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Let's Talk Fire: The Characteristics of A Good leader

Updated on December 27, 2015

Leadership is more than a hat!

We must know that being a leader is more than wearing a different helmet on the scene of a fire.
We must know that being a leader is more than wearing a different helmet on the scene of a fire.


Hello again all you fire eaters and smoke gobblers. This time around on Let's Talk Fire we are going to look at a question posed on the Let's Talk Fire Facebook page. That question was what makes a good leader? I think it is one of those questions that on the frontal view is easy enough to answer but when you start peeling away layers you get to see the complexity of the question. No probie fire chiefs are not like onions!

The fire service itself has had a great history of amazing leaders but at the same time it has had some very poor examples as well. I feel I need to include a disclaimer here stating that nothing said in this article is a direct stab at any individual or department I have worked with now or in the past. I am simply stating opinions and facts that will reflect a better leadership role in departments.

Now that we got that out of the way, let's move forward.

Leadership In The EMS and Fire Service

The 5 Basic Traits

In looking at the qualifications of a good fire department leader I feel we must first look at the traits of a good firefighter. The Essentials of Firefighting list 5 characteristics every firefighter should have.

  1. Integrity
  2. Moral Character
  3. Work Ethic
  4. Pride
  5. Courage

These five traits are the backbone of a good firefighter and someone we can openly consider an asset to our department. Let's break these down a little bit.


At it's very basis integrity means doing the right thing because it is the right thing not just because you are told to do it. In the fire service there is a huge amount of self-discipline attached to the term integrity. Firefighters have to be willing to do the right thing regardless of the threat it puts to them.


Moral character basicly means honesty. You want to be truthful with each other on the fire service and that means a lot. A leader who lies often is not one you will be able to depend on and mentally it will create a breakdown of the overall role.


Work ethic means doing what needs to be done without being told, doing what you are told to do without complaint, and doing it to the the best of your ability and completing the task. No one wants to work with a firefighter who is never there at training drills. The same can be said about a leader. If they show poor work ethic can we really trust them on the fire ground?


Pride can be summed up in the fire service as how you present yourself. If you are representing the department dress nice and speak well. Don't create an outward appearance that demeans the department. Pride is also what you hold for yourself. The level of pride you have often will reflect the level of professionalism you have.


Courage is the ability to overcome situations that we should just try to avoid. I like to think of it in the fire service as courage+crazy=fireifighter. We must know that we face dangers everyday that are threatening to life safety and property but we must have the courage to overcome these obstacles and move forward for a result.

Being a leader does not mean staying out of harm's way!

A good leader is an active part of the team.
A good leader is an active part of the team.

Other Traits

These are great starting points but a leader really needs to be above and beyond when it comes to skills and traits in their own personal arsenal. I want to discuss a few of those here in detail.


Coming from the volunteer service I can tell you there is a wave of very biased attitudes that greatly hinder the departments they come from. A good leader must recognise their crew at what they are worth. Never let a firefighter do something simply because you are their buddy. That is the attitude that sends a lot of firefighters to the hospital instead of home to their families. A leader must make decisions based on evaluation of the person or situation in question and never do so based on who the person is.

Favoritism is a disaster in the fire service and it continues to tear departments down and make then sub par with how they should be functioning.


A good leader gets that way by knowing how to communicate. They have to be able to listen to someone. By listen I don't mean waiting to speak, I mean really listening to them. I find some leaders have decided the outcome of a situation before an argument has been made against it and that is where it stays. This is poor leadership at it's darkest! By listening and understanding a leader can make a better and more accurate assessment of what is going on and what needs to be done.


I know it sounds odd but to me if I am going to take orders to vent a window on the second floor when I have heavy flame from that area showing I want to know this leader who is giving the order would be perfectly comfortable doing the task himself. There is a reason why most leaders in our industry are old. Experience makes for great knowledge. A good leader should have paid his or her dos and earned the position they are in.

Developing Leadership Skills

Is this acceptable?

The Bad News

Sadly there are so many other traits that make for a very bad leader. The most common I am hearing is the typical know it all leadership stance. This is when a fire department leader assumes the way they do things is finite and nothing can change that approach. To say this is the worse attitude would be an understatement. The fire service is a growing and ever changing one. Tactics we used years ago no longer hold true on the fire ground and any leader not willing to move forward and adapt is really not worthy of the title he wears. I am sorry but tradition is great but when tradition overrides tactics thus compromising life safety we have to put our booted foot down and say no.

Other traits I have been informed of from my readers include leaders who feel like thay have the authority to dictate actions outside of the fire department's activities. I have heard of leaders who say who a person can and can not talk to away from the station as well as what they may tell other people. It is very sad that some people assume this is OK behavior. A good leader knows that when the day is done, the fire is out and they go home firefighter Billy is now Billy the friend and trying to order that person around outside a scene is just a ridiculous way to act!

I am sure there are tons of other traits that make for discussion here. Ignoring some firefighters while praising others is a great example. It creates tension between the ranks and develops a wedge of mistrust that can prove to harm the department's abilities to respond efficiently.

More training will develop a better leadership role in the fire service.
More training will develop a better leadership role in the fire service.

Where do we go?

I encourage every firefighter be it volunteer or career to always look at the leaders in their department and ask themselves what would I do differently? Now step back and decide if that is the right way to do things. The issue is until more firefighters step up to learn the ways and techniques of being better leaders the issues we see now will continue to rise and stop fire departments from reaching their fullest potential. It is a sucky reality, but until it is changed and dealt with it is our reality.

I have always felt fire departments needed to put more focus on training involving leadership roles. Incident command courses and tabletop discussions make for great ways to decipher who on the department can and will be able to perform the functions of a leadership role.

It should never be assumed the person who is on the department the longest is a sure fire pick for an officer role. Look at what they have done in the department as well as if anyone can work with them on the level it takes for them to function as a leader. I will leave you with this statement, we learn from the past for survival in the future!


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