Commentary, Leadership

On Cowboys and Robots

Firefighters stand on a porch with an American flag
Photo by Tony Greco

Crew Management as A New and Young Company Officer

Commentary by Sean Colby

Anybody who has had the privilege to transition from firefighter to company officer knows it entails far more than being handed lapel pins and a certificate and going out to lead. After studying, taking the exam, and completing whatever process your department has for promotion, you transition from the back step to the front seat, and from follower to leader.

Now what?

Every department has different policies for where newly promoted officers will go, and some departments have more training for new officers than others. You might find yourself leading with no prior leadership experience, and although you have what it takes to be a good leader, it also takes time to hone and fine tune those skills so you go from just a leader to one who is respected.

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In our department, some newly promoted lieutenants go to a headquarters assignment if there is a vacancy that needs to be filled. However, most go into an officer’s pool and fill field vacancies created by transfers or injuries. There is no set pattern for where a new officer is temporarily assigned, so you could find yourself leading a group of firefighters each with fewer than fewer years on the job, or you could be leading firefighters who were appointed when you were still in elementary school. Leading either group comes with its own challenges, but the ultimate goals are the same: the job gets done, and everyone goes home safely.

Leading the new group may mean you are teaching as you lead, showing them what you have learned along the way, making sure everyone is doing what they should be doing, and correcting mistakes as they are made. Being the leader of the group of seasoned firefighters doesn’t mean you don’t lead, but it also means you might be learning new things yourself. Just because you are the leader doesn’t mean you should stop learning. It also doesn’t mean you are beneath making mistakes yourself.

The month following my promotion, I was filling a vacancy at a ladder company. The firefighters on my group were newer, but many of the firefighters across the floor on the engine had more than 15 years. One night, we responded to an alarm at a public housing project that had come in several times during that tour. While investigating, a resident started being belligerent towards us since we were unable to shut the alarm off and he couldn’t understand why. After trying to reason with this gentleman with no success and confronted with his continued swearing and belligerence, I found myself raising my voice at him in front of both companies. A member of my company stopped me, and afterwards one of the senior firefighters on the engine pulled me aside and told me something that’s carried with me to this day: “You’re in charge now; you can’t do that stuff anymore.”

Although “lead by example” is an often-used cliché, it was a perfect opportunity in this incident, and I failed to do it. It was both humbling and embarrassing and a good learning experience. Note that the senior firefighter was not insinuating that I was able to act in that manner before being promoted. Instead he was reminding me that as an officer it’s exceptionally poor behavior. We are all human, and sometimes emotions get the better of us. Sometimes we make mistakes, and we need to learn from them. I learned a lot from this one. The company officer sets the tone, and although sometimes we have to be firm when speaking to a civilian or another member, it also has to be professional.

Two years after being promoted, I had my own permanent assignment on a ladder company and was coaching one of the newer members on when and when not to use forcible entry tools. I told him, and hold true to this day, that I want him and the other members on the group to find the fine line between cowboy and robot. I don’t want members in lockstep behind me, looking for directions at every turn. I want members to be able to think and make decisions for themselves when the time is right. However, I also want those decisions to be rational, and for members not to go rogue whether I’m present or not. Sometimes, the situation might dictate that members find themselves at an alarm location before I arrive (size-up, obtaining keys from management, etc.). If those members find a smoke condition, I don’t expect them to wait for me to show up for action to be taken. On the opposite side, I don’t expect those same members to arrive at the alarm location and break the door down when there is no sign of an active emergency. Again, I want them to find the fine line between rational and rogue.

Going back to being human and knowing that most firefighters want to do something rather than stand around, I have seen more examples of cowboy than I have of robot. In one instance, while getting information from a building manager about a stalled residential elevator, two members of the company went around the corner and not only forced but destroyed the entry door to a building. Unfortunately, it was the wrong building.

I encourage members to be friendly with the public, and while I most times will be the “spokesman” of the group, I don’t discourage members from speaking or asking questions that I might not have asked. However, in learning from my first mistake as an officer, I hold true that we must be professional at all times. One time, a building security officer was trying to give us information, and a member on the group was blatantly rude to her. That member was coached and told that not only was the behavior unacceptable and why, but it would result in discipline if it happened again. Note that myself and this member were close to the same age; however I would have said this even if the member was older than me, because what was said (as well as the manner in which it was said) was wrong.

Keep in mind as a young company officer that although there can always be resistance to your leadership due to age, your time on the job, or other factors, that at the end of the day you are in charge of the company. Do not let those things deter you from leading.

Also know, however, that being in charge does not exempt you from making mistakes and being in charge is more than pointing to your collar. Being a good leader means knowing your strengths and weaknesses, being able to admit when you’re wrong, empowering your members to make decisions and learn from you as you learn from them, and ultimately gain the respect of those around you. Respect is truly earned, and how you act (or fail to act) as a company officer will dictate just how much respect you gain, or how much you lose.

To end, I watched a talk given by Donald Sull, co-author of Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World. In the talk, he discussed making simple rules from managing a variety of things in life. I have come up with mine for being an effective company officer. Yours may differ, but this is how I try to lead everyday:

  1. Be consistent
  2. Be concise
  3. Make a decision
  4. Safety over fairness

Sean Colby has been a firefighter with the Boston (MA) Fire Department since 2006 and a lieutenant since 2015. He teaches as as an adjunct instructor with the Boston Fire Department Training Division and works part time as a public safety dispatcher at a regional 911 center south of Boston.


This commentary reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fire Engineering. It has not undergone Fire Engineering‘s peer-review process.