Leadership, Officer Development

The Rookie Officer

By David DeStefano

The engine company eased out the door and rolled to a stop at the street’s edge. The rig turned left, accelerating onto the street. According to the dispatch information, several calls had been received for a structure fire in the company’s first-in area. The officer in the front seat was a rookie lieutenant responding to what would likely be his first significant fire as a company officer.

At 0130 hours in the normally quiet residential neighborhood, few cars would be on the streets, and even fewer pedestrians would be on the sidewalks. This older area of the city featured mostly multiunit tenements and a few single-family homes. The area was in decline and managed mostly by absentee landlords who spent little money on property upkeep.

The rookie lieutenant’s time prior to promotion had been well spent, working with well-respected officers in assignments that would challenge and develop his abilities. He sought out and received mentoring and continuing education opportunities. As a firefighter, he self-analyzed his performance and that of his company and department, always striving to improve.

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As a fledgling company officer, the lieutenant had taken the time to evaluate his crew, looking for talents and opportunities to improve safety and efficiency. He spent many hours learning the response district, studying preplan information, and reviewing department policies. He drilled with the members of the company to rapidly develop into a cohesive unit that would function with maximum efficiency under adverse conditions. The lieutenant never wanted to be caught in a situation where he had no accountability for his firefighters.

As the lieutenant fidgeted in his seat on the short ride to the reported address, he began to review all he had learned and observed to prepare him for what he would likely discover at the turn of the next block.

The officer’s motivation, preparation, and training were about to be put to the test. Knowledge of the response area helped the young officer determine that the reported address was likely a two-or three-unit wood frame dwelling of balloon construction.

During district familiarization, the officer and his company noted that with narrow driveways or alleys running on the Bravo and Delta sides of most of these dwellings, any significant fire on arrival would create an instant exposure problem.

As the engine turned the last corner to the reported address, the lieutenant spotted a plume of smoke in the night sky illuminated by fingers of flame that danced from openings yet unseen. The rig slowed as it approached the house. Using a slow approach to aid in his “windshield” size-up, the lieutenant confirmed that fire was filling two sets of windows on the second floor of a three-story wood frame multidwelling with a similar exposure on the Delta side only a few feet away. Having drilled on the department’s policy calling for the first-arriving pumper to establish its own water supply for such incidents, the lieutenant ordered the rig to stop at the hydrant nearest the fire.

As one member readied the hydrant, the engine slowly pulled ahead, laying a large-diameter hose supply line and pulling to the remaining distance to the fire. Transmitting the message for a working fire as well as performing a concise size-up of the building particulars and the location and extent of fire, the officer also requested additional resources and confirmed that the engine was supplying its own water. Further, he advised the first-arriving truck company that it should approach from the opposite direction to reach the roof because of the pumper’s positioning for exposure protection. 

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The last piece of information the lieutenant relayed was his initial action plan: Have the driver/operator deploy the rig’s master stream appliance to darken down the fire and protect the exposure. This quick action would be of short duration; it coordinated with the balance of the crew stretching an attack line into the Bravo-side door that the officer knew would access all floors of the tenement house.

Although this would be the first time he led a company into a firefight such as this, he knew from experience and training as a firefighter that containing the visible fire and opening up walls and ceilings quickly in this balloon-frame structure would be the key to ultimate success. He further understood that, with the common layout of these tenements, the fire was likely in a bedroom, and if the other bedroom doors were closed, a viable rescue situation existed if they moved in quickly and were supported by a handline.

With the nozzle firefighter in the lead the lieutenant followed the winding stairs to the second floor. They could hear the master stream being applied to the fire from the apartment door. The driver/operator darkened down what she could, and the young lieutenant transmitted his location and intentions to the recently established command post on the Alpha side. Receiving an acknowledgement from the incident commander, the team entered the apartment to begin containment and search. As they made their way to the fire room, the officer and his nozzle firefighter could hear the truck company make the fire floor and prepare to begin their search adjacent to the fire.

After the fire was brought under control, the lieutenant began to analyze his decisions and the actions of the company. The reoccurring theme in his recollection was that the training and level of preparation he established in the company helped ease the decision-making process and enhanced the efficiency with which company members completed their tasks. Even though it was his first significant fire in command of a company, he felt at ease making decisions rapidly because of the many times similar situations were played out in training, supported by department policies.

The young officer avoided putting his members at undue risk by making an appropriate size-up, communicating his intentions and conditions, following the correct department policies, and maintaining accountability for his crew. Although he had many lessons to yet learn, the young lieutenant didn’t feel so much like a rookie.

Photo by Tim Olk.

 

David DeStefano is a battalion chief for the North Providence (RI) Fire Department (NPFD), where he has served for 28 years. He is also the NPFD’s chief of safety and training. He was previously the captain of Ladder Co. 1, where he also served as a lieutenant and firefighter. Additionally, he was assigned as a lieutenant in Engine 3. DeStefano is an instructor/coordinator with the Rhode Island Fire Academy and lectures on fire service topics throughout Southern New England. He was also an FDIC International 2017 presenter. DeStefano can be reached at [email protected].

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