BY BARRY S. DASKAL
So it’s your first day sitting at the big desk. It seems so far from the day you first climbed onto the rig, threw on your turnout coat and helmet, and smiled inwardly listening to the sound of the siren. You had achieved your dream of joining the volunteer fire department.
A few years later while pulling ceilings after a hard-fought “job,” you think about what you had just lived through: forcing the door to the fire apartment, advancing down a hot dark hallway, and conducting your search. The engine came in and put out the fire that was rolling over you, turning it into a boiling steam that rushed past you as the heat lifted. Now here you are with the pike pole in your hands and you realize for the first time, “I can really do this; I’m getting good at this.” You work harder, train harder, study, and take every course you can at the local fire academy. You decide you are growing into a leader instead of being a follower.
You run for lieutenant and win—the stepping stone. You faithfully serve the company for the next year and carry out the captain’s course of action. Your hard work and dedication pay off as you raise your hand on that early fall Monday night and rise to the rank of captain. The past few years have been filled with tireless work to get to this day. But now what?
ESTABLISHING A PLAN
As a captain in the volunteer fire service, you have to have a plan. What is it you hope to accomplish? Are things running fine as they are, or do they need a little tweaking? How is morale in the company? The firehouse? Is there anything you envision that can make things better?
Imagine where you want to be, and it shall be so. The trick is knowing how to get there. Whether your plan is a formal proposal you will issue to your company in a memo or a bulletin board posting or notes to yourself scribbled on a napkin, write it down. The best approach to take when starting out and establishing yourself is to focus on training.
As a company commander, it is your responsibility to ensure that your firefighters are trained and ready for any potential emergency they may confront. If your department issues a set training agenda, it is your task to carry out the drills in a way that meets the objectives of each evolution. When you are left with the latitude to train on your own, you must meet the challenge head-on and ensure that you provide the best training possible. The question is, how do you do it?
Generate a List of Topics
What are some of the areas you should drill on, and why? When you are in your “brainstorming” phase, throw out every idea you can, from bread-and-butter basics of stretching preconnects or throwing ground ladders all the way up to a downed firefighter rescue (see sample topic list below). I researched several years of fire service publications for topic ideas and the latest techniques. Now with the availability of the Internet, I can see what other departments are doing. You can get detailed information on evolutions, standard operating procedures (SOPs), and even building training props.
What are the more common operations you perform on a daily basis vs. rarely called-on skills? Although you will plan drills for most of the topics you identify, the order in which you prepare and schedule them will be based on established priorities. You must crawl before you walk, and walk before you run.
For example, it stands to reason that it is important to be proficient with hoseline and nozzle nomenclature before you move on to handline stretches, and you must be proficient at that before you start practicing interior attack strategies. Begin your training schedule by mastering your core skills, and build on that.
As a truck company captain, I began my plans with the basics: self-contained breathing apparatus parts, procedures, inspection, and maintenance. Then we moved up to a confidence course. From there, we went over basic riding positions and the responsibilities at different types of structures and alarms. After that, I broke everything down into individual step-by-step lessons that built on what we had drilled on the preceding week.
Develop a Lesson Plan
There are many great formats available online. (I prefer the layout used by the Maryland Fire & Rescue Institute.) When I design a lesson plan, I keep a few things in mind. The basic building block is knowing what it is you want your firefighters to learn from the drill. When you have that, it makes it easier to figure out the type of drill you want to conduct. Will it be a lecture in the firehouse, a hands-on day at the department training building, or a walk-around at a local strip mall? Consider developing a training handout for your firefighters. One of the most effective things I instituted as a ladder company captain was a three-ring binder for all my members with various subdivisions for memos, SOPs, and training handouts. The training section was to serve as their “training diary.” On conclusion of every drill session, the member received a handout detailing the subject we went over and outlining the hands-on steps as well. This gave the member a chance to review what he learned at any time.
Make a Schedule
If your department has set recurring training days, it is up to you to decide what to schedule and when. As stated previously, this is based on the priorities you establish. The department where I previously served had a set training time on Sunday morning at 10 a.m. We also had rig maintenance scheduled for every Monday night at 7 p.m.
The schedule I designed was a 11⁄2-hour practice on the weekly topic on Sunday morning and then a condensed 45-minute version of that Monday night after rig maintenance was over. This served several purposes. First, it allowed me more flexibility to ensure that all my members were trained by taking into account shift workers. Second, it provided additional time for the members who attended the previous day to reinforce what they learned. I added an additional component in posting a quarterly drill schedule listing the date, time frame, topic, and instructor.
I didn’t increase the amount of time we spent training that drastically. I simply budgeted the time in such a way that we used it more effectively.
What is the best way to proceed? Obviously, there are variations depending on the method of delivery you will use, but there are also some common threads.
Whatever the time frame you set for the drill, your preparation time will be approximately double that. I always made it a point to keep my drill sessions with a consistent ending time so members were ensured of an adequate learning experience and yet they knew they would be done in a reasonable time to go home to their families.
Ensure that you are thoroughly familiar with the subject matter; be prepared to cite whatever resources are necessary. The attitude with which you lead the drill will determine your success. If you show you are interested in conducting the training, your members will pick up on that and dedicate themselves to learning.
