Leadership

Company Officers and Crab Boat Deck Bosses: Leadership Characteristics

By Paul Hasenmeier
 
 
Two of the most dangerous jobs in America are crab fishing and firefighting, each with extreme environments and physical work. After watching an episode of the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch – After the Catch, I began comparing the leadership characteristics of the deck boss and the company officer. Even with the fire service resembling a paramilitary organization, many of the characteristics of company officers resemble those of a deck boss. However, we in the fire service can learn a few tips on teamwork, hard work, and leadership from the Bering Sea fisherman.
 
Company Officer Leadership
 
Much has been written on company officer leadership and what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. The leadership abilities of the company officer can affect everything from daily firehouse duties to emergency operations. This middle-management officer must be well versed in planning, organizing, decision-making, and implementation as well as being a hands-on participant during emergency incidents. The habits we display are frequently duplicated by the crew’s company officers’ lead. Make your example worth that honor.
 
One of the greatest responsibilities of company officers is to ensure their crew is operationally ready. At some point, you will be the bad guy and make the crew get out of the recliner to train. We have a great mix of rookies, 10- to 15-year firefighters, and seasoned veterans in our organizations who need continuous team building. On a crab boat, the greenhorns seem to be treated poorly and seldom make a second season. In the fire service, we want to show our rookies the traditions, the tricks of the trade, and lead them into becoming top-notched firefighters and ultimately the leaders of tomorrow.
 
Deck Boss Leadership
 
The deck bosses on the show usually put on quite a spectacle of motivating the crew into working in conditions unbearable to most humans. They are competent leaders of their trade who face extreme danger for weeks at a time. Men die or are seriously injured in the blink of an eye during the physically demanding work; fishermen work on little sleep, with decreased levels of concentration. Being in charge of the deck operations takes a flexible yet persistent and often authoritarian leadership style.  
 
Each season on the Bering Sea seems to bring aboard new greenhorns with absolutely no idea of what they are getting into. Deck bosses are routinely seen shaking their heads and commenting that this greenhorn will never make it. Deck bosses have to help overcome the crew’s lack of experience to gain effective operations by being the mediator of frequent butting attitudes and instructor of the trade. Sound familiar?
 
Tips From The Sea
 
We can learn from the leadership lessons of these deck bosses best by focusing on some of the things they don’t do, which include the following:
  • They don’t get retained for decades if they do a lousy job.
  • They don’t kiss ass.
  • They don’t say, “It’s not my job.”
  • They don’t allow their equipment to deteriorate.
  • They don’t voice opinions that are contrary to the captain’s.
Our Challenges
 
The fire service is an ever-changing environment, and company officers should strive to improve their abilities through study of what works for others and what doesn’t. From the tips above, I will describe my take on how to improve at the company officer level.
         
Crab boat deck bosses don’t get retained for decades if they do a lousy job, so why do inept or “retired on-duty” fire officers? We are much more forgiving and methodical in dealing with personnel issues in the fire service, but having established expectations for every company officer and firefighter is important. It is time we stop moving or hiding problems and deal with them through regular performance evaluation, training, and coaching. We need effective line officers passing the trade on to the next generation.
 
Deck bosses don’t kiss ass. Pretty blunt, right? On the boats and in our firehouses, leaders need to lead and not be buddies with the crew all the time. There is no room for playing favorites, holding hands, and greasing palms when lives are on the line. Your decisions and orders may rub someone the wrong way, but being steadfast will increase respect as the crew grows.
 
You never hear the deck boss say, “It’s not my job.” The company officer helps wash the truck, roll the hose, clean the saw, and then does his report. This is a pretty easy way to lead by doing, which will earn you some respect along the way.
 
Think about where the nearest hardware store or repair shop is on the Bering Sea. We can’t afford to let our equipment deteriorate because we might be miles away from repair, so stay informed of equipment operability. Get the proper maintenance, repairs, or replacement done to keep you and your crew working without delay. Although most of our equipment is purchased by the lowest bid, we need it to work on a moment’s notice in high-hazard environments.
 
Deck bosses who seem to last the longest keep their opinions contrary to the captain’s secret. There may come a time to breach a topic with the captain in private, but never in front of the crew. For the company officer, if you undermine the leaders above in public, realize your crews may do the same to you.
 
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Short and sweet, but, hopefully, this analysis will get you thinking about your role as a company officer and what you can learn from the deck bosses on the Bering Sea. They are often cold when we are hot, but leading doesn’t recognize environments. It takes practice; trial and error; and, most importantly, humility to be an effective leader. Good luck. Pass it on!
 
Paul Hasenmeier has been a firefighter since 2000. He is a lieutenant for the city of Huron (OH) Fire Department. He has a B.A. in fire science, has gained experience in numerous technical rescue disciplines, and is a member of Ohio’s Region 1 USAR team. Hasenmeier is a contributing author to multiple trade publications and has presented for FDIC, the New York Fire Chiefs, the Ohio Fire Chiefs, the Ohio State Firefighters Association, Fire Rescue Canada, and the Fire Department Safety Officers Association. He can be reached at [email protected] or www.paulhasenmeier.com