Fire Prevention & Protection, Firefighting, Leadership

From the Bay Door to the Front Door: The New Company Officer

By Joseph McClelland

So, you finally made it to the right front seat, either by promotion, because of your seniority status, or the boss just likes you. Awesome, right? But are you sure your prepared for whatever may come your way during your tour?

I’d like to take a three-part look into the new company officer‘s position and some of the main areas needed to help ensure you are as combat ready as possible.

What training did you take to help make yourself ready to be a new leader of your department?

Was there some sort of testing process? Are you an everyday commissioned officer, or do you act up in the role from time to time? Are you a part-time or volunteer firefighter who may be in the role because you make a lot of calls and drills or work a lot of shifts? Did you get the job because no one else wanted it?

The point I am getting at is this: Do we do a good enough job mentoring our younger, up-and-coming firefighters to get them ready for the leadership role of the first-in company officer and the inevitable chaos that comes with the position?

The first time you are “in charge” of a crew at any type of incident should not be the first time you are dealing with chaos! You need to get out and gain this experience before the call comes in. If your department isn’t sending you, then you must seek this knowledge on your own, maybe even at your own expense. Crazy notion, huh? It is your duty to have more experience or training than the members of your crew. Remember, they are going to look to you for answers on incidents. As the boss, you need to have them.

Arguably, the first-in officer is the most important person on the fireground. His decisions in the first five to 10 minutes will set the tone for the duration of the incident.

As I am just passing my 20th year in the fire service, I am told I get the dubious honor of being called one of the new old guys. A lot of the experienced members and leaders of many fire departments are hitting the retirement age and “pulling the plug” while they still can. As those guys and girls head off into the retirement sunset they so very much deserve, they take with them their experience and knowledge. Did we do enough to pick their brains clean of every piece of knowledge and experience they had before they left? If not, that information is forever lost, never to be gained again.

So again I ask: are we doing all we can to prepare our rising stars for their turn at the decision-making role on the rig?

There are lots of ways to cover this subject, different avenues to go down, and great in-depth classes to take and books to read, but I want to keep it very simple. I would like to look at it from The Bay Door to the Front Door.

There are a lot of topics that will assist the new officer in preparing for their role. I want to cover a few that I feel can the most beneficial, if not the most important.


Do we preach an emphasis on reading smoke? Although not an exact science, it is a great tool to use when planning your attack after arriving at a fire.

This skill can help in the decision-making process of telling you what is burning and where. It can help you determine what size line to bring and where to enter with that line for the best angle of attack. Or it can tell you when we should maybe darken it down from the outside and then enter.

Our fires are burning hotter and moving faster than ever before. Knowing what the smoke is telling you is a very important addition to your initial actions and tactic plan.

Black/dark smoke being read as contents and brown/tan smoke being read structure is a good rule of thumb. But by being able to understand what the colors, pressure, velocity, volume, and density of the smoke you are seeing means, hopefully you’ll be able to make the best decisions possible for your safety and your crews.

One of the most obvious topics should be building construction. There are some new products coming out that are very nice for the construction industry, but they will adversely affect the way heat and fire react in and on our structures.

Some issues are

  • new and highly flammable wall and ceiling insulation
  • floor joists that don’t need nails
  • gussets or glue to be set into place
  • pre-fab buildings
  • high-rise vs. low-rise
  • underground vaults and subways
  • multi- family and single family
  • true brick and block and veneer

The list seems to go on forever. Are you getting out seeing what is in your town and in your auto- and mutual-aid towns as well? Do you respond to lightweight wood and metal construction? How much heavy timber is around you, or is your response area just stick-built construction? How does each of the above mentioned building types and styles react under fire conditions?

We already said that, for the most part, brownish smoke coming from a structure on fire usually means the structure itself is burning, whereas black smoke is contents. But does a hot, warping lightweight metal stud or roof rafter give off a color? Can we maybe get a false read if metal construction is burning? How long does it take this style to fail under heat and flame impingement?

We shouldn’t just be sitting in the station reading books and watching videos on these subjects. We must get out on the street to see what is going up around us, and how to recognize the types of structures being built.

Are you also looking at your auto- and mutual-aid response areas as well? If there is a chance you may go to a fire in it, you should be trying to get the best information you can on how it might react when it is under demolition because of fire.

Do you respond to houses with knee walls, and, if so, do you know the hazards that can hide there?

Additional building construction concerns are:

  • Balloon frame vs. platform frame vs. brick and brick veneer.
  • Asphalt shingle wood roofs or clay tile.
  • The stucco construction in the West
  • Row houses in the East

Here in the Chicagoland area, we are seeing an increase in the number of metal roofs being built not only on commercial structures but also on single-family homes. How do you think this type of roof will affect your firefighting tactics? What if it is covered with snow, or wet from rain?

Let’s not forget those I like to call “the weekend warriors,” people who do crazy things to their houses in order to improve what they already have. This type of person keeps us on our toes; we cannot become complacent. We may respond to structures that are all modeled the same, but one added wall or the creation of one room in an attic or basement will throw us off since the structure’s layout has been changed. They also may not have done all the work up according to your building codes, or even the proper way, creating an even more dangerous atmosphere for us.

As an officer, it is your responsibility to have a very good handle on what you may have to face–not only during your tour, but over the course of your entire career–to keep your crew safe.

Joe McClelland is a firefighter with the Midlothian (IL) Fire Department. He was previously a part-time firefighter with the North Palos (IL) Fire Protection District and is a field instructor for the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute’s Cornerstone Program.