Getting to the root: Improving retention in public safety with effective leadership

Personnel feel unrecognized, many do not trust agency leaders and few are willing to recommend their career to others. How can we fix this?


Employees across industries, across levels and across generations are unhappy – those in public safety included. Public safety personnel are leaving their agencies to work at other organizations in different cities or states – or worse, leaving the profession altogether.

Constantly finding new recruits to fill the spots is time-consuming, expensive and challenging on all fronts. The current recruitment and retention crisis facing law enforcement, the fire service and EMS  jeopardizes the mission of providing essential response services to the community.

Leadership is no small part of the answer to this question. In a recent Lexipol webinar, “Stepping Up as a Supervisor: What the Data Tells Us” moderated by Lexipol Editorial Director Greg Friese, Dr. Maria Beermann-Foat, Dr. Janay Gasparini and Jon Dorman discuss the results of recent police, fire and EMS surveys and what they mean for public safety leaders today.

Feeling supported by leaders is a top priority when first responders are looking for an agency or recommending the job to others.
Feeling supported by leaders is a top priority when first responders are looking for an agency or recommending the job to others. (Getty Images)

The first step? Understanding how important leadership is and what exactly your personnel want from their leadership: “People have to go back to their organizations and define [leadership],” says Dr. Beermann-Foat. And this isn’t just about the chief or the medical director, but managers and supervisors at all levels. “What jumped out at me was just how important the first-line supervisors are. I don’t think we have given that enough credit,” explains Dr. Gasparini.

Effective communication

Unsurprisingly, employees want leaders who communicate clearly and honestly. Dr. Gasparini, referring to the three trend surveys across law enforcementfire and EMS conducted by Lexipol’s industry news sites, states, “If you were to take one theme from the survey results, it would be: [personnel] want better communication from their supervisor.”

While these desires are universal among employees across professions, in public safety they are mission-critical. As Dorman explains, “In the fire service, constructive feedback can keep things from getting catastrophic.”

Feeling supported by leaders is a top priority when first responders are looking for an agency or recommending the job to others. “[Personnel] want the feedback, they want to know what you think, they want the constructive criticism, they want to do a good job,” says Dr. Gasparini.

We’re all human, so we all make mistakes. “We have to learn from our own mistakes and be the example of how to learn from a mistake,” says Dr. Beermann-Foat. Being a role model in learning from mistakes leads to a culture where mistakes are an opportunity to grow and improve. Taking the time to walk through the situation, why something happened, and how to correct it in the future can go a long way with your personnel. Dr. Gasparini explains, “It comes down to creating a culture where it’s okay to make mistakes and knowing that we’re going to move in a positive direction with the outcome.”

[DOWNLOAD: What cops want in 2022: The support officers need to perform at their peak]

Take the time to provide constructive feedback and be intentional with your employees. Not only will this build goodwill, but it also creates a pipeline for future leaders.

“It is up to [leaders] to make sure things are going to run well when the company officer isn’t there, and a big way to do that is to make sure you’re helping your personnel all be able to step up and into your role,” says Dorman.

Also central to effective communication is taking the time to explain decisions – specifically, those decisions that impact your personnel and their day-to-day operations. Even if you aren’t the person who made the call, it’s still up to you to make sure your personnel understands what’s changing and why. Dorman raises the question, “If you’re not explaining decisions to the folks on the rig with you, why are you there and how can you expect to have successes repeated in the future and avoid making the same mistakes over and over?” Explaining decisions is critical for operations, but also can help improve buy-in and implementation, even if personnel don’t necessarily agree.

Caring for your people

One simple action that improves the perception of leadership is asking about employees’ lives outside of work. This doesn’t need to be a deep dive into their personal lives, but it demonstrates you care about your first responders as people.

Knowing your people to a point that you can ask them a question” is all you need, says Dorman. This alone can help dramatically improve your relationships with your subordinates and, as a result, improve the overall team’s culture and ability to perform well.

Additionally, Dr. Gasparini explains, “With the mental health crisis on the rise and police suicide issues, just having some baseline of how your officers are doing and how they’re feeling can go a long way toward prevention.”

While you, as a leader, make an effort to care about your people, you must also demonstrate that level of care for their professional development. Personnel want mentorship, guidance and feedback so they can continue to grow in their skills and move up in rank. One-on-one meetings allow you to know the challenges your personnel face in their role and give you an opportunity to address them. “I think the one-on-one meetings can kill almost all of these birds that we’re talking about with one stone. Connect, check in, engage, all those sorts of things,” Dr. Gasparini explains.

The leaders public safety needs

Everyone has a different definition of good leadership. What matters is that leaders in public safety treat everyone fairly and seek to adapt to the needs of their charges. Dr. Beermann-Foat’s advice? “Be honest and be kind.” Communication and caring – which go hand-in-hand – are key to successful leadership in public safety. And while good leadership alone can’t fix the recruitment and retention crisis, it can make a big difference.

Learn more about what first responders are looking for in their leaders in the recent Lexipol webinar, “Stepping Up as a Supervisor: What the Data Tells Us.”

NEXT: The 22 leadership traits cops are looking for in their supervisors in 2022

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