By Mike Wolfschmidt
Congratulations on being elected a fire officer! You have accepted a most rewarding yet trying task. Getting a group of people to move in one direction to complete a common goal is not easy, so don't feel discouraged at first, especially outside of the fireground. While on the job, however, know that you, as the officer, are responsible for the safety and lives of the firefighters who follow you. It is your number 1 job to make sure they go home safely to their family at the end of a call. That being said, here are 12 things I'd like to share.
1. Treat others the way you want to be treated. This almost sounds too simple, but it is often forgotten. If you treat your firefighters with respect, they will most likely return the favor. Always try to ask someone to complete a task. Try something like, "Hey could you guys do me a favor? We have some kids coming to the station on a field trip tomorrow, would you be able to help sweep the floor?" It's much more effective than "Hey probie! You have to sweep the floor." This means treat the new guys with respect, too; remember that you were in their boots at one time. Even if you weren't treated fairly as a new guy (sometimes I wasn't), that doesn't make it right! Also, what may have once worked in yesterday's generation won't necessarily provide the desired results with today's generation (like it or not).
2. Always tell the truth and lead by example. As an officer, you set the tone for how things get done. For example, if you expect your guys to wear full personal protective equipment and grab tools off the truck for even a routine fire alarm call, you have to do the same. Walking around in street clothes or half-dressed is unacceptable in many instances at a fire or emergency call. Look and be professional. Separately, if you want your guys to attend training sessions or work hard during an event such as a work detail or fundraiser, you need to be alongside them setting the example. The new guys and especially the junior members will want to emulate how you do things. As a person of integrity, you should be able to inspire others to always do the right thing. Be a hard worker. It got you to this point, right? (At least it should have.) If you perform your duties carelessly or project a poor attitude, they will do the same.
3. Stay calm, cool, collected and pay attention. FDNY Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn once said "Confidence is contagious." Again, your actions will directly have an impact on your fellow firefighters. If you are freaking out or project that poor attitude I referred to earlier, your guys will act in a similar manner. Fire and emergency scenes are chaotic to begin with, and if the guy in charge is melting down, it will trickle down. Crap rolls downhill! Your heart may be racing and you may have a hundred thoughts going through your head, but do your best to make it look like everything's cool and it going to be all right. This is not to say that you need to be real slow or distant, but act calm. It will make things go easier. I can assure you that this is easier said than done, and it takes a long time to be able to do this, so don't feel bad when you notice yourself getting worked up the first few times at an incident as the officer in charge. Take a breath and stay calm!
4. Attend as many training courses as possible and be prepared. Encourage your fellow firefighters to do the same. Constantly drill with every piece of equipment in the firehouse and know the ins and outs of every tool on the truck, as well as the trucks themselves. Know how to fix your "stuff" when it breaks, too. You should be well-rounded in all aspects of your job, but learn as much as you can about tactics, fire behavior, building construction, and fireground survival. Take notes at the classes for future reference as well. You can never learn "too much" or know everything. As an Eagle Scout, I was taught to be prepared, and I cannot stress how important this is! For instance, if you can't remember the last time you practiced advancing a 2 ½-inch handline with your fellow crew members, get out there, train hard, and do it to the best of your ability!
5. Have the courage to be safe. Chief Billy Goldfeder is a big advocate of this, and if you haven't already, take some time to learn from him. When someone is doing something "dumb" or unsafe, have the courage to say, "Hey, time out. Let's rethink this and perhaps correcting it by doing _____." Again, this is easier said than done, believe it or not. Sometimes we as the fire officer have to be the "bad guy" and tell someone something they really don't want to hear. It's even more difficult to say something to a guy who has more years as a firefighter than you. Also tough is a guy who is older but less experienced. Just because back when they started they "didn't need no stinkin' Nomex hoods, air packs, or seat belts" doesn't make it okay here today. The times have changed, and I have seen a bit of change just in my time since joining the fire company, some stuff for better, some stuff for worse. The best way I can try to explain to my guys under me is, "Hey, I know that lime green safety vest looks lame, but if you get hit by a car, I as the officer will get jammed up and lose everything if I get sued. Could you just do it for me, please?" The fire service has lots of traditions and old-time ways that I cherish, but getting injured or killed are some of our "traditions" that I hate. It's up to you to change that.
6. Understand how to give discipline. When you must discipline or correct the actions of a firefighter in a nonlife-threatening situation always do so in private so their peers will not hear. One of the worst things you can do is to yell at a guy or just plain let him know he seriously screwed up in front of his friends or peers. Remember the saying "public praise, private criticism." It is your job to correct your guys when they need it, but also remember to compliment them when they do a good job. Going along with my theory, don't forget--complimenting someone if they didn't really do a good job may feel good at the time, but is not helpful to their development as a firefighter. It can take years to build respect for someone (you) and it can take less than a minute to lose it all.
7. Communicate. This is as important at the firehouse as it is on the fireground. When an event/drill/work detail/fundraiser/etc. comes up, be sure to give ample notice to everyone with the details of the event. We can't plan when our fires are going to happen, but we can plan the other stuff. And be sure to "talk it up," as my Dad would say. If you see a fellow member in person, say "Hey, we have a drill this Monday, you going? It should be good, we are doing _____." Send a simple reminder like a text or email the day before. I know I'm a forgetful person, and these type of things help bring people out to your event.
8. Benefit from the Internet. The Internet is a valuable resource for information on firefighting. Use it! Most of it is free! For example, awhile back I stumbled upon a YouTube channel operated by Dale Pekel, a captain from Wisconsin. His instructional videos are outstanding, I have learned an incredible amount of fireground survival information that I have been able to pass along to others. If you see something that might work for your company, get out on the training grounds and give it a try. It may or may not work for your company. Do not, however, go on those chat rooms or discussion boards to bash someone else on how they do things or what they "could have done better." It's dumb and your time could be better spent doing something else.
9. Learn how other firefighters do their job. Coupled with #8, check out and learn how other firefighters do things (tactics, equipment mounting, and so on.) When you visit a firehouse, open the doors to the trucks (ask first) and ask how/why they pack their hose the way they do, what equipment they carry, etc. You'd be surprised on what you pick up and can bring back to your company to make your job easier. It's no secret that the number of volunteers is dwindling in this country and we have to adapt to do more with less. I absolutely love borrowing ideas from other companies to make our job easier. This being said, I again caution you: Not everything another department does will work for you! You may be able to pick up some great ideas from looking at an FDNY engine, but the same setup may not work for "Fred's Volunteer Fire Department."
10. Response area familiarization. Know your response area inside and out--where hydrants are, where the streets are, building construction, and potential hazards. This will help immensely. If you don't already, get out and preplan "problem" buildings. Although a formal walk-through of a building is optimal, some property owners can be reluctant to let us in. A simple 360º observation of the building and its surroundings can give you a lot of information to as to how you may or may not go about attacking a fire.
11. Help the new guy. When you have a new person join, try to take them under your wing. Help them along with learning our job and make them feel welcome. As a great friend of mine Ray Van Marter has said: "The person who joins our fire service today could be your future chief." Do everything possible to teach them the right way. Remember, however, that firefighting (and EMS for that matter) is not for everyone! It greatly saddens me to see there are many of wannabes and people who join just for the T-shirt and a place to hang out with their drinking buddies without any real concern for protecting life and property. Try not to let these people discourage you. Most of them will weed themselves out and be gone in time (for the most part). However if they love this job for the "right" reasons, they will work out in the end, and all will benefit by their membership. Listen to what new people have to say; you'll be pleasantly surprised when a newcomer with a different perspective points out a better way to do something that actually works. You may shake your head and say, "Why didn't I think of that?" If their suggestion isn't helpful, that's okay too. It doesn't hurt to listen.
12. "Go with your Gut." This means your instinct. If what you're doing seems/feels wrong, or something "doesn't feel right," it usually is! I have heard from a few good firefighters that our job is mostly common sense, and I believe that is true. Although this may not be the case in every aspect of what we do (technical knowledge), I have seen a few firefighters and officers who lack common sense and they are absolutely terrible. Please remember to go with your gut, as you could save your life and the firefighters who are following you. Remember, it is your number one job to make sure they go home safely to their family at the end of a call.
Michael P. Wolfschmidt is a 14-year veteran of the fire service and has served the past eight years as a line officer. He presently is the assistant chief of the Surf City (NJ) Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 & EMS, where he began as a junior firefighter. He is employed part time as a firefighter with the Westampton Township Emergency Services and full time as an EMT with the Galloway Township Ambulance Squad. He has taught firefighting several programs as a Level 1 Fire Instructor at the Ocean County Fire Academy and is a fourth generation volunteer firefighter.