‘Active supervision’: 10 ways fire service leaders can best manage their members

Real-world examples highlight the simple ways supervisors can enforce fire department policies


I’ve been leading people since I was an 11-year-old Boy Scout. Since then, I have led Marines in combat, civilians in various business jobs, and deputies and investigators in law enforcement. During this time, one thing has become very clear to me: Most supervisors are unaware of the basic skills required for them to supervise effectively.

With that in mind, I created a list of 10 skills that every supervisor should develop to actively supervise their members – a critical set of skills for all fire service officers.

[Download a copy of the 10 skills to distribute to fellow officers.]

But what does active supervision look like in the fire service?

Defining active supervision and the skills to achieve it

Active supervision is the continual and consistent enforcement of the rules of your organization. If this surprises you, you are not alone. Most people don’t think about rule enforcement when they think of supervision – and to some, rule enforcement sounds mean.

When in line for a supervisory position, many people think of the “perks” that come with promotion – more money, more authority, maybe better retirement packages. While these things often come with promotions, the reality is that your agency promoted you to make sure that your members are following the rules of your department. If you are not doing that, then you are not supervising well.

We’ll use the following 10 active supervision skills to help you be a better supervisor:

  1. Performance management
  2. Critical-thinking
  3. Problem-solving
  4. Communication
  5. Courage
  6. Training
  7. Innovation
  8. Inspiration
  9. Time management
  10. Scheduling

I’ll introduce each skill, and Fire Chief Marc Bashoor will provide a real-world fire service example of the active supervision skill in action.

1. Performance management

Performance management has two sides – the prescriptive side and the corrective side. Prescriptive performance management is the process whereby the active supervisor provides their members with the information they need to successfully do their jobs. Corrective performance management, on the other hand, involves providing members with immediate remedial consequences when their misbehaviors warrant them. Most supervisors are comfortable with prescriptive performance management. It’s usually a fun and positive experience for both the supervisor and the member. But very few supervisors are excited to engage in corrective performance management. It’s usually not pleasant for either party. But when corrective performance management is warranted, it must be done.

Chief Bashoor’s fire service application: For the fire service, we see this play out in the training environment where the prescriptive side of performance management involves instructors demonstrating various skills (i.e., throwing a ladder), then having the students practice the skill. The corrective side in training comes into play when the student places the ladder upside-down, for example. The instructor stops the evolution, takes the student aside, orders some pushups, and then has the student conduct the evolution again.

Then there’s the annual performance evaluation – a year-long process where the station officer and crew drill and critique, practice and learn. Attendance, administrative duties, patient care, uniform appearance, conduct unbecoming, etc. – you name it, the officer deals with all of it and more.

From the prescriptive side, the officer has provided the SOPs/SOGs/orders/directives that cover all of these things, and any officer worth their weight is demonstrating the positive attributes for others to emulate. If the firefighters are following suit, there’d be no corrective management necessary – an unrealistic expectation. Where deficiencies are present, the officer may have the responsibility to take on-the-spot corrective action, may retrain and reevaluate, or may simply counsel and notate deficiencies. As Dr. Conor said, the corrective course and review session is rarely comfortable for the officer or the subordinate, yet an accurate assessment of the positive and the negative is a necessary measure of performance management.

2. Critical-thinking

Critical-thinking is the process of engaging our brains to comprehend, assess, analyze and process information in such a way as to improve the quality of our actions, decisions and communications. It usually requires us to interrupt our automatic decision-making processes, challenge our assumptions and look at scenarios with fresh perspectives.

Critical thinking involves these three steps:

  1. Slow down. Give yourself permission to take the time to make a better-informed decision.
  2. Consider your sources. Expand your information sources.
  3. Expand your options. Come up with more than one solution to the problem.

Chief Bashoor’s fire service application: Critical-thinking skills are not a strong point of the academy environment where recruits are mostly training in fast-faced reactive response. Once members are out in the field and taking on supervisory roles, a reactive state to every supervision problem simply does not work.

Much like you train your firefighters to conduct a 360-degree evaluation around a structure, the officer needs to follow the same idea with their personal supervision performance and that of their firefighters. Supervisors must take the time to think through the entire issue, to determine whether all the information was provided, whether there were distractions impacting the situation and, ultimately, whether discipline is in order – that’s the supervision 360.

3. Problem-solving

While problem-solving seems self-explanatory, most supervisors usually have trouble with the first step of problem-solving, which is define the problem. Most problems lay hidden beneath layers of symptoms. It takes practice to learn how to keep digging to identify the true problem.

