the training and expectations, give me the job, and then get out of my way and let me do the job.” People don’t like to be micro-managed. For more on this, check out, Is it Responsibility, Authority, or Accountability?


In a recent post on FireEngineering.com, The Heart of a Volunteer (Don’t let the title fool you, the piece covers volunteers and career firefighters alike), a fire service colleague, Anne Gagliano, wrote:

Poor leadership is the number one morale killer in the fire department; it is worse by far than all of the stresses and strains of the job itself, combined.

How true! Several years ago, a student in a leadership class I was teach and I had a short conversation during a break following the section I’d just covered about what makes a good first-line supervisor.

In a previous job, she’d gone to her supervisor—whom she liked very much—with a difficult problem. She said that she felt bad not being able to solve the problem on her own and having to take it to her boss; she expressed that sentiment after she told her supervisor what the problem was.

Know what her supervisor told her? “Don’t ever apologize for bringing a problem to me that you’ve been unable to solve. My job is to remove barriers that prevent you from doing your job.” How cool was that?


I’m sure we’ve all heard this one before: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Another important job as a leader is to develop and maintain good working relationships within your team. And that includes your relationship with your direct reports.

Unforgettable bosses are human, and they aren’t afraid to show it. They’re personable and easy to relate to. They’re warm. They realize that people have emotions, and they aren’t afraid to express their own. They relate to their people as a person first and a boss second. On the other hand, they know how to keep their emotions in check when the situation calls for it.—Dr. Travis Bradberry

You don’t have to be friends with everyone you work with, but you do have to be friendly. Get to know your people by taking a sincere interest to learn about them:  who they were before they came to you; who they are today and what their aspirations in life are; what their family is like; and what their non-work interests are.


Good people look for opportunities to learn and improve their job performance. Anne Gagliano again:

They seek extra training on their own time and on their own dime. They strive to improve in every way possible. They20160822_National-Professional-Development-Model say to the officer, “Here I am; send me” when asked, “Who will do this unpleasant task?” They show up, ready to give their best to the department and the firehouse, day after day, year after year.

They’re also looking for opportunities for advancement. Does your department have defined career paths for the different jobs within the organization?

If so, inform and educate your people about those career paths early in their careers. Help them to understand training and certification requirements and how to pursue them (and pay for them). Do what you can to support their attendance for training classes or their attendance at college classes, e.g., modifying work schedules or approving leave or traded time.


Who doesn’t want to be treated fairly at work or while volunteering their time for their community? As fire service leaders, a good start is to ensure that departmental policies and procedures are well-thought out, well written, and correctly communicated.

Following that, we must ensure that supervisors and employees alike know and understand those policies and procedures and the consequences for failure to comply. Those consequences must also be meted out fairly and equitably using due process and a system of progressive discipline.


A bit of “conventional wisdom” that appears in many management textbooks and classes goes something like this: 20 20160822_80-20-rulepercent of your people will accomplish 80 percent of the work. Every manager that I’ve ever known has those couple of people who seem to get the bulk of the workload, especially the difficult or “dirty” jobs, because they “get it done.” And doesn’t that make your life as a manager easier?

Well yes, but that’s not really the point of your job, is it? Your job is to lead, guide and direct the talent (your people) given to you and create a high-performing team. Nothing can turn a top performer into a disengaged, aka, disgruntled, employee faster than for them to start believing that they’re doing more work on a regular basis than a teammate in the same pay grade.

See Related: Some Action Items for Reducing Organizational Risk in Your Fire and EMS Department

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 FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, rpa1157@gmail.com.