Features, Leadership, Volunteer Fire Service

Command Presence

The Professional Volunteer Fire Department

In my previous three articles, I reviewed many important things that a firefighter can do to gain credibility and respect both before being promoted to an office and when first entering office. We’ll continue on from where we last left off and discuss “command presence.”

We left off talking about the importance of officers working with the new members. This not only helps to enhance the officer’s reputation but also begins to showcase the new officer’s own personal example of command presence.

We usually associate command presence as occurring at the emergency scene when the incident commander exhibits self-control and gives clear and calm directives while in the midst of total chaos, and that’s true. It can take years to master the art of having strong on scene command presence. However, even as a new officer, there are lots of ways to begin exhibiting and perfecting it. Some of the ways most definitely occur on scene by staying calm, giving crews clear directions, and displaying competence. However, command presence can also be displayed in nonemergency settings as well and even inside the confines of the firehouse. In fact, it can even be easier to exhibit command presence in the firehouse, and sometimes it’s the smallest things that provide a significant demonstration of command presence.

One day, our department was alerted for a mutual aid assistance call. Our procedure is to have the first officer to arrive at the firehouse to contact the alarm office to check in and gather the necessary information and then to assign the crew as members arrive, or pass it off to a higher-ranking officer if and when they arrive at the firehouse.

On this particular day, the first-arriving officer simply grabbed his gear and hopped on a rig. After some others got on board, they sped off to the call. Nobody checked in with the alarm office. Nobody kept track of what crew members were getting on the rig, and therefore nobody ensured the members getting on the rig were even properly certified.

The call turned out to be relatively minor and when the rig returned to the firehouse, we all discussed what had happened. The first-arriving officer said he simply assumed “somebody else” would take care of the required duties. It was pointed out to him that he was that “somebody else.” This officer had lost a golden opportunity to display command presence inside the firehouse. By taking charge and meeting people at the door, calmly explaining what was needed, assigning members to the rig, assigning a driver, and properly accounting for the members responding, he would be displaying a solid command presence. Now this member certainly doesn’t run around boasting, “I am in charge here” and get all full of himself, but he does ensure somebody takes charge, and when needed, he steps in and does it.   

Another way to showcase command presence is to simply take care of responding crews and provide guidance and clear directions en route to a call. Again, just like with the missed mutual aid opportunity discussed earlier, the new officer can start off on calls that are not the big five-alarm fire.

Before leaving the fire station, make sure everybody is properly crewed up and prepared for the type of incident you are going to. Concentrate on keeping your own emotions in check, because if the officer is hyped up it certainly spreads to the troops. While en route to the call, review with the crew what assignments might need to be fulfilled and, when pertinent, make sure they understand any updates that have been provided over the radio. Again, it’s critical for the officer to maintain his own composure and to stay calm even if the incident is escalating.

This type of command presence need not always apply to fire responses, either. I remember once an officer came back to our firehouse upset with the crew that went to an EMS call for a broken leg. It seems the crew came into the patient’s house without splints and other needed equipment. They had to go back to the rig several times. Back at the firehouse, I asked the officer if he gathered the crew afterwards to discuss the problem. He had not and they had soon left without any discussion at all. This officer failed to demonstrate command presence on two counts here. First, en route to the call he could have very simply discussed what could be needed and even delegated who would bring what. Back at the firehouse—or better yet before leaving the scene—he could have gathered the crew together for a couple minutes to review the mistake to make sure none of them did it again. He could also have put his own ego aside, show some humility, and taken ownership of that fact that he made a mistake as well by not properly overseeing the crew.

The young officer should work on developing strong command presence on scene as well. For the routine call, take a couple minutes with crews to outline why it was handled a certain way. With newer members, discuss why rigs were parked like they were and explain what the thought process was as the call progressed. Even though that call might have been a “routine” fire alarm, you can exhibit command presence by properly investigating the alarm and explaining to the newer members the steps involved in doing so. Practice the “what if” scenario. Discuss with the crewmembers what they would all have to do if it was in fact a working fire. Even though this takes but a few minutes, it will demonstrate to the crew members that officer is engaged, interested, and competent in department operations.  It highlights solid command presence.

Of course, for more serious calls, even stronger command presence is required. Yet again, one of the most important command presence traits the young officer needs to acquire is composure. Remain calm. The new officer can start working on that while responding to all the routine alarms, studying and training hard and asking “what if” at the routine calls.

One thing I used to like to do was emulate the officers who I admired and seemed to exude strong command presence in all aspects of the operation. Just the same, I endeavored to avoid doing the things that I believed detracted from an officer’s command presence. You certainly can learn as much from the poor officer as you can take away from a good officer. 

Command presence is a great trait for all fire officers to possess. Opportunities to practice and develop this coveted characteristic on scene at fires and major emergencies might not occur very often, however there certainly are a number of other ways that an officer can showcase a strong command presence. These instances occur much more frequently, inside and outside the confines of the firehouse. When done right, the officer most likely isn’t even aware he is doing it, but the rank and file firefighters are certainly aware of it. Embrace every opportunity to quietly enhance your reputation as a strong, competent and engaged fire officer that the membership can depend on.

Tom Merrill

THOMAS MERRILL is a 35-year fire department veteran and a former chief of the Snyder Fire Department in Amherst, New York. He is a fire commissioner for the Snyder Fire District. He served 26 years as a department officer including 15 years in the chief officer ranks. Merrill recently completed five years as chief of department. He has conducted various fire service presentations throughout the Western New York area as well as at FDIC. He also is a fire dispatcher for the Amherst (NY) Fire Alarm Office. He can be reached at [email protected]

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