By Dane Carley
It is often said that the company officer is the most important position in the fire service. Why? What forms this opinion? While not necessarily proven by research, it is likely a multitude of firefighters and officers watching the effect a single officer has on his or her company members. Or, it may be those same firefighters and officers who watch how people develop over time (especially the senior firefighters who have seen officers come and go). They have learned, through observation and experience, that company officers spend the most time with their crew, so the crew’s outlook on firefighting is strongly shaped by the company officer’s outlook on firefighting. Research has also shown that a crew that works together regularly will reflect the “personality” of the company officer (Carley, 2010, pp. 47-57). Whatever the company officer makes a priority, the crew members will make a priority. In other words, if you do it, they will do it the same.
If you, as the company officer, make something a priority, your crew will as well. Focus your energy on priorities that matter
Setting the Climate
Stinchomb and Ordaz (2007) described culture as an invisible environmental force. They said it is odorless, colorless, and tasteless as is oxygen and carbon monoxide. And like oxygen, culture can be good. And like carbon monoxide, culture can be bad. (p. 146) The company officer can be the oxygen or the carbon monoxide. More importantly, what the company officer does today will be the invisible environmental force of tomorrow.
The company officer sets the climate, which turns into the culture over time as what was taught to a young generation becomes common practice as that younger generation grows older and promotes; the source of the common practice becomes forgotten and simply accepted as the norm. In other words, what you focus your energy on today as a company officer will influence what is important to the department in 20 years when the firefighters from your crew promote and teach the firefighters’ of their crew what is important. This is culture. This is why a department’s culture cannot be changed by a direct order from a chief officer, or quickly, or within even a single generation of firefighters.
Case Study: Decision in the 1940s Affects Operations in the 2000s
An aerial ladder collapsed and killed a firefighter in 1948. The department made the decision shortly after that an aerial ladder was not necessary, only an aerial master stream device. Therefore, the department repaired the apparatus by building an aerial master stream device. The department did not have a truck company with an aerial ladder for many years.
This climate developed into a culture. Once the department did buy a new aerial ladder to improve its ISO score, its response was limited. Even in the 1980s, the aerial ladder was limited in its response because it was not allowed to exceed 35 mph. A new apparatus replaced it in the late 1980s but it was only staffed with two people—sometimes one—even though the engines had four to six people. The climate that developed after the line-of-duty death in 1948 led to a culture that lacked an understanding and appreciation of truck work all the way into the 2000s because the priority passed down from one generation of firefighters to the next was not on truck work.
Setting an appropriate climate for your crew is incredibly important because your “grandkids”—those firefighters working in your department in two generations—will feel the culture that has developed based on the climate you set many years before. Focusing your energy on management tasks (meeting the minimums by making box-checking a priority) will teach your firefighters that mediocrity or meeting the minimum standard is the appropriate way to complete a company officer’s job. Therefore, they will teach the firefighters on their crew one day the same thing when they have promoted to company officer. This is the carbon monoxide aspect of culture. Focusing your energy on the minimum requirements and nothing more is toxic to the success of the crew and department; any innovation; and, by extension, morale as those who are more motivated become frustrated, which also affects retention.
If being a manager and checking boxes to meet minimums—perpetuating mediocrity—is acceptable to you as the company officer, then being mediocre will become acceptable to your firefighters
Forming a Productive Climate
Given the volume of articles and research about culture, it seems that shaping culture should be hard to do. It is hard to do if a department expects to change its culture in months or even a few short years. It is hard to maintain the desired climate until it becomes culture because of the time involved. Extreme circumstances such as a line-of-duty death can cause culture to change faster than normal, but typically culture changes over time based on what was important to the department many years ago.
Forming a productive culture, in a strategic sense over time, is simple in the sense that what firefighters see their officers focusing their energy on today will become the culture of tomorrow. If a company officer makes readiness a priority today, it will be the department’s culture tomorrow. Therefore, a company officer that does not accept mediocrity and is always in a state of readiness only has to do their job. Doing the job is the most important aspect because actions speak louder than words.
A company officer who sets a climate—through actions—that knowledge, performance, and readiness are important does things like:
- puts his or her gear out next to the apparatus every morning upon arriving at work (instead of leaving it hanging in the bunker room); seeks out training opportunities regularly;
- creates training opportunities for the company during slow periods;
- expects only the best from the company’s members;
- puts an emphasis on improving the crew members and themselves;
- readily admits mistakes and works to improve so as to prepare crew members for the future;
- genuinely cares about crew members and their family;
- encouragies open communication by treating all members as equals
These behaviors set a climate of strong and positive leadership.
These things are not rocket science. These are things a company officer should do as second nature. Most company officers do. But sometimes company officers forget that their crew is watching their actions and basing their performance on the company officer’s behaviors. This does not mean that there is no time for down time. In fact, down time is good leadership done in moderation for the right reasons. Eating meals together, watching a little TV together, or even sitting around the kitchen table playing cards and telling stories is an important experience for the crew. As the saying goes, “Families that eat together stick together.” These activities build familiarity and connections that build trust outside of the emergency scene. This trust strengthens the ability to communicate honestly and, simultaneously, is when crew members will develop an understanding of the nuances of each other’s thought processes.
This Applies to All Officers
It is important to point out that this applies to all officers. Remember, however, that company officers have the most influence because of their constant contact with the crew members. Has anyone in your department made comments like: “It’s like we have three different departments between the three shifts,” or, “It’s like each station/battalion/district is their own little kingdom”? This is recognition through experience that each group of people will adopt the personality of its leader.
Each station adopts the personality of the company officer at the station. Each battalion adopts the personality of the battalion chief. Each shift adopts the personality of the shift leaders (i.e.. assistant chief, deputy chief, division chief, etc.). The personality traits are not adopted in whole, but whatever is the supervisor’s priority will become the subordinates’ priorities. If nothing else, it is a matter of survival because the subordinates know that it will make life easier. This is a positive result when the supervisor focuses their energy in the appropriate places. When a supervisor emphasizes training, training becomes a priority. When a supervisor emphasizes service, service becomes a priority. And when a supervisor emphasizes leadership, leadership becomes a priority. So remember, what you as a company officer emphasize today will be the priority—the culture— of what the department focuses on in the future. Use your inherent power wisely and be the role model your crew members need to be better firefighters and deserve to have as their mentor.
Dane Carley has been in the fire service since 1989. He spent 24 enjoyable years pulling hose, throwing ladders, cutting line, and teaching in a variety of capacities and places before being promoted to battalion chief in 2013 for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department. He has had the chance to serve in urban, suburban, rural, and wilderness areas working for city, county, state, and federal agencies over the years. In his spare time, he cowrites for Fire Engineering magazine, coproduces the Fire Engineering podcast “Tailboard Talk,” and coteaches leadership classes that support higher-reliability organizing in the fire service.
Carley, D. A. (2010). Organizational and group influences on an individual in a fire department company (Unpublished graduate paper). St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, MN.
Stinchomb, J.B., & Ordaz, F. (2007). The integration of two “brotherhoods” into one organizational culture: A psycho-social perspective of merging police and fire services. Public Organization Review, 7, 143-161.