Dedicated Company Assignments: