You may have had an unpleasant office conversation with a co-worker you don’t get along with. At the end of the day, you go home and put it behind you, and hopefully reflect on how to better handle the situation the next day. But, what would it be like if you can’t go home, and instead have to share dinner and housing with that same co-worker?
That is one of the unique leadership issues for Fort Belvoir firefighters. Proper leadership skills can help keep the emotional temperature down in the firehouse, according to Shane Crutcher, Belvoir’s chief of Fire and Emergency Services. He said the professionals on his team are well-skilled and prepared for whatever faces them on the job.
To help train team members on how to be an effective leader in the firehouse, Crutcher turns to the Leesburg-based Northern Virginia Fire & Rescue Leadership Development Institute.
LDI helps them deal with issues never broached in firefighting school, such as labor management challenges; dealing with the public; personal challenges with employees that overlap or come into the workplace; and how to coach and mentor team members.
Two firefighter/medics, Timothy Ginsmore and John Christian, recently underwent the difficult week-long training on managing vs. leading.
“One thing the fire department is good about is teaching how to put fires out, and how to lead a team to put fires out. But, not how to put a fire out in the firehouse, and the crew dynamics of it,” said Ginsmore. “You can have a first-year rookie come out and put him in the front seat and put him into a burning building and lead the people through the burning building – that’s easy. But coming to THIS burning building,” - as he gestures to the firehouse around us – “we live here more than we do with our wives and children. You learn how to deal with your wife and children in unique ways, but we never think about or are usually taught how to deal with all those different people within the firehouse.”
Five months, three weeks
“Five months, three weeks - that’s how much time a firefighter spends here,” said Crutcher. “They spend more time at work than at home. Which means, when you walk into any fire station, while it looks like any other building on post – to us, it’s home. It’s our second home.” Crutcher said while there are many professions that work around the clock, there’s no others on Belvoir that work 48 hours straight.
“Their office is a fire truck, but their dinner table is shared. There’s not many places in the station you can go, to not be part of that dynamic,” he said.
Crutcher added there’s no room for resentments or grudges.
“We don’t have the luxury of not talking to each other after a rough day. In a minute, when the tones go off, that goes out the window. That angst can’t exist on the way to a call,” he said.
Crutcher, who leads the 116 members of FBFES, said that presents unique leadership challenges.
Leader or follower? Both?
“Leadership is not a job or position; there’s leadership from the newest firefighter to the most tenured chief. That ability to influence others is there. In some ways, we become a cornerstone for the garrison, because that continuity and constant public interaction makes these first responders highly visible,” Crutcher said.
He explained how followers are sometimes the best leaders. “Today, (Ginsmore) could be riding back seat on the rescue truck. Tomorrow, he could be riding out as the company officer on the engine. Imagine the dynamic of how you have to perform from one day to the next. One day, he’s listening to two other people, in the back seat with one sole focus. Tomorrow, he’s responsible for a $750,000 fire truck and three other bodies,” he said.
“My job is about 5% manager and fire chief, and about 95% coach,” Crutcher said. “Coaching is about encouraging; challenging; empowering; to get the absolute best of any individual.
Crutcher points out that leading is complex, and begins with listening – not to figure out what you’re going to say next, but listen to what the person is saying, and having a real conversation.
That is something that firefighter Christian took to heart during the long days at LDI.
“What they helped instill in us is that a manager can tell somebody to do something, whether they’re citing a policy or ‘I told you so,’ to make them carry out a task; but a leader can get the buy-in and better their employees and foster an environment where they want to do the job the way they’re supposed to. We received great ideas to help us learn crew dynamics and how to be a leader for different kinds of people. Instead of making a crew adapt to you, you learn to adapt to different members of your crew,” said Christian.
Ginsmore reflected that true communication – not just talking – will make him a better team member.
“I am that passionate person who will stand up and debate and argue my way every single time. This class taught me a lot of inner reflection, and realizing that the way I talk to people has to change to get that buy-in, and actually I think that I have already started utilizing that with certain people I work with, when we don’t see eye-to-eye. I think we can start moving forward now.”
Ginsmore said observing body language is just as important as what you say. “My captain has a saying, ‘you’re not wrong’ (instead of saying ‘you’re not right.’) I realized I needed to change the way I am, in order to lead a lot of these people. As conversations get heated, now I realize that it’s okay, but I have to recognize the signs that communication is going south, quickly, and I’m working on that.”
Christian said there were hours of personal, quite uncomfortable, one-on-one scenarios with the instructors having realistic conversations that you could have in the station. They were taught how best to choose their medium, environment and tone of voice.
“Everybody’s perspective is different,” Christian said. “It’s vital to establish yourself as somebody who can be trusted to have an honest conversation. I think that goes a long way to people sharing their perspective with you, instead of grumbling and being angry. If you’re not someone they can approach, then you’ll never know you had a much bigger impact on their day than you think you did.”
Both graduates were quick to point out that the long days and nights at LDI have changed them, and hopefully, the department, for the better.
For more information on the Northern Virginia Fire and Rescue Leadership Development Institute: www.nvfrldi.org