Once that task is complete, the remaining problem-solving steps are:

  • Identify the cause(s) of the problem;
  • Develop multiple solutions to resolve the problem;
  • Choose a solution;
  • Implement the solution; and
  • Evaluate the results.

Chief Bashoor’s fire service application: Dr. Conor is helping us avoid the “moth-to-the-flame” here. There is some immediacy to what we do – but not ALL the time! Officers have myriad concerns to address, from crew resource management to the principles of personnel management to dealing with the investigation and adjudication of community complaints or discipline problems.

From a firefighter supervision perspective, the cause and effect of personnel problems are usually much less obvious and predictable than fireground problems. What causes a member to be habitually late? From the supervision perspective, you must not simply look at the late firefighter as a problem to get rid of. You must first look to the bottom-line issues affecting the issue to determine whether time-management training, personal assistance or disciplinary action will solve the issue. Once you’ve identified your options and chosen a path to affect change, make sure you’re evaluating the employee’s improvements on a regular basis.

4. Communication

Effective communication occurs when your intended audience members receive the message that you sent them. To do this, the active supervisor needs to understand that most communication occurs outside the use of words. Our nonverbal communications (i.e., facial expressions, energy levels, eye contact, body language) play a large role in communicating our messages to our intended audience members. Effective communication, therefore, must be intentional and purposeful. The active supervisor, like all leaders, is under constant observation, so you have to pay attention to your words and non-words to make sure that you are sending the message that you want people to receive.

Chief Bashoor’s fire service application: After developing a radical change to response policy that involved things like the 360 and flow-path management, I delivered what I believed to be a very clear and concise message to our chiefs to implement the program, including dissemination to the troops by the battalion chiefs. Like most organizational change, this change was not popular among the old-school purists (many of them younger in the fire service than myself) of the department, and although there was an opportunity for buy-in, buy-in was difficult. In fact, one of the battalion chiefs delivered the training by walking into their station, tossing the document onto the kitchen table, and proclaimed, “we’ve gotta do this crap – I don’t believe in it, but the chief says we gotta do it.” Now while I believe Dr. Conor is talking much more about the subconscious ques we give off, this demonstration provides a negative picture, both of the policy, the battalion chief, and the assurance that the message was indeed properly delivered for dissemination.

5. Courage

As it pertains to active supervision, courage is the skill of dealing with situations and people that most people would consider to be challenging. Courage often requires the active supervisor to tell people what they need to hear, even if and when they don’t want to hear it. Courage also means making difficult decisions, knowing that it may cost the active supervisor some popularity points when it comes to their members.

Chief Bashoor’s fire service application: Courage isn’t always about making it down a stoked hallway. Supervisors are tasked to make split-second decisions and to deliver good news, bad news and everything in between.

In the development phase of your supervision skills, you should have demonstrated the capacity to make those split-second decisions and the right ways to get things done. We must demonstrate the ability to acutely evaluate our subordinates, to provide advanced and remedial improvement opportunities, and to have “taken care of business.”

So whether it’s making the push down that hallway, delivering a death notification, holding the disciplinary counseling session or training on the newly implemented policies, taking people where they NEED to be, as opposed to where they WANT to go takes courage and conviction.

6. Training

The active supervision skill of training involves seeking out training for yourself and teaching your members everything you expect them to do. For yourself, it means that in addition to continuing to develop your professional and technical skills, you also make time to learn and practice your active supervisor skills. For your members, it means teaching them what you want them to perform and how you want them to perform before they have to perform those tasks in real life.

Chief Bashoor’s fire service application: In most fire service environments, this is straightforward: We put the student through significant hours of training and practice before there’s an expectation of street-level performance. In the “old-days,” there was more of a “trial by fire,” as volunteer members were allowed to join and get on the truck on day 1 without a stitch of training. That can no longer be an acceptable paradigm for any 21st-century supervisor.

It’s also important to understand that training isn’t a one-and-done thing. Career development is a continuous training effort, and as new tools, techniques and challenges affect the fire service, supervisors should find themselves in the classroom, too!

7. Innovation

Innovation involves using the previously described skills of critical-thinking and problem-solving to come up with ways of doing things better. Most people think that innovation means making big changes. That is not necessarily the case. Most innovations come from improving the ways the members of the organization perform their day-to-day, routine tasks. Innovation requires the active supervisor to have an open mind and provide their members with opportunities to take risks as they put forward new ideas.

