What Makes a Good Company Officer?

Two Views

The Officer’s Perspective

 

BY STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI

If you have ever wondered what a company officer (CO) really does, are aspiring to become a company officer, or have recently been promoted to company officer, this article is targeted specifically at you.

I have met many individuals who thought that they were ready to be a company officer and that they knew what the job entailed. Yet, they seemed surprised when they were told some of the expectations, duties, and responsibilities of the company officer. Some of them, for example, felt particularly intimidated by the company officer’s sudden transition from “one of the guys or gals” to the designated adult in the department. Going from firefighter or engineer to company officer is very tough for many. Although a CO should “not forget where he came from,” he now has different responsibilities. One of these primary duties is to supervise. He is expected to be firm and fair, and he must carefully document actions taken regarding personnel and make sure that his supervisor is aware of any incidents that have the potential to become significant problems.

Since the CO typically is responsible for virtually all aspects of keeping the department running smoothly and safely, he should be well acquainted with department rules and regulations, policies, and procedures; risk assessment and management, and office procedures. He should be able to prepare all types of reports and maintain all records, take control on the fireground and other emergency sites, ensure crews’ preparedness and safety in all operations, and perform any other duties necessary for optimal department performance or that the chief assigns.

The CO, in short, must be a skilled communicator, a manager, a supervisor, a motivator, a mentor, an arbitrator, an organizer, a decision maker, and an instructor—to name a few of his roles. He must be knowledgeable in all aspects of fire suppression, hazmat, wildland firefighting, EMS, and fire prevention. If a firefighter needs to be a jack-of-all trades, then a company officer needs to be a master of all trades.

TRAITS OF AN EFFECTIVE COMPANY OFFICER

Think of all the company officers you have ever worked for. What did you like or dislike about them? What did they do that worked well and that did not work so well? Did you respect them? Chances are, those you respected were trustworthy, honest, ethical, responsible, dedicated, passionate, humble, and credible. They probably were good listeners, were able to admit their mistakes and to learn from them, and had a positive attitude.

Preparing to be a CO goes well beyond preparing for the promotional examination. Growing personally as you are growing intellectually will help you not only to handle any curves on the promotional process but also, and more importantly, enable you to more easily adapt to the company officer role after your promotion.

In most departments, it is quite obvious who the highly competent and respected company officers are as opposed to those who are the slot fillers (those who come to work every day to fill a position but are preoccupied with matters other than being a competent company officer). These latter individuals might be more concerned with their side jobs, watching television, or sitting in the recliner instead of enforcing the rules and regulations when necessary or trying to keep conflicts in the department to a minimum or, more importantly, ensuring that their personnel are highly trained and motivated.

THE FIRST YEAR AS A COMPANY OFFICER

As a new CO, you will be constantly evaluated by everyone, from the chief down to the newest probationary firefighter and the support staff at headquarters. Your personnel and others who work with you on a regular basis will hold you under the microscope and test you constantly. You will also have to make decisions daily that could have serious long-term effects on your trust, credibility, reputation, and long-term success and survival.

The position of CO is one of the most influential and important positions in the fire service. The CO is the department member the public typically sees when they call 911. The chief, assistant chief, and battalion chief meet with the public on select calls based on complexity and need. The CO goes to every incident in the first-due area. He needs to be constantly aware that he is continuously representing the fire department, the community, and the chief; must act in the best interest of the public (our bosses); and serves as the conduit between administration and personnel.

One way the new CO can initiate a good relationship between his personnel and himself is to share with the department members as quickly as possible a set of his expectations and establish a line of communications. No new CO wants to hear from the department members, “You didn’t tell me I couldn’t do that” or “I didn’t know you wanted me to do that.” While explaining your expectations to your personnel, ask them what they expect of you. This give-and-take atmosphere will build and strengthen your relationship with the members. After you have made your expectations known, hold your personnel accountable so that you (and they) can build credibility and respect and foster discipline.

SOME SURVIVAL TIPS FOR THE CO

A new CO should be familiar with the department’s rules and regulations; standard operating procedures/guidelines; labor/management agreements; and any local, state, and federal laws or contracts relating to his job and duties. Also, since one of the responsibilities of a CO is to supervise probationary firefighters, the CO should be familiar with the textbooks used in the department’s academy. The CO must ensure that the recruits’ training, knowledge, skills, and abilities are up to department standards.

The CO, in fact, is his company’s training officer. COs must be creative and know their subject material. They should provide a minimum of two hours per day of training. This training need not be limited to a class at the kitchen table or in the apparatus room. There are many opportunities for training—when driving around your first-due area, when going to or returning from the store, and when returning from responses, for example. Most fire service personnel will be able to successfully put out the fire or rescue their co-worker from a fire at the drill tower, but chances are the drill tower will never be the scene of a real fire you have to fight.

The CO who wants to remain effective realizes that he must continue to learn and grow. One way to accomplish this is through formal education—complete a two- or four-year degree program. Also, pursue state certification in areas such as fire officer, fire investigator, fire prevention, fire instructor, public educator, technical rescue, and hazardous materials, just to name a few. Try to attend at least one major fire service conference and at least two local fire-related seminars per year. Take at least one class a year at a local community college, even if you have your degree; the subject area doesn’t have to be fire related, just something to keep your mind working and thinking. Read the various fire service magazines. Subscribe to fire and nonfire related e-mail and news groups to stay abreast of current activities.

Learn how to manage your time. With all of the tasks directed at a CO today, not having good time management skills can lead to a feeling of overwork and perpetually being two steps behind. I cringe when I hear captains say, “Our inspections aren’t due until the end of the month, so I’ll wait until the last shift to get them done.” Why not get them done now? Who knows what else may be dropped on your plate between now and then? There is nothing wrong with finishing early and getting a head start on next quarter’s inspections. Every time I have finished a task well before a due date, it has proven to be beneficial because, as Murphy’s Law would have it, something else always came up. Had I not finished the original task, I would have been scrambling and stressed to complete two tasks instead of just one task.

• • •

The CO is one of the most influential positions in the fire service. Doing what it takes to be the best CO you can be will make you successful, and your department and community will reflect that success as well. Just as important, your personnel will benefit from a supervisor who knows his job and does it well.

STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI, a 16-year-veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief for the Santa Clara County Fire Department, Los Gatos, California, where he has worked since 1995. He is an instructor within the Chabot College Fire Technology Program, Hayward, California, where he has been instructing in fire technology and EMS classes since 1993; he was fire technology coordinator for four and a half years and EMT program director and primary instructor for seven years. Prziborowski is an executive board member and a past president of the Northern California Training Officers Association. He is a state-certified chief officer, fire officer, and master instructor. He has an associate’s degree in fire technology, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and a master’s degree in emergency services administration. He is a student in the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy.

The Firefighter’s Perspective

 

BY ANTHONY PIONTEK

What makes the difference between an officer people love and one who is merely tolerated? Listed below are a few things that make the difference between a good officer and a great one from a firefighter’s perspective and those behaviors and traits that help fill the needs of conscientious and dedicated firefighters.

“DEAR CAPTAIN, HERE’S WHAT WE NEED FROM YOU ....”

1 Be honest and true in your thoughts, words, and deeds. When we leave this earth, we have only two legacies, our children and our word. In times of old, a man’s word and a handshake were everything. If you are not honest with your people always, they will never trust you. Once you lose trust, it is next to impossible to regain. Your crew must trust everything you do as an officer. Whether daily duties or on the emergency scene, your word is gospel. Expect nothing less in return. When you need it done, you know it will be done.

2 Be dependable, and have integrity. Lead by example. When your crew knows they can count on you, that you’ll be there for them no matter what, they’ll work for you no matter what. Be consistent in your judgments. It’s easier to follow you if we know where you’re headed.

3 Keep us informed.Keep the lines of communication open. As an officer, you are the middleman for communication throughout the department—down from management, up from your crew. Everything important, and even the mundane and trivial, should come from you or through you. Manage communication. Know that if formal lines of communication break down, the informal (gossip) takes over. Control it, or it will turn ugly.

4 Listen to us. As our leader, we look up to you. We value every minute you spend being interested in us, our families, and our interests. It’s human nature. We like being paid attention to. We like to feel important. You may also learn what motivates us, which will help you to get us to work up to our maximum potential. And remember, sometimes even the new guy has a good idea. Two heads are better than one.

5 Give us structure.Let us know what’s expected of us. As people are creatures of habit, make the habits you want known so there is no confusion. We don’t like getting reprimanded any more than you do. If we know what is expected, you can be sure it will be done, because we know that’s what you want. Have a plan of action. Delegate the work accordingly, whether at the station or on the emergency scene.

6 Care about us, on and off the job. We are a company, a team. Everything we do, we do together, whether a success or a failure. We’re part of your family, and you are a part of ours. Be concerned about us and our families, the one at the firehouse and the one at home. You may find clues as to why we just haven’t been the same at work by knowing a little about our home life. Teamwork is also enhanced if we get to know each other off the job. The more we know you, the more comfortable we feel, and the more trust you gain.

7 Teach us what we need to know.You were in our shoes. Show us the ropes. You have more experience than we have; you have done these tasks many times before. Above all, tell us how to prepare not only for the job we’re doing but for our next promotion. You should aspire to have your people want to be like you. You should feel comfortable knowing that when you’re not there, things will remain the same, the way you left them, the way you expect them to be.

8 Allow us the chance to be successful. Delegating successfully is not hard. You know what we can do and what we may struggle with. Allow us to work independently or be in charge of things if you know we can do it. When you’re doubtful, or know that we are, give us the help and encouragement we need to succeed, for you and for the team. Give us praise when we do well, talk to us and encourage us to do better when we need it. Don’t take praise personally; always give credit to your crew. Often, we accomplish the tasks being praised. In return, we’ll work harder for you, so you and we can hear praise more often.

9 Be our leader.Leaders/company officers are out in front, making things happen—for themselves and the crew. Leaders improve the team at any cost, sometimes at their own expense. Officers guide their crews in daily activities and in emergency situations. Leading the pack means being out in front for all to see and for all to follow while you are guiding, conducting, and directing us.

10 Be knowledgeable and skilled.Pursue a well-rounded education, and become experienced in all facets of today’s fire service. Reading trade magazines and related texts is not enough. The list of items that affect today’s fire service is endless: current events, economics, city planning, construction, and trades—not to mention the diverse production processes that depend on the services we render to commercial and industrial occupancies in our municipality.

11 Be calm in the face of adversity. We observe your ability to solve problems. Whether at an emergency scene, handling personnel issues, or facing the day-to-day obstacles, be calm and in control.

12 Have a positive attitude.Every day must be the “best” day. No problem should be too much to handle. Do not allow any amount of upheaval to shake our determination to succeed. As a team, as your team, nothing is impossible.

ANTHONY PIONTEK is a 16-year-veteran of the fire service and a firefighter for the Green Bay (WI) Fire Department Engine 3. He is a certified fire instructor 2 and teaches for Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in the fire protection associate’s degree program and the state fire certification program and is lead instructor for the rapid intervention training and acquired structure training programs. He is co-owner of Fire and Industrial Response Enterprises (FIRE, LLC), through which he consults and instructs on a variety of fire service and industrial emergency response topics throughout the country.

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