Improving Fire Department Morale at the Administration Level

This article is part of the “Owning the Job” series here on Read more articles from the “Owning the Job” series here.

Recently, I wrote an article that got a lot of attention. Apparently “Improving Fire Department Morale at the Company Level” was a popular topic. Many of us are sitting in the same boat…morale is low. It is so low in my department, part of our promotional process involved a presentation on 3 ideas to improve morale within our department. It will be interesting to see what happens with all of the ideas.

Illustration by Paul Combs of On Facebook “Drawn by Fire”

I also fessed up to the fact that my presentation was catered towards our “Administration” correcting the issue. I think that most of us will point the finger at our administrations, local government officials, and the economy for our morale issues. However, with the previous post about correcting morale issues at the Company Level, I do believe that we have some work we can do to make things better.

And yes, there are plenty of ways in which Administrations everywhere could improve morale.

And no, not all of them require filling our wallets with more money…but lets be honest, better pay does help improve morale.

This isn’t a thesis on the subject. This is a common sense approach I took the time to type up. I am sure there are 100’s of other ideas to improving morale. Before you continue to scoff at the notion that someone has to explain to you some ideas to improve morale, take the time to read this. I guarantee there is something in it for you.

Here are some ideas for improving morale from the top down:

Be Honest

Probably the single biggest way to lose your credibility is to lie. Firefighters are adults, we can handle the truth even if it isn’t what we want to hear. I have seen Chief’s lie and continue to lie…to the point that some firefighters lost all faith in their managers (notice I didn’t say leaders). Don’t lie. It is unbecoming.

Be Proud

Have pride in your department. Have pride in your firefighters. Have pride in what you do and how you do it. If you aren’t proud of something, change it. Look for better alternatives. If you exude pride, others will too.

Be Professional

Remain professional all of the time. Don’t let a few seconds ruin your credibility, public perception, or firefighters perception of you. You are in a position that warrants professionalism. You are a public servant too.

Make sure your firefighters have the uniforms, equipment, tools, apparatus, etc. to help them look professional.

Understand Traditions

Firefighting and Fire Departments have traditions that are over a hundred years old. Some good, some bad. By now, most of the traditions that should have gone by the wayside have (most were due to safety reasons). Unfortunately, some of the great traditions which offered no harm in continuing to be a part of FD life have gone by the wayside too. Traditions are behaviors, beliefs, even events that are passed down from one generation to another which hold a significance within individual companies, departments, or localities (in relation to firefighting). Traditions that have been lost CAN be reintroduced. Make sure you are holding onto traditions that are worth it and bring value to your department. Be sure to place value on traditions as the firefighters see them too. Some may not seem like a big deal to Administration, but might be a huge deal to the firefighters.

Stop Micromanaging

We see it in the private sector, we see it in the public sector. The ones behind the desk constantly think up new ideas to make themselves look good…and potentially even benefit the department. Yet the work is delegated to others. This process is somewhat the norm. HOWEVER, once delegated, there is no need to breath down the neck of the ones doing the work.

Similarly, the Battalion Chiefs and Company Officers know how to do their jobs…RIGHT? After all, they WERE promoted to those positions. Let them do their jobs. They don’t need anyone checking up on them, or higher-ups micromanaging them.

At the company level, let the company officers do their jobs. Unfortunately, I know plenty of company officers who enable micromanagement. Instead of making a decision, they call their BC to ask them what to do. If I were a BC, I would expect the company officers to make decisions and get the job done. IF NEEDED, they would be able to reach out, but don’t enable micromanagement.

Restore Faith and Responsibility in Your Company Officers

Once the micromanagement is corrected (if present), you must restore the faith in your company officers. This might mean creating a leadership and/or management course designed specifically for your department. It isn’t remedial…it is constructive and continuing education. Be sure they know their role(s) and are well equipped to take care of business.

Listen and Understand

Much like firefighters are told to be seen and not heard, Administrative staff must do the same from time to time. Hold meetings that are informal and allow everyone in attendance to ask questions and get answers.

Stop in firehouses occasionally and enjoy a cup of coffee with the crews. Be sure to call first and let them know you are coming…Having the Chief stop by without calling is like having the inlaws stop into your house unexpectedly. Letting them know you are just swinging by for a minute is the right thing to do. Plus, being at the firefighters firehouses enables them to be more comfortable to ask questions and hold conversation.


Communicate with your department members. This means both formally and informally. If a memo needs to be written, write it. Write emails and keep them informed. There is no way of ensuring that everyone is reading your memos, emails, etc. But you can make sure that the information is there if they are seeking it.

