Leadership

The Playmaker: The Role of the Company Officer, Part 2

(L) Hall of Fame quaterback Y.A. Tittle’s image later used on his 1950 Bowman football card. (Image courtesy of Bowman Gum.) (R) Photo by Tony Greco.  

By Martin J. Rita

For Part 1 of this article, click HERE

The 6-16-60 Rule states that company officers will lose their ability to lead and supervise their company if they become physically engaged in performing their task. In other words, they become focused on the six-foot radius of company firefighters and lose their perspective of overseeing them from a 16-foot point of view. They must, whenever possible, keep their hands off of a hoseline or the tools.

This rule was taught to me by a fire service instructor that taught firefighting as being similar to playing a team sport. For those of you who have played organized sports, you have heard, “If everyone does their job and focuses on their task [makes their block, runs their route], each task will syndicate into a successful team effort.” Often, individual weakness on the fireground can cause others to overcompensate in an attempt to “cover” for that member’s inabilities. When this happens, there is a chain reaction of events that can cause many more deficiencies to happen on the fireground.

Firefighters are strictly task oriented and must be aggressively focused on what is in the six-foot radius around them. Their job is to quickly and efficiently extinguish fire and save potential victims that fall into this six-foot range. Weakness in this individual position on the fireground is easier to overcome because of the highest number of responding members that are qualified to fill that member’s positon/function.

Company officers are in charge of a 16-foot radius around them, i.e., their crew, completion of tasks, and the immediate area/floor they are occupying. Weakness in the company officer position is much more impactful to the success of the crew because of the lower number of responding members that can fill that role and the increase in responsibilities. A weak company officer will, more times than not, put a strain on senior firefighters and other responding officers to compensate for their inability to complete tasks on the fireground.

Chief officers are responsible for the 60-foot radius around them, e.g., the safety of multiple crews on the fireground, the completion of multiple tasks, and the sector/division/group they are occupying. Weakness in a chief officer can cause the most problems on the fireground. Incompetence at any level becomes a domino effect that ultimately effects everyone on the fireground; as you go toward the peak of the hierarchy, the more their incompetence can affect.

It is absolutely imperative that firefighters, company officers, and chief officers not only achieve the 6-16-60, but they need to ensure that they don’t navigate beyond it! A well-oiled machine is only effective when there is a proper amount of oil. If you have too little, the machine will overheat and work too hard to run. If you have too much oil, the reservoir will overfill, spill onto the engine, and start a fire, also causing the machine to fail. Under- and over-compensation of duties and responsibilities on the fireground happen quite often; that is why a successful company officer needs to be able to “see the whole field.” Be disciplined enough not to extend beyond your role, but be intuitive enough to know when to step in when the train is starting to come off the tracks.

 

RELATED: Gustin on Tips for Newly Promoted Company OfficersMarsar on the Officer’s Role in Disaster ResponseTurner on Preparing for the Role of Company Officer

 

Training is the single most important resource we have in the fire service, mostly for the same reasons that football players practice. Training allows us to be experts with our equipment, build muscle memory, and establish a benchmark that can provide analysis on time-tasked operations. For example, a successful quarterback knows the speed and acuity of his leading wide receiver for the same reason a company officer should know how effectively their crew can perform time-tasked events on the fireground such as ladder evolution, 1¾-inch leadout, 2½-inch leadout, aerial operations, relay pumping operations, and so on. The very best way a company officer can successfully execute rapid prime decision making on the fireground is if they know the strengths and weaknesses of their players through training.

In addition, certain aggressive attacks on the fireground have small “windows” like an open window of coverage on a slant route between the cornerback and secondary. Flashover potential because of petroleum-laced combustibles and modern day construction are causing firefighters to arrive right between the six- to eight-minute mark, which just so happens to be the most volatile point of “go or no-go decision making.”  

A company officer’s decision making capability does not only rely on “go or no-go.” There are many instances on the fireground where an effective company officer can “buy time” just as a quarterback would as he is getting rushed out of the pocket. I have friends and educators in the fire service who will not like me for saying this  (you know who you are), but there are certain situations that quick/transitional/knockdown attacks can be an effective tactic. Additionally, in support of all my naysayers, company officers must understand the negative effects of quick water attacks, too! A successful company officer will continue to be a student of this industry. Research new studies from Underwriter Laboratories coming out every year that use advanced scientific methods to try and better understand the evolution of modern day firefighting.  

Another very important football analogy to a successful company officer is, “Just take a sack and live to fight another day.” Often, we see unsure company officers play it safe on the fireground. They don’t allow crews entry into the building when they see fire extend through the roof, two or more windows involved with active flames, or dark smoke that indicates a deep seated fire. A calm and confident officer knows how fire communicates in a building, the effect of an aggressive interior attack, and how quick a bad looking situation can turn positive with a strategically placed handline.

Experience and knowledge of fire behavior help aid this process, but some structures involved in fire are just untenable; a successful company officer needs to know “When to hold em’ and when to fold em’.” Do not risk the safety of your crew because of your ego.

Comparing the attributes of a company officer to a football player’s is an important comparison. To be able to learn and evolve as a successful company officer, they must attend some “live games.” Live fireground experience has yet to be duplicated in any simulation-based training scenario, and I don’t see this happening any time soon. Company officers must “suit up on Sunday” to see the true speed of the game! Training, classes, and burn barrels will only get you so far in a career. The sights, sounds, smells, and emotions of a live fire event not only allows members to learn from mistakes but they will educate them to understand tenable heat ranges, effects of ventilation, fire extension, investigation, and so on.  

Fire officers are very similar to team captains in that they lead and motivate their crews just as a quarterback would during the two-minute drill. Competence and confidence indirectly motivate trust. A successful officer must establish trust with the crew to act as their coach.

A good fire officer also needs to take the same approach as someone such as four-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Tom Brady: When you are in high-stress situations, NOTHING is more important than staying CALM. When the volume of a fire officer’s voice elevates on the radio or on scene, it causes a sense of anxiety with the others on the fireground. If not properly controlled, his voice will actually cause a chain reaction where everyone, including dispatch, will elevate their voices to match theirs.

There is absolutely no advantage to yelling on the fireground. Raising your voice can display a lack of confidence in your ability to manage the incident and can show fear. Self-contained breathing apparatus masks and radios are not meant to be screamed into, and the elevation of voice can cause feedback and unclear communications when screaming in both. Take a minute to collect your thoughts, speak clearly and with professionalism. The fire officer needs to focus on tasks and tactical objectives, exude a sense of confidence with a calm demeanor and it will reduce the stress and fear from the crew.

It is important to note that I am NOT reducing the dangerous profession of firefighting to a “game.” Firefighting is recognized as a skilled labor, and I have found that learning occurs easier when relating important material to hobbies and things people enjoy outside of work. Firefighting is an inherently dangerous occupation, which is why I—like many others—are very passionate toward the promotion of education and personal growth. Remember to always continue your education and have your firefighters do the same. Network with other company officers, and always strive to be better each day.

 

Martin J. Rita is an engineer/acting officer for the Midlothian (IL) Fire Department (MFD). He has also been the MFD’s training officer since 2011. Rita has been an instructor for the Posen (IL) Fire Academy, a certified hazard zone blue card incident command training instructor, a member of the MABAS 22 training committee, and a candidate/cadet program coordinator with a local Illinois high school. Rita is working toward achieving chief fire officer certification and a master’s degree.