Got Ink? In the fire service, your reputation can precede you

Note: I'm posting this article in order to share it with viewers of my upcoming Webcast, "So You Want to Be a Company Officer?" This is the first Company Officer Development column I wrote for FireRescue magazine, back in 2006.

During my first shift at the Redlands (Calif.) Fire Department, my captain, Rick Lynski, sat me down for “the talk.” You know the one: You sit down and the captain tells you how things will be done while you nod your head up and down with that dumb look on your face, agreeing to whatever they have to say. I had a few of these talks with some of my previous captains, but this particular talk stood out because Captain Lynski asked me if I knew what a tattoo was. “Of course,” I said, nodding. Then he asked me if I knew what a “fire department tattoo” was. I didn’t know what he was talking about and began to imagine a number of bad scenarios as I answered, “No, sir.”

Captain Lynski explained that in the fire service, we begin receiving “tattoos” our first day on the job that often follow us throughout our careers. He said these tattoos are like real tattoos in that there are good ones and bad ones, and they are very easy to get but difficult to get rid of. Some are earned and some aren’t, but no matter what, they belong to us. In other words, we begin building our reputation in the workplace immediately, and despite how we might grow and change, it’s very difficult to change others’ perception of us.

Captain Lynski’s explanation continued until he asked me what kind of tattoos I intended on earning. Of course I responded by saying I intended on gathering only good tattoos, but saying you will earn only good tattoos is very different from actually doing it.

Collecting Tattoos
I have gathered my own tattoos, both good and bad, and I’ve witnessed fellow firefighters either struggle in leadership roles or excel based on what kind of “ink” they’ve received. I know one individual who has a very difficult time leading his company because he has a history of disrespecting his employees. In other words, he doesn’t indicate to people how important they are to the organization; instead, he talks down to them. But this lack of respect didn’t surface when he became a company officer; he behaved this way as a firefighter and it festered as a company officer. This particular tattoo made his job extremely difficult because when you don’t respect people, they don’t respect you. But without respect, how can you lead people? Guess what, you can’t.

Although you collect these little gems throughout your career, the first tattoos are often the most painful and permanent, because you must live with them the longest, and they can take on a life of their own. I have also witnessed the long-term effects these tattoos have on members in the firehouse. One firefighter collected so many bad tattoos the first two years on the job that it’s impossible for them to get promoted. Do you know people in your organization who have acquired a few bad tattoos in a non-supervisory position? When these individuals got promoted (and trust me, they get promoted) how effective were they? Did their past follow them and make their new role as a supervisor more difficult? The tattooed supervisors I’ve observed were constantly challenged because they have a difficult time finding people who want to work with them. They also have a tremendous lack of respect from their personnel, peers and supervisors.

Every supervisor, no matter their rank, must deal with their reputation and history. People don’t forget your past actions just because you wear a different badge.

Yes or No?

As an officer, your reputation will either help you or hinder you. So, let’s say you get promoted to captain. Congratulations (I guess). But based on your current reputation (real or perceived), do you honestly think your crew, peers and supervisor will respect you? Follow you? Trust you? Want to work with you? Listen to you? Confide in you? (Add your own questions to this list if you think it’s incomplete.)

If you answered no to any of these questions, you may need to re-evaluate your desire to be promoted until you can address some of these issues and the tattoos that go with them. I suppose if you just want to be a “paycheck captain,” and your fire chief knows this but promotes you anyway, you probably deserve each other and none of the questions I listed matter. But rest assured, you will have a very difficult time being a leader, and your chief will have nothing more than a warm body filling a void on the roster.

On the other hand, if you want to do the job right and honestly answered yes to the above questions, then you are headed in the right direction.

Making Changes
True change does not happen overnight—it takes time. (Just ask my wife who’s been trying to change me for 17 years.) But have you ever noticed how some people do an about-face and try to change their reputation the day they’re added to a promotional list? Remember: You can’t sit around your entire career, then suddenly jump on every kiss-ass committee or project right before a promotion, and not stink up the joint.

I’ve done my fair share of changing throughout my career, and I’ve had to constantly analyze whether I’m doing the right thing for the right reasons. I’ve also watched some dear friends completely alter their reputations, going from partying rock-star-like lunatics to exceptional leaders. But none of it happened overnight. Here are some things you can do to begin changing some of those bad tattoos.

• Make sound, solid decisions and maintain absolute integrity. If you have no integrity as a supervisor, you have nothing.
• Be a leader in your current position. If you aren’t a leader as a firefighter or an engineer, how can you be a leader as a captain? They don’t hand you a box of leadership when you get promoted. If you can prove that you are a leader as a subordinate, your transition to supervisor will be much easier.
• Be a mentor. If you aspire to be a company officer, I’m sure you have some experience and knowledge under your belt. Share what you’ve learned unselfishly, and set a good example because someone probably did the same for you. Believe it or not, young firefighters are direct reflections of you as a role model.
• Find something you’re good at, and become the department expert in that area. This will take some time and a considerable amount of hard work, but it is worth every minute. Before you know it, people will begin seeking you out based on your expertise. Note: Make sure your expertise is relevant to your job—being an expert in fly-fishing will only take you so far in the fire service.
• Take responsibility for your mistakes and actions. When you make a mistake, don’t hide it or blame it on someone else. On the fireground, we encounter an ever-changing environment that forces us to improvise and make decisions. These decisions don’t always result in a perfect ending, so we must learn from our mistakes and pass on the information with humility.
• Have fun at work, and try to stay positive, even if times are rough in your department. Anyone can stay positive during the good times, but a true leader stays positive and can motivate people in times of difficulty. (If you hate being a firefighter, I’m sure your old boss at McDonald’s will hire you back.)

The Golden Circle

I can recall some really stupid things I did as a firefighter that have followed me as a captain. I wish I could take back a number of these things, but I can’t, so I must deal with every one of them now. The bottom line: We all make mistakes that we must live with. In fact, if I don’t screw something up at least once a day, I get uncomfortable because I think something bad must be coming my way. But I try not to make the same mistake twice.

Any good engineer will tell you to do a lap around the engine before leaving a call. This will ensure that you have picked up all the gear, and you’re not going to run over anything. This lap is called the “Engineer’s Golden Circle.” My good friend Jim Kimbrough told me one day that I should perform a “golden circle” before I say anything. That was really good advice and I wish I listened, because I could have significantly reduced some of my tattoos. Think about it: We all say and do less-than-responsible things sometimes. How much trouble could we save ourselves if we thought about what we said before we said it?

In Conclusion

When you finally decide to promote, you must deal with the tattoos you have received. Ask yourself, “How am I going to supervise a crew with the reputation I have earned?” If you don’t know the answer, ask someone who will give you an honest answer and some sound advice for making some positive changes. And if you can’t undo something negative, make up for it by doing something positive.

I will leave you with a quote from General Ron Fogleman, U.S. Air Force, that easily relates to the fire service: “We earn and sustain the respect and trust of the public and of our troops because of the integrity and self-discipline we demonstrate. Officers should strive to develop forthright integrity—officers who do the right thing in their professional and private lives—and have the courage to take responsibility for their choices.” 1


1. Cohen, William A. “The New Art of the Leader.” Prentice Hall, 2000; p. 27. Presented during the USAF Academy Commandant’s Leadership Series, Nov. 8, 1995, by Ron Fogleman.

Ray Gayk is a company officer with the Ontario (Calif.) Fire Department (OFD). Gayk is a 16-year veteran of the fire service who has been actively involved with the OFD’s development of engineer and captain mentor programs. He has also been a training officer and currently works on Truck 131 in downtown Ontario.

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