Embrace Social Media

Fire Departments should embrace the use of social media for a multitude of reasons. Improve communications with local media, showcase what your department is doing, fire prevention messages, product recalls, create relationships and open communication with your citizens and visitors, get feedback on how your department is doing, and positive public relations are just a handful of reasons. If you are already utilizing social media, continue building your online footprint.

Positive Reinforcement

Praise your members for a job well done. This doesn’t have to be a reward system, just a simple acknowledgement of a job well done. Do this on a regular basis and let your firefighters know you are proud of them, you are taking notice, and you appreciate them.

Get Involved in the Community

Make sure that your department is involved in the community. Get Fire/EMS companies out to events and show them how community involvement can help the citizens and visitors (your customers) how professional your department is and how they are active in the community. This one step alone can be the difference in community support for raises, equipment, apparatus, and other things.

I have never understood how some firefighters get a bad attitude when we have to go out in the public. We are Firefighters, we should be acting like it. Our Administration should ensure that we understand this is a “traditional” part of firefighting.

Eat at the Firehouse…or at least drink the coffee

Be available to eat a lunch or dinner at the firehouse. This might be a little more difficult if you have been in the position for a long time and have never taken the opportunity to break bread with the firefighters. I know at our house, we always offer coffee. If it is around lunch or dinner time, we typically offer for them to stay for dinner. The invite is never taken up. We don’t offer just to hear ourselves speak. The next time someone offers, take them up on it if you can. That opens the door to doing it again in the future. Be sure to pay up for meals though. Remember, that food is bought by the firefighters. This simple gesture could be the beginning of a great form of communication for you.

If you don’t have time to eat, let them know you will take them up on the offer in the future…and follow through with it. If you are offered coffee – drink it!

Participate in Training

Do you think that because you are THE Chief or a Chief you do not have to participate in training? Think again. Training next to your firefighters shows them you are interested in what they do. It shows them that it is ok to train, it is good to train, and that you are not above training. If it doesn’t feel good to get out there and get your hands dirty next to your guys then you should retire.

Don’t Forget Where You Came From

Man, this is a popular saying around firehouses. Don’t forget where you came from…Often heard told to a newly promoted officer. And yet, other times we hear “He forgot where he came from”. Don’t do it. Remember how it was to be a firefighter. Remember all the hard work you put in to getting promoted. Remember all the good times and the bad. Don’t forget them when you leave the firehouse for administration. Those guys rely on you doing your job with the understanding that you still remember what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Of course, there are those Chiefs who have never been on a fire engine. I am not debating what you think of that process, but there stands to reason why these Chiefs need to understand that they didn’t move up the ranks on a fire engine…and that maybe some more training is needed for them to fully understand what firefighters do from day to day. Obviously, much like all of these ideas, they depend on what type of department we are talking about…but I think you can take something from these ideas and cater it to your needs.

Be Fair

This one is plain and simple. Use policy to dictate your actions if needed. Don’t make up unwritten rules as time progresses. If you do something for one, offer it for everyone. If you punish one way one time, do it the same in the future.

Do The Right Thing

Typically this is easier for firefighters than Administration. The motto often offered up by FOOLS has become one of my most defining thoughts. Administrative Chiefs often have their bosses inhibiting them from doing what firefighters think is right. If explained properly, firefighters can understand it (See above: Be Honest). Either way, you should always strive to do what is right. What is right? Look at your mission statement and core values. If you don’t have a mission statement and core values create them. If you have them, follow them!

Ride Along

Get out there and ride with the firefighters. This can go in conjunction with eating at the firehouse. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to pull a whole shift with them. If you stop by the firehouse and they get toned out, hop on the rig with them.

Allow Ride Alongs

Offer ride alongs to others. I love having ride alongs at the firehouse. My Captain isn’t too keen on it. We have ride alongs frequently at my firehouse. Offer these to the public. You will be surprised how much the public doesn’t know about what we do.

Keep Your Door Open…And Mean it

You have an open door policy? Really? How often do firefighters take you up on meeting with you? If it is frequently, you are doing it right. If there is almost never a knock at your door, you might want to rethink if the firefighters really believe you have an open door policy.

If you have that policy, live by it. Let the informal meetings that arise be off the record. Hell, take your badge off and discuss things like men if you have to. This doesn’t mean that either party gets to be unprofessional, it just shows that there is no rank in the room and someone has to get something off their chest.

Don’t Operate on Rumors

Oh the rumors. Chiefs are not going to control the rumor mill. Likewise, they shouldn’t let the rumor mill control them. I have seen anonymous letters do some pretty damaging stuff in our department. Anonymous doesn’t mean anything to me. I am wasting my time reading it. If someone doesn’t have the nuts to put their name on something it isn’t worth reading. If someone is scared of putting their name on it due to retaliation, you have a bigger problem.

