Leadership

Steve Prziborowski: Today’s Company Officer – Are You Up for the Challenge?

By Steve Prziborowski

Congratulations for getting promoted to company officer or at least being able to serve as an acting company officer! Now that the dust has settled and you’re off your emotional high, it’s time to come to grips with what you are in for. Are you aware of what you are getting into? Or as some may say, “Be careful what you ask for!”

Seriously, being a company officer today is not the same as it was 30 or more years ago for a number of reasons. Of all of the positions or ranks within the fire service, company officer is probably the most challenging, primarily because it requires someone to go from a no-due mentality to a first-due mentality. I don’t mean any disrespect to the rank of firefighter or engineer, the two ranks below company officer and the two ranks that usually promote to company officer. What I mean is that as a firefighter or an engineer, you did what you were told. As a firefighter or an engineer, it was your job to think at the task level. As a company officer, you’re required to think at the tactical level and sometimes at the strategic level as well, depending on what is required of you at your department and what the situation may entail. Going from, say, battalion or division chief to assistant or deputy chief, the transition is not as drastic as when going from firefighter or engineer to company officer because at the battalion or division chief level, you’ve already made that jump to the strategic level and have been immersed in many things that would be required of you in that next-up position.

The Designated Adult

You’ve probably heard the term “buddy to boss,” which was the title of a book written by Division Chief (Ret.) Chase Sargent. Chief Sargent covered the major challenges of going from firefighter or engineer to company officer and provided valuable advice for future and current company officers. “Buddy to boss” is still one of the biggest transition problems facing today’s fire service. Look at any fire service e-mail newsletter, pay attention to social media stories related to firefighters and inappropriate behavior, or do an Internet search on “firefighter discipline,” and you’ll find thousands of hits for fire service disciplinary situations related to personnel at the rank of firefighter or engineer who are in trouble or have been in trouble for inappropriate behavior.

In the majority of these disciplinary situations that have occurred on duty (some also occurred off duty and were determined to be job related), there is a common thread: a leaderless group, supervisors (or bosses) not doing their job, or a company officer who is not willing to be the designated adult. Being the designated adult means that the supervisor (the company officer) says the appropriate, usually unpopular things when necessary, such as “No,” “Knock it off,” “That is inappropriate,” “I do not want to see or hear that again,” or “We do not treat others that way.”

It’s relatively easy to think you’ll be a great company officer once you pass the promotional exam. It’s not that easy to do the job well, which sometimes means saying the appropriate things to stop subordinates from engaging in inappropriate, unethical, illegal, unsafe, potentially offensive, wrong, or just plain stupid behavior. This is where some company officers drop the ball. If you were to research some of the situations that have occurred in the fire service, especially those while on duty at the firehouse, you’ll rarely see that the firefighter or engineer acted on his/her own or in a vacuum. Moreover, you will rarely see that nobody at the firehouse was aware of what was going on, including the company officer. In most situations that rise to the level of progressive discipline (termination, demotion, suspension, written reprimand, and so on), it is not uncommon to find that the company officer was keenly aware of the inappropriate behavior and chose to look the other way and may even have participated in the behavior.

When I was a battalion chief, I was having dinner at my assigned firehouse with my crew of four (one captain, who supervised three firefighter/engineers). We were having our normal dinnertime conversation, talking about a number of different things. All of a sudden, one of the firefighters started a conversation related to a female firefighter who worked at another firehouse. This firefighter was talking negatively about the firefighter and attempting to spread negative rumors about her. He was not present for the situations for which he was berating her; he was apparently basing his comments on someone else’s opinion. During the bashing of the female firefighter, I was giving the captain an opportunity to do his job. One of the other two firefighter/engineers also jumped in to add more negative energy to the conversation. This left the last firefighter/engineer and the company officer just eating and watching what was going on. By this time, I was eyeing the company officer (giving him the stink eye as some might say) in the hopes that he would catch my eye and get that I was not happy with what was going on and expected him to do his job and put an end to the negative conversation.

The captain jumped into the conversation, taking the inappropriate behavior to the next level. At this point, three of the four personnel are berating not just one female firefighter, but a now a few female firefighters inside and outside of our department. The conversation was out of control. The one firefighter who was not participating was watching what his co-workers and his boss were doing; he was watching me as well. I felt that he was looking at me, the highest-ranking firefighter at the table, to see what I would do.

