From the bench to a starter: How to cultivate the members who struggle

The key for fire service leaders is finding – and maximizing – members’ strengths, even when they aren’t a perfect fit


Have you ever been to a sporting event, whether Little League, middle school or even high school, and noticed that one kid who seemed to be an outsider – the kid who never got to play?

Since most firefighters are naturally athletic, many of us were likely active in some kind of sport in our younger years – baseball, football, basketball, tennis, cross country, track or even something more unique, like gymnastics or archery.

When we were very young, we sort of ran around in a position with no real direction. Then when we moved into middle school or high school sports, we were pushed to be our best at the position in order to bring success to the team as a whole. Our ability to “play” was ultimately rooted in our skill progression and openness to coaching – this is what coaches are looking for and determined who was a starter for the team.

"Just because someone isn’t top of their game with the abilities that we want them to have doesn’t mean they don’t have other abilities that can help us succeed as a team or an organization," Davis writes. (Photo/Getty Images)

Of course, there are also the players who never progressed and therefore sat on the bench – and many eventually quit the team.

Have you ever thought about the kids on the bench? Did you ever wonder if they were actually a good hitter but never stepped up to bat because the coach didn’t think they played the field well enough – or whether they were a good runner but never had a chance to steal? Maybe they were great at reading plays but never on the field because they weren’t a strong tackler.

Just because someone isn’t top of their game with the abilities that we want them to have doesn’t mean they don’t have other abilities that can help us succeed as a team or an organization.

Focus on strengths

In the last decade or so, the fire service has struggled with recruitment and retention. With retention specifically, some members have walked away from the fire service, not even to pursue another job. Did we have something to do with that, being the “alpha” personalities we are? Are there people who find the job harder than they thought it would be? Are the new generations of members not as interested in physical labor jobs like the baby boomers and Generation X?

I think the answer is yes – yes to all of those things. But how do we engage members enough to retain them?

Most people we are losing are the ones who “never played.” What do we blame that on most of the time? We say they’re lazy, they can’t take the heat, they applied for this job because they thought it was easy or, the best one, they thought they were going to sleep all night. What if all of those were false and we didn’t spend enough time on them, so they just went away?           

When we are in the fire academy, whether at the state level or after we are hired within an organization, we are the little kids running around with no real direction. As we come out into the station, that is where our direction or non-direction is given. We have all had that officer or senior member who took us under their wing and showed us everything that we needed to know. We have also seen or been the officer or senior member wrote someone off quickly because they weren’t picking it up fast enough.

Think about it: When we have the members who pick it up easy, it’s easy to give them direction and let their natural talent take care of the rest. But what about the member who are not good at remembering the instructions in the book, the ones who are not mechanically inclined, or who just don’t have the natural ability to do something and have to work at it? They deserve our time, too. We are part of the problem when we fail to give them equal attention, essentially driving them away from the fire service. Why not spend a little extra time on the person who doesn’t pick it up as fast and bring them up to par? While they don’t have to be the most knowledgeable person on the crew, they still bring something to the table. If we spend some time on them through effort and training and bring them up to even 60% capability, then they are providing more assistance than the person we left at 10% capability – the person who ends up quitting.

Everyone has their place within an organization, we just have to help them find their spot. If we lose them, the time and effort you did put into them is wasted. And what if the next person you get has fewer capabilities, leaving your team even further behind?           

We have all heard, in some fashion or another throughout our careers, “If I run 20 calls during a shift, how many does the public expect me to show up on and fix the problem?” 20. The public doesn’t care about what you think about your subordinate’s ability, but they do care that we show up as a team and fix whatever problem they called us out there for.

Maybe your member is a cautious, safe engine driver; maybe they are good on medical skills; maybe they are good at reading a building; or possibly even good at investigating fires. Just because someone isn’t a hose-dragging hallway pusher doesn’t mean they don’t have abilities that will help the team or organization develop and progress. There are going to be times that a member doesn’t have the capability to do something, no matter how bad we want them to, nor how bad they want to. As officers and leaders, this is where we must find their strengths and use them.

Again, maybe they don’t thrive on the technical rescue team, but they can drive and pump an engine. Why not help them understand their strengths – and strengthen the organization – by moving them out to a single house and give someone else a chance at that spot on the tech rescue team? This can be a difficult talk, but that’s our job as an officer or mentor.           

How many times in college football have you seen a quarterback get hurt or a running back blow his knee out? Now they have to go to the backup. Is your backup ready to do the job and fulfill the starters shoes? What if your backup is the person whom you didn’t put much effort into, but they are now your go-to member? If you find yourself in this situation, then you have done a disservice to yourself, your member, your team, and the citizens you serve. After all, instead of training that member, you wrote them off.

Even treatment across the board

In officer classes, we are taught to build our members up and teach them what they need to know to make the next step or take our position. Why not do this evenly across the board? As a leader, you should enjoy the challenge of sculpting pottery out of a piece of clay. Who knows, that person may be in a position later in life to help you in a tough situation, or even save your life, because you took the time to teach them what they didn’t know and gave them the knowledge, skill and ability to help you.

As officers, leaders and mentors, we have to be able to work on multiple different levels. While it is easy for us to take the more motivated, more talented individual and plug them in the game, maybe the poor fielder has a higher batting average than our starter. Remember, runs mean more in a baseball game than fielding ever did. To help retention, we cannot let these people get pushed to the outside of the circle, never assisted, and expect them to feel wanted and stick around. We need to step up and build our crews to the best of its ability, no matter how much work we have to put into it. We are here for them.

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