Chief Bashoor’s fire service application: Each of the 10 skills that Dr. Conor discusses overlay our fire service daily life. Innovation is clearly not just a laboratory term for new stuff but should also be the firefighter and supervisor’s laboratory for figuring out new or more efficient ways to get the job done. Some of the most innovative tools, equipment and ideas that I’ve seen in fire service have come out of the fire station kitchen table training and after-action meetings. The officer needs to foster an environment that allows the firefighters to express different ways to get things done, while still accomplishing the bottom line. Sometimes, it’s the lower-level member who comes up with that simple solution that has evaded all of us chiefs for years. Create an environment that allows your firefighters to experiment and grow, not only in their operational techniques but also in the broader understanding of what we all bring to the table.

8. Inspiration

Members want to be inspired. Inspiration is the skill of giving your members purpose in their jobs and, as Simon Sinek writes about, explaining the “why.” All jobs, even noble ones like those found in the fire service, can become routine and uninspiring. Active supervisors are constantly reminding their members of the compelling reasons for doing what they do. And they are continually explaining the reasons behind their decisions and directions. Inspired members perform better, work harder and stay longer than their uninspired counterparts.

Chief Bashoor’s fire service application: Internally and externally, we should be driven to do the right things, at the right times, for the right reasons. If you’re doing all those things, eventually the “why” will become self-evident.

Not everything we do involves the fire service bravado and appeal we see in the movies, which challenges us to adapt our interpersonal skills to appropriately interact with the environment we’re confronted with. Supervisors need to focus on the positive and demonstrate the skills to navigate the not-so-smooth times. A supervisor who focuses on “the chief said” instead of explaining the “why” is destined to deflate the mood and build a negative environment.

9. Time management

Active supervisors are busy. To be effective in this role, you will need to become an expert at managing your time. Skillful time management involves setting goals, prioritizing activities, defining boundaries and maintaining focus in the midst of distractions. When you become skilled at time management, you will be able to make the time to accomplish all of your goals without feeling overwhelmed.

Chief Bashoor’s fire service application: Over my 40 years in the fire service, I’ve had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on your perspective) to experience Management by Objectives (MBO), Total Quality Management (TQM) and everything other management theory along way. Yes, each of these theories has provided perspective that’s been invaluable to my leadership development and supervisory skills; however, most of these theories are built on the Monday through Friday corporate paradigm, not taking into account the 24-hour nature of our business.

The time management that Dr. Conor talks about here is just as important in the emergency sense as it is in the non-emergency situations. We manage the amount of time we’re searching a room, just like we would manage the amount of time we spend writing a memo. There are other things that need to get done, yet we know all too well (unlike the corporate world) that emergencies routinely affect our time management principles. Regardless, you still have to ensure all of the “daily duties,” including your supervisory duties get done. Your firefighters need you to be their administrative supervisor just as much as they need you to be their operational supervisor. Frankly, they can probably do most of the operational stuff without you; it’s the administrative stuff they need you to focus on!

I’ve found that making a simple list – mine is on my smartphone – of today’s “must-do’s” is effective in my time-management continuum. There are the elected official meetings, the mandatory conferences, the training and planning sessions, the complaints, the employee interactions, reports to write, etc. – then there’s the reality of the clock. At the chief’s level, it’s extremely unusual to be able to keep things in linear completion. Focus on the must-do’s and ensure your firefighters have what they need, before worrying about the nice-to-do’s.

10. Scheduling

Scheduling is time management in action. Scheduling is the skill of taking all the information you processed and the decisions you made regarding time management and adding it to your calendaring system. One of the keys for success in supervision, as well as life, is this: If you want to make sure that something gets done, schedule it on your calendar. Our memories are not as good as we think they are, and our workdays can go by very rapidly. Effective supervisors use their schedules to transform their good intentions into great results.

Chief Bashoor’s fire service application: Calendars and lists transcend the workforce. While the station firefighter may not need their own list, it’s useful to have a calendar the captures everything from mandatory training to voluntary offerings and meeting schedules. The calendar not only keeps officers on track, but allows firefighters to understand their time management needs for the day. Some departments go as far as to line-item times for working out, for training and for lunch. In slower departments, that’s important to keep people focused. In busier departments, that calendar is usually blown by 8 am (remember, tackle the must-do’s on your list first). Gone are the times that firefighters can just have a free-for-all mindset – showing up and doing whatever they want, at their pace. Officers should use all of the concepts Dr. Conor discusses to focus themselves and their firefighters. You’ve heard me say this before, and with all due respect to the Father of the American fire service, this isn’t Ben Franklins’ fire department anymore. It’s time to progress!

Final thoughts

As an officer, remember that your supervision skills are just as important as your technical firefighting skills.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article from Chief Bashoor and I. If you have any questions about what we wrote about, please feel free to reach out to either or both of us. Thank you for your continued service to your followers and the communities you work in.

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