Since the captain did not assume the role of the designated adult as he was expected to do, he forced me to do my job. I told everyone at the table that I didn’t want to ever hear that type of talk about any of our personnel or any other personnel for that matter again and that it was disrespectful and inappropriate, and would not be tolerated. Looking at the captain, I said in a respectful voice: “We need to have a talk in the office.” I put a stop to the inappropriate behavior and also let the other firefighters present know that the inappropriate behavior would not be condoned or tolerated. 

When the captain and I met behind closed doors, I didn’t yell, I didn’t raise my voice, and I did my best to ensure him that I didn’t disrespect any of the personnel involved. Had I done any of those things, I would have been opening myself up to potential disciplinary action (harassment, hostile work environment, assault, and so on). The captain and I engaged in a respectful adult discussion of how the situation should have been handled. At first, the captain didn’t get it. He was a bit apprehensive and hostile and tried to make me feel like the bad guy for stopping the conversation. After he vented a bit, I showed him our department policy that related to harassment and tried to correlate the actions I had just witnessed to the policy and what is expected from employees. I reminded him of our roles and responsibilities as supervisors, which included being a mentor, trainer, and educator to our personnel, doing the right thing, being a leader, being the boss, setting a positive example, and not tolerating inappropriate behavior. I reminded him he was no longer the buddy, but the boss.  

In the scenario above, the officers involved exercised two options. The captain became involved in the conversation and brought it to the next level; the battalion chief stopped the inappropriate behavior. They could have chosen to do nothing, which members could have interpreted as their condoning the behavior. I heard a fire chief say during a recent speech, “What you permit, you promote.” If you say or hear something and you do nothing, you demonstrate to those around you that you approve of the behavior.

The officers also could have chosen to participate in the conversation without advancing it to a higher level. This option is similar to the one chosen by the captain. Either way, the officer is giving the message that he agrees with the inappropriate dialogue. In addition, the officer is putting himself in a position where he would be subject to disciplinary action. This type of supervision places the fire chief, the department, and the jurisdiction at risk for liability and lawsuits, which can be quite costly. One West Coast department has incurred costs of more than $20 million for lawsuits related to harassment, hazing, discrimination, and retaliation, according to Internet reports. These situations offer lessons. If we want to ensure history does not repeat itself, we need to learn from history!

The officer who stops the inappropriate behavior runs the risk of “not being one of the guys,” or being accused of “forgetting where he came from.” However, stopping the inappropriate behavior may save the careers of the officer and his personnel. Supervisors have a responsibility to provide a harassment– and discrimination-free environment. As the captain’s friend and boss, I told him it was also my responsibility to ensure that my personnel stayed out of trouble and did the right things.

Taking Care of Your Personnel

            If a company officer or chief officer were to ask most firefighters or engineers what they wanted from them, one of the top items probably would be to take care of them. What that actually means can vary drastically from person to person. Basically, the key points here should be that officers do their best to ensure that their employees go home safely at the end of their shift. In addition, officers should be flexible regarding their employees’ needs during the shift (within reason); assist employees with their career development and to train, educate and mentor them; prepare and challenge them to be the best they can be; teach employees not to settle for mediocrity or incompetence; and treat employees fairly and impartially and with courtesy and respect.  

To take care of their personnel, officers must be on top of their game. A company officer should know early in the shift where each of his crewmembers is at physically and mentally. It could make the difference between a great day and a not-so-great day. As a captain, I would ask my crew at the kitchen table while eating breakfast and discussing the plan for the day if they had any special needs or requests for the day. Most of the time, the answer was no. On occasion, there was a request related to one of the meals of the day, watching a certain television show, or performing a certain type of training scenario. Most requests were reasonable and easy to accommodate. On occasion, there was an unusual or unrealistic “special request” I would have to say no to.

A company officer has to think of all the pros and cons involved when considering personnel requests. Some of the factors that apply include the potential impact on customer service, response times, public perception, public relations, and the negative consequences to the officer’s career if inappropriate behavior is involved. When in doubt, just do the right thing!

BIO         

Steve Prziborowski has more than 20 years of fire service experience and is a deputy chief for the Santa Clara County (Los Gatos, CA) Fire Department, where he has worked since 1995. He is an instructor for the Chabot College (Hayward, CA) Fire Technology Program, where he has been instructing in fire technology and EMS classes since 1993. He is a former president of the Northern California Training Officers Association, and received the 2008 California Fire Instructor of the Year award. He is a state-certified chief officer and master instructor and has received Chief Fire Officer Designation through the Commission on Professional Credentialing. He has a master’s degree in emergency services administration and has completed the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy. He is the author of How to Excel at Fire Department Promotional Exams, Reach for the Firefighter Badge, and The Future Firefighter’s Preparation Guide.