Rumors are not verified, speculative, and passed down from one person to another. Feel free to dispell the rumors as you hear them. Some rumors are spread out of fear. Others become rumors when communication is broke down.

Better Benefits

I would be remiss if I did not mention pay and benefits. A decent salary, affordable health care, and other benefits attract the kinds of firefighters you want working for you. If not maintained, you will see some of your firefighters head for greener pastures. Stay up on comparisons of similar localities for pay, benefits, and health care. Keep that information updated and by your side. When Council asks, brings it up, or says there isn’t a problem you will be able to show the data. Be sure to keep a close eye on the other public safety departments for parity within your locality.

Fight For Your Department

In order to be successful at improving morale in your department, you have to believe that it is worth it. You have to want the change and you have to create the change. You have got to fight for your department. If your departments members are down in the dumps because of this and that, make sure they understand what they DO HAVE, and what you are going to fight to get them.

You are the public figure of the fire department, you are the spokesperson, you are the face people put with the department, and the first name they come to. Act like it.

Here are some other thoughts, and some reiterated from above via The Fire Critic Facebook Page:

  • A chief that backs, supports and Listens to his officers….
    Officers that provide that same respect to their firefighters…
  • Remember your roots and don’t kowtow to the politicians.
  • I found in my experience as a volunteer fire chief and a group leader in industry, there are three simple things that if done, tend to work well. 1) Show your folks appreciation. 2) Keep them in the know. 3) Make them part of the decision making process. It is that easy.
  • Lead by example. Simple, but effective.
  • Let the guys do their job. Be proactive for them not reactive. Simple as that.
  • Simple solution…a fire chief needs to remember he has one job…..TAKE CARE OF HIS PEOPLE!! EVERYTHING ELSE falls under that!!!
  • Answer your questions or concerns without talking down to you. You seem to get that when you are just as intelligent or more intelligent then those in the hierarchy.
  • Talk to your people. Too often the higher level admins stay in the office and become mythical figures. Get out there and let them ask you questions. Be human.
  • The do as I say not as I do attitude is gone in this day and age
  • Get out of your office and take an interest in the people in your department. Give your people a pat on the back when they do a good job.
  • Never ask your crew to do something that you wouldn’t or couldn’t.
  • As a BC and only being on the job for 20 years I have spent time at every level on the organization. I have worked with good boss’s and not so good. I believe that I am better than I use to be. I have a simple ideology approach and its been mentioned before by another chief. I’m a dick when I need to be and an advocate the rest of the time. I expect the very best from my guys and will give them the tools to succeed. My department does not gain anything from poor performers. If your not adding value to the team than I will flush you out. I let the men and woman do their jobs that I pay them for and accept that I cannot make everyone happy including the chief.
  • Be with us and don’t criticize us for wanting to go to specialized training (get that a lot from volunteer chiefs)
  • Here’s another one…don’t throw your people under the bus! Those from DC can relate I’m sure.
  • Have their back when they are right, kick their butt when their wrong. Buy the crew ice cream once a month for no reason.
  • Remember where they came from. They were once sitting in the back of the engine running line up the stairwell. Keep the thought of the guys who do the work in mind. The politicians will get over the decisions you make if its for the best of the citizens and the department.
  • You can’t be one of the guys but IF you are in a leader position and No one is following you? Your just taking a walk. Just saying.
  • Eat with your crew, on occasion, know the name of all of your Firefighters,and communicate clearly and consistently with everyone!
  • In my department it seems the line has one opinion on where the department is headed, and administration another. How admin delivers future plans is a “down your throat” approach, especially when we ask questions they can not answer. When this happens it create a major disconnect, and we see little value in running with admins ideas. Then the next natural step is to loose trust and confidence in admin. We are smart monkeys allow us to help…quit worrying so much about writing a paper for some good ole boys society that chief want to belong to.
  • A good ole fashioned company picnic.
  • Trust your officers. Criticize behind closed doors, praise in public. Listen to your men. Don’t be afraid of the word liability.
  •  communicate with your guys, let them know what’s going on and not keep them in the dark about the department.
  • Never forget where you came from. Be honest with the men. Always speak the truth even if it hurts. Always remember the foundation is men
  • Praise them. Give them an attaboy every chance you can.
  • Get to know your people, listen to them, and then encourage positive behavior and self-starters. Recognize and reward valued employees, and know that the loudest guy isn’t necessarily the hardest working one.