Demise of the “Senior Man”

Captain Arthur Ashely and his Senior man Paddy Boggs.

Captain Arthur Ashely and his Senior man Paddy Boggs.

The senior man has been in the fire house since the dawn of fire. The senior man is the unofficial leader of the crew. The senior man is the go between when discussions are difficult with the company officer and enforcer of the fire house culture. There is nothing the senior man cannot do. They are respected, confident, feared and trusted amongst the company officer and crew.

Since we can all agree that a great senior man will set you up for success, its obvious a poor or non-existent senior man will do the opposite.
Why do we not identify and develop capable firefighters to this crucial identity within the firehouse?

Listed below are what I believe to be reasons why; (in no order of importance)
• Lack of identification- The crew, company officer and organization simply do not know the importance of the position. No one has been exposed to the importance of it and simply cannot foresee it.

• Company Officer distrust- The company officer is insecure in their role and abilities to trust another member with responsibility.

• Lack of support- chief officers and company officers like the idea of delegation but do not release the authority to complete the tasks. However the support has to be there for them to complete the delegated task. Everyone has to know that the senior man is in charge and what they say goes.

• No one wants it- it seems that in today’s fire service being a back-step or wheel man is not glamourous. It seems that firefighters finish rookie school and start working on being an officer without QUALITY time in the back-step seat.

Now that we have identified a few issues. Lets address the solutions. Again, listed below in no particular order.

• Reflect on yourself- As the company officer or chief officer are you doing the best you can?

• Personally invest in your people- Show them that you care, show that you’re disappointed, show them exactly what you want them to do. Share your organizational thoughts and ensure that they have the similar values.

• Be consistent- don’t be a “spin wheel of emotions” type of company officer. We all have bad days and everybody is having a rough go of it. Leave it at home, and be the company officer that you should be EVERYDAY!

• Trust your people- I cannot express how inconsistent most company officers and chief officers are. If you trust your people to make life and death decisions every day and drive million dollar fire trucks down the road, then trust that they are here for the right reason.
(You hired them) If they aren’t, MOVE THEM ON!

• Be the boss- Everything is your fault, as the company officer it’s always going to be your fault. The sooner you accept that fact, the more enjoyable your job you will be.

Will you start today and try to save the SENIOR MAN? Develop your people and invest in the future of the fire service. If you don’t like it, change it. Who is going to step up and take on the role? Will you set up your organization for success and develop your people to this crucial role? If not you then who?

-Batt. Chief Adam Neff

Sr. Staff Correspondent

Hooks & Hooligans

Pictured is Captain Arthur Ashely and his Senior Man Paddy Boggs
(Posted with permission)

The senior man has been in the fire house since the dawn of fire. The senior man is the unofficial leader of the crew. The senior man is the go between when discussions are difficult with the company officer and enforcer of the fire house culture. There is nothing the senior man cannot do. They are respected, confident, feared and trusted amongst the company officer and crew. Since we can all agree that a great senior man will set you up for success, its obvious a poor…

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  1. As the “Senior man” with many years of experience I try to help out the new guys as much as possible. I go above and beyond and make sure that the new guy is welcome to come to me . I do at times have a problem as the senior man when I have a Lieutenant not doing his job and well known for not knowing his job to cover his butt. The fact that he makes 20% more than me as a boss and he doesn’t do the right thing is very annoying. Both in the House and on the Fireground the boss who doesn’t know or do his job is only an accident waiting to happen. Look at yourself as a boss, are you sitting back letting the Senior man do your job? If so- step it up and do your job!

    • Great post Joseph Carrol..
      I also ha e the same problem, with most officers, excluding the Chief, not knowing their jobs or correct procedures on grounds.
      I feel there is no respect towards a senior member, in which ideas are never listened to, and upon a failure or tough task, ask me my thoughts, with no gratitude of saving their butts, from looming inexperienced and foolish.
      It’s a very tough and taxing position at times, however, we can’t give up, on something, that evidently was a calling to us senior members. Drive on, sir.

      Best of luck and stay safe!!

  2. Problem is if senior man is an unofficial position but people think/want to be the senior man with other experienced individuals who is the senior man? The one with the strongest personality? The one that is the most cutthroat willing to go behind other senior employees to get what they want despite performance? The whole idea of a senior man is bullshit and it can tear a company apart! If the senior man is truly the leader and experienced individual they claim to be they should be office or chief no unofficial title!

    • I disagree totally. I was raised by a senior man and I believe in it. His role was one of being a mentor, one who could cut to the chase on issues and ways of doing the job without the official officer speak. This provided important perspectives that both he AND the officer knew needed to be passed on but that the Sr Man COULD do. All to the mutual benefit of the company. A good Sr. Man isn’t taught, isn’t chosen, isn’t from a template. A good Sr. Man just develops naturally by doing the job, having a good knowledge base and handling business all in a natural process and while earning the respect of both his peers and company officer. It’s not a competition or tested process, it happens on its own thru doing the job.