A drill should be a free-flowing exchange of ideas and information, not a forced diatribe. Whether you are the instructor or a student, there is always an opportunity to learn. The members I often find it hardest to draw in are the five- to 10-year crowd. They are often the firefighters with enough time in so that they should have a good degree of knowledge to be solid in their core firefighting skills and be able to lead others. I find the hesitation is in Question-and-Answer sessions. This stems from the firefighters’ not knowing something basic they feel or know they should know. This makes the firefighters afraid to speak up in front of their peers for fear of being embarrassed. For this reason, it is important to avoid putting people on the spot.
BUILD POSITIVE MORALE
Morale is a fragile thing. As Benjamin Franklin said, “While we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens inside us.” There is a fine line between instituting a positive atmosphere and falling off the end of the earth. By nature, firefighters are a self-motivating group. However, one of the difficulties with that is the threat of internal forces within the department changing the balance of the firehouse. You must use caution.
As a self-motivated group, firefighters’ key motivations come from their job (even a volunteer views it as a job), which is a strong part of who they are. It becomes a part of their personal identity. Because of this, firefighters tend to be happier with their role than other people. A great deal of pleasure is gained from helping people when they are in their greatest need and being able to fix the problem. We feel we are doing the work we are destined to do.
Firefighters have an innate desire to excel and to be the best they can be. To further advance my volunteer career, I chose to take advantage of every training opportunity I could. This meant traveling not just to my local county academy but also six to seven hours away to my state fire academy. As I attended more classes, others began to take some additional courses, too.
It is imperative that you keep the rank-and-file aware of what you expect of them and how they are doing in terms of job performance. A simple tip of the helmet goes a long way. Conversely though, when a firefighter’s performance—whether on the fireground or in the firehouse—is mediocre at best, you must deliver this news in a positive fashion and give alternatives on how the firefighter can improve his performance.
Another thing to keep in mind is that to maintain morale in the volunteer fire service there has to be some fun. Whether it is the old standby of a barbecue, softball game, or trip to an amusement park or a hockey game, you have to do something to keep your members (and their families) involved socially. A unique thing I tried was a “family photo day.” The idea was for members to bring their significant other and their children down to the firehouse and take pictures in their gear or with the families in front of the rig or playing dress-up with their children. It was something different and worth trying.
BE ACCOUNTABLE ON AND OFF THE FIREGROUND
On the fireground, you have learned through experience to make good decisions in a calm and consistent manner, becoming a trusted firefighter. Now as the boss, whether you realize it or not, the other members of your company and other companies as well are always watching you. You should make a conscious effort to be the best you can be and do all you can to contribute to your company’s success. Confidence is contagious. The way a captain carries himself rubs off on the rest of the company.
New firefighters are constantly looking for role models. You can actively serve as a mentor to the probies in several ways. One of the best things you can do is to provide constant encouragement. Mentoring isn’t just for the fireground. I developed a program that assigned each firefighter to an officer, ex-captain, or ex-chief, who would be a mentor. In addition to firefighting evolutions, firefighters must learn the history and traditions of the department and the fire service in general. As a firefighter begins to assimilate into the firehouse culture, do all you can to help him adjust. In my company, this was facilitated on a one-on-one basis.
Some other key behaviors of a good company captain are the abilities to remain humble and respectful and to admit to making mistakes, whether it is a critique on a fireground operation or a personal interaction with another firefighter.
BE A POSITIVE ROLE MODEL
There are several things you can do to present a positive image. It starts with taking training seriously and giving 100 percent to any task you take on. When you as the captain physically exert yourself during training, those below you remember this. It shows how serious you are in improving your performance, and they will naturally want to do their best as well.
Be confident in your abilities, yet always be willing to learn and use constructive criticism to your advantage. Even when you are the one leading the group, someone in the back row may have noticed something you overlooked or may see things in a whole new way you never thought of. Foster that type of atmosphere. Ask questions of your own and learn all that you can while sharing what you have learned.
Remember, family is always first. The firehouse can never be higher than number 3 in life, behind family and employment. You must be sympathetic to the factors that affect your members’ lives and thus their availability to volunteer. Always try and provide alternatives to members with family issues to make their percentages or make up for it in other areas. I used to help my members by allowing some who lived far from the firehouse to carry their gear in the car and go to the scene. Others who couldn’t make their call percentages were asked to attend extra interdepartmental meetings, take on extra fund-drive routes, or do extra rig maintenance.
By the same token, don’t place the firehouse and your added responsibilities ahead of your own family. I learned this lesson the hard way. Make sure to bring them onboard with the amount of time you will be dedicating to your “home away from home.” As I mentioned before, ensure that you include them in any social aspects of the department.
It took a lot of work to get to where you are. The hardest part of the journey has just begun. The company captain sets the tone for the company on and off the fireground. Your job is to make sure the company is in a better place when your job is done than when you began it.
BARRY S. DASKAL is a police officer/aircraft rescue firefighter with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. He is also a certified EMT-critical care and clinical lab instructor at the Nassau County (NY) EMS Academy and a member of the Wantagh (NY) Fire Department. He previously served as a police officer with the New York City Police Department and as a supervising fire alarm dispatcher with the Fire Department of New York. He has been a volunteer firefighter since 1990 and has served as a captain and training officer. He is a moderator on the Web site www.NassauFDrant.com and is also the creator and host of “The Average Joe Firefighter Podcast” on FireEngineering.com.