Leadership

Taking Command

Photo by Tony Greco.

By Thomas N. Warren

Most young firefighters secretly—or not so secretly—wish to move to the front seat of their fire apparatus and take command. This is a healthy attribute for firefighters because it ensures that two important needs of any fire department are met. First, firefighters will begin studying for promotional exams early and, thus, will stay current with all the information that comes along during their careers. Second, the department can be ensured that there are competent firefighters ready to take command when they are needed. Add to this a culture of promoting on- and off-duty training programs as well as achieving advanced degrees, and a department has set itself up well for the future. A forward-thinking department will formalize all these components and develop a formal succession plan for each rank.

The first promotion is the most exciting and meaningful for most firefighters. Making the move from firefighter to lieutenant will change everything. Moving to the right front seat comes with new responsibilities, new decisions, new rank insignias, and new dynamics in the firehouse. You have studied all the department standard operating procedures (SOPs), training bulletins, general orders, designated text books, department rules/regulations, the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, and you can do hydraulic calculations faster that an Apple computer. Your time has come to pull all this preparation together and make your mark in your department.

As a new fire officer, you need to get started on the right foot and, in most cases, all the material you studied for your promotion doesn’t prepare you for your new reality. Let’s look at some of the ways a new fire officer can get started on the road to becoming a respected fire officer. This is not a complete list but rather a course of action that can get you started down the right road and fill some of the voids left by the study materials.

 

Mentoring

As a young rookie firefighter, there is an abundance of uncertainty in everything that you do and, most of the time, there will be an older firefighter who will mentor you through this period. This older firefighter will help navigate you through those first few years, keeping you out of trouble at fires and with the firehouse dynamics.

As we look back on our careers, we can identify someone who took the time to help us simply because they wanted to see us succeed. As you became more experienced and seasoned, you may become one of the older firefighters who can guide the “new kid” through those first few years. It is no different than when you take on the new role of lieutenant. When you need some help with your new role, there will be older, experienced officers who can provide you with their experience and judgment. This applies to fireground operations as well as with firehouse dynamics. Reach out to these older experienced fire officers; they are the ones that you felt were outstanding leaders when you were a firefighter. Chances are good that they will be happy to guide you through this transition period.

 

Look the Part

As the company officer, you are the one in charge and, most importantly, the one responsible for the entire fire company. If you want to be taken seriously by the members of your company and the public, look like the professional you are by wearing your uniform with the proper rank insignia while on duty. Arriving on the scene of an emergency in the proper uniform will instill confidence in those who called you for help. It shows pride in the fire department, which in turn builds strong bonds among your company. Most members of the public have a general understand about rank, responsibility, and the corresponding rank insignia. They will always want to know who is in charge. If you expect to be treated with the respect your position deserves, you should look like you deserve that respect.

 

Setting the Example

Be mindful that all eyes are on you, both in the firehouse and on emergency calls. The firefighters in your company will watch you for any sign of your expatiations and goals for the fire company. The way you conduct yourself and the way you interact with the firefighters and civilian will reveal your expectations. Do you want to reveal that your expectation is “just enough to get by” or do you want to achieve exceptionalism in your fire company? This is an opportunity to subtly let the members of your company know what you expect.

In short order, your members will match their performance to your expectations. Also remember, they will expect the same from you. Let the members of your company know early on how you want them to operate in the field and how they should interact in the firehouse. Base your actions on established rules and regulations, known standards, and SOPs. Your arrival can signal a fresh start for everyone in the fire company. Use your actions as a constant reminder of how the fire company will operate.

 

Safety and Well-Being

Fire officers are directly responsible for the safety and well-being of all members in their company. It is clearly the responsibility of the company officer to be sure that the firefighters under your command are safe on the fireground and that you are concerned for their well-being. The company officer must be sure that the basic needs of the firefighters are met; things like rest, hydration, nourishment, and compliance with safety standards. Administrative activities such as annual physicals, vacation requests, training, and reporting are also important and must be completed in a timely manner. Company officers are also in a unique position to observe how fire company members deal with stress and ensure that their emotional needs are met.

Most fire departments have access to critical incident stress teams and chaplains to help firefighters cope with extreme situations. Company officers must recognize the symptoms of stress and act quickly to be sure firefighters get the help they may need. When a firefighter is injured during emergency operations, the company officer must ensure that medical treatment is available and administered promptly.

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Be Fair and Consistent

One of the most common complaints that workers express is when their boss exhibits different behavior on any given day. Employees never know what to expect from their boss in terms of the boss’s behavior or demeanor. The other issue that is often raised is when the boss treats employees differently from one another. Playing favorites, assigning favorable work assignments to the same individual, and constantly criticizing the work of selected employees are just a few examples of this.

Fire officers have an even greater responsibility than bosses in the private sector to be fair and consistent with the members of their company because of the close working relationships required of effective fire companies. The fire company is a team that works together under the direction of a company officer. To be effective, all members must feel that they contribute to the team and that every member of the team respects their contribution. The fire officer’s responsibility is to ensure that there is a fair and consistent environment for every team member. The fire officer must take this responsibility seriously and never treat any member of the fire company in a cavalier way.

 

Discipline

In most cases, discipline is not administered by the company officer; this is usually a responsibility of a department’s chief officers. There will be occasions when a firefighter violates department or fire company policy, which causes conflict within the fire company requiring some intervention by the company officer. These occasions should be resolved by the company officer without going further up the chain of command. Discipline at this level typically involves a frank discussion and nothing further. A fire officer must understand the circumstances surrounding the incident and be discrete in the discussions with the offending firefighter.

 

Nurture and Motivate

The future of your department is in your hands more so than ever before. You can have a positive effect on what your department will look like in the years to come by your willingness to nurture and motivate your firefighters. The fire officer has the ability to nurture and motivate the members of his fire company unlike anyone else in the department.

Fire officers, no matter how new they are, can provide first-hand and timely advice to firefighters studying for a promotion. The fire officer can share his study materials, carve out time every day for the firefighters to prepare for the promotional exam, administer practice exams, and even form study groups during off-duty hours. Nothing demonstrates respect more than extending yourself to help one of your own firefighters prepare for a promotional exam.

Your efforts to nurture and motivate your freighters should not be limited to promotional exam success. Fire officers can nurture and motivate their firefighters by listening to their suggestions and incorporating their ideas into company policy or SOPs. Some of the best ideas have come from the firefighters working in the field. For example, consider the Halligan tool. This tool was invented by Hugh Halligan, an officer with the Fire Department of New Yor; it is now found on almost every fire apparatus in the country. Remember, always give credit where credit is due and never take credit for the actions, ideas, or work of one of your firefighters.

It is an exciting time when a new fire officer takes command of a fire company for the first time and once there, you may be surprised at how much all the training, studying, experience, and the promotional process itself has prepared you for this transition. Along with all the knowledge you garnered during the promotional experience, remember that firefighters are still human beings. Take some time to get to know your new crew and employ these basic concepts. You will find that your success can be their success.

 

Thomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. Presently he is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in fire science from Providence College, an Associate’s Degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.

 

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