      Those that don’t believe in the importance of a Sr Man have obviously never worked under one or developed into one themselves and hence don’t understand or appreciate the benefits they bring to the table in an unofficial setting. I have said for years the best thing a company officer, in particular a rookie company officer, can have is a 20-year fire fighter riding behind him. To say it can tear a company apart is only factual when the formal leader of the company (eg Officer) is not hands on him/herself and allows it. If that’s the case then that company has issues anyway.

      To say the Sr Man shouldn’t exist and that they should be an Officer or Chief is living in the paper fire department where split second decisions can be analyzed for days and most often by those who either can’t or won’t do the job. The fire service needs Sr Men (and women) and frankly a company without one is the same company that will hesitate, make the wrong decision or simply not make a decision when it’s needed most.

      • Well explained brother. You are 100% correct.

      • Spot on! That senior man is the one who never promoted because of the love for the job. His love is the nozzle or the spreaders in his hand. His love is not doing computer work or morning reports or even talking on the radio. He has seen many of his rookies promote out, but he stayed on the tools. He will retire as a private but but you would not know it by all the brass at the party! And when they leave they take all that knowledge of the district with them. The fire service and traditions only exist because of the senior man…

    • Not everyone can be an officer because there are just not enough positions, but this does not mean that only officers can be leaders. The senior man or informal leader in the fire service is a necessary position because it is a go between between the company and the officer. There are many times when a situation is better handled by a senior firefighter than being handled by the officer and in most instances the officer will know about it. Just like in the military, the officer may be in charge but the senior NCO’s run the show. Without that leadership the company will fall apart. Based on your description of a senior firefighters qualities you don’t really understand what the role is, it could be for you, step up and lead.

    • Dude McFirefighter

      You’re totally missing the purpose and place of the Senior Man or Woman, Rusty. It isn’t a position of power or authority, it is actually something much more important, and it bares with it its own benefits and faults. Given your statements it almost sounds as if you have had a poor experience with the title which is understandable. We have all had our experiences with such things.

      The Senior Man title isn’t a title at all it is just a moniker. In my Department I never considered myself as Senior Man until my Officers scolded me one night for allowing a bystander to walk over me by being, “Overtly Polite.” I was told flat out and without hesitation that my purpose was to show the probies what was expected of them.

      Is there authority? No, but maybe. If I am told to pick a couple guys or gals and do a job then I’m expected to see it through, done properly, and they come back in the same shape I was given them. I have what I need but only when I need it, that’s a plus, but I’m also held to the standard above the probies and greener Firefighters because I’m suppose to be the standard.

      In the end the whole point of Senior Man is that we set the standard. If you have a guy or gal who is using it to throw weight around and be an ass then that is a misunderstanding of your Officers for the purpose and role of Senior Man. Don’t fault the moniker because it isn’t being applied correctly. You wouldn’t blame the Fire Engine if the Engineer didn’t apply its purpose correctly, would you?

    • Wrong rusty….. You clearly don’t get it or your one of those Jr officers who thinks ya know it all

    • I am a senior man on my crew. I work along side of many other firefighters that have just as many years experience on the job. What has set me apart as a “senior” man is the technical portion of the job. I am involved with the state fire academy, and work for a technical school, all to better develop myself. There is no fighting, there are times that as a senior guy, I know to let someone with better knowledge share their knowledge. I can go to the officer and express my feelings, and go to the firefighters and speak logically with them and usually have success. I have no desire to be the “responsible adult” (officer) as I love riding the back and riding EMS.
      The senior man isn’t always gonna jump up and beat his chest saying you have to listen to me. Being a senior man means knowing how to get the guys to become one unit, and not have the animosity between officer and firefighter. He is the one that will step up and say, let’s go do this training all with a smile on his face, while behind closed doors tells the officer this is bullshit training. He will help to make the training a success by adding real world to the mundane. He will lead the cleaning of the equipment, maintenance of tools and house chores because he won’t be out worked. The young guys reverent him, the older guys envy him (and at times are jealous). The senior man will put the rookie in his place and teach him the culture of the fire service in ways a company officer is not “allowed”. Very good article and insight that many need to learn. This job is unforgiving, as I was just reminded the other day, as I attended the funeral of a young firefighter. The senior guy got up and talked about what it was like losing a “”son”. He took it personal. He knew the importance of being that senior guy. The senior guy works with the officer to shape and mold the rookies so hopefully everyone goes home. The senior guy can be the hard nose say it as it is guy while the officers have to be more coddling and politically correct guy. That may be the difference on the fire ground of going home or attending another funeral.

    • Don’t know your background or experience level but I can tell by your comments your head is up you a**….

  3. If you don’t believe in a Senior Man, you’ll never be one.

    As someone with 25 years on the job, and who has seen a rapid influx of new people into my job in a short period of time, I take my responsibility as Senior Man at my station very seriously. Seriously in terms of teaching the ‘right way’ of doing things, most importantly how to act, how to be responsible, how to cut through bullshit and get the job done.

    Not everyone can do it, not everyone wants to do it. It’s an intangible that can’t be defined, and that’s the part that drives the book officers crazy. “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.”

    A Senior Man is usually undermined by Weasel Offcicers, those who are in it for themselves, who are scared, who do it for the extra pay, and/or for the perceived power. They feel threatened because they don’t realize that experience counts for more than anything in this job, and that sometimes there is a rapid drop off in actual fire experience between Senior Men and those without quite as many years on the job.

    Unfortunately I see the Senior Man being a thing of the past in the not too distant future as the homogenization and standardization of Fire departments become more prevelant, and paper testing and evaluation of personnel under controlled circumstances becomes more important than situational awareness.

  4. As a member of two departments, I have been exposed to the effect of having a senior man and not having one. I must say, the senior man is a critical resource, for the reasons listed above but, also as the guy whom you go to ask on basic and everyday questions, which you don’t believe need to utilize the vital time of your officer. He is a beacon knowledge and experience, whom all look up to. Now, in regard to my other department we have been through such turbulent times with our membership over the recent years that I often find myself in the back of the cab with the most time on the department, but certainly not the most experience, as most of our new wave of members have been in the fire service long before me. Causing the dynamic of young senior men who would be over new but, more and experienced firefighters. As you may guess, it is not a dynamic which I want to be in the cross hairs of. Not that I don’t believe in the senior man concept, but that I don not foresee a way in which it could work in my second department.

  5. As a company officer, I value the senior man. Though I may in fact be the most senior in my crew, I let him handle many of the day-to-day tasks. I tell the junior members to listen to the senior man. There can be periods where the most senior man doesn’t really fill the roll and I look to a mature member of the group. In these cases, I find that I must wield more control over the crew and this can take away from crew cohesion. It’s always good to have a senior man and I will always support it. It makes the fire service run smoother and provides a degree of fun and orderliness for junior members.

  6. The senior man is the Gunny Sgt of the house the guy who knows a lot about a lot. Can act alone in co-op with the Co. Officer. The guy who would make a great Co officer but has decided it isn’t for him. They are the backbone and encyclopedia of the company. They prob know more than the Chiefs about their house and apparatus. Utilize them, embrace them and your dept will better for it.

  7. Please send this to my email? I would like to post this at my Department.

    • Mr. Taylor, I sent a link to the article to your email address. Please let me know if you have any issues opening the article. As always stay safe and #Train On!
      -Lt. S

  8. Its a self inflicted problem. When I came out of the academy I had a true senior presence on my shift. He raced me to do house duties, trained, taught, and did not cry the one shift he was on the box. My assignment now has shown not all are created equal. I have “senior” members who do nothing but play around and complain about training when it happens, along with an officer who refuses to work on shift skills. Being assertive and looking to train, obtain knowledge and attempt at getting a CDL to train as a driver are a threat on my shift.

  9. For clarification, is there a difference between a senior firefighter & and a senior man? based on the description above, the “senior man” is an unofficial leader in the firehouse, who has additional responsibilities often for no additional compensation. But there is no question, that he or she is the “senior man” on the truck, at the shift, and in the house.

    A senior firefighter is just that; an older firefighter, who has been around, knows the job, and is willing to teach new guys, and has few ambitions of being an officer.

    I’ve worked alongside many senior firefighters, and learned a lot from them. One was a 20 year veteran, who would have made an awesome officer, except he had no inclination to do it. But he was a great trainer, and was always the first one to get his hands dirty. But he wasn’t the senior man; he was just a senior firefighter.

    Maybe it’s different in the big cities, but I always thought the leader of a crew should be an officer. They get the added pay for the added headaches. They get all the added responsibilities, and they make the decisions. After a FF has been on 5 years, they are considered a knowledgeable firefighter. After 10 years, they are expected to pass on their knowledge to the new generation, regardless of what job they have in the house. But the Lt or Captain is still the guy who sets the tone, decides the culture, and actually leads the crew, both during emergencies and during all other duties.

    I don’t know who said it first, but “The best thing an old firefighter can teach a young firefighter is how to be an old firefighter.”

  10. I just read this article, and would just like to add my 2 cents, First, I retired in 2010, having finished 28 years in a somewhat busy dept. in the mid atlantic region. 23 of those years in the busiest section, and 17 of those on the Truck Company. To me The senior man, was just the guy who got to pick vacations first. I believe that time on the job is not what you’re looking for here, but rather the guy, or guys in a station , that have earned the respect of the officers and crews, of not just your station, but also the stations you ran with everyday. Guys who didn’t need to be directed by the officer, because they were probably already doing what they were about to be told to do.The guys who didn’t need to be checked on to see that a task had gotten finished. The guys who an officer would tell a new guy, to hang on his coat tails on this one , the last guys out when there’s work to be done, when others are at the coffee wagon. Its a respect that travels with you, when detailed to a section you normally never see, but those guys there already know what you can , and cannot do , and are happy to have you for a shift. The senior guy, can also be one of the biggest pranksters in the station, but able to go to ALL BUSINESS, when the bell rings……We had one such guy on the Engine at my Station , and I believe I was that guy on the Truck. Its all about doing the job, quickly, efficiently, and coming home safely, and just passing on work ethic, to the younger guys……Always glad to hear other officers tell you ” Glad you guys were coming”…..I miss the greatest job in the world , but retirement in Key West, Cant be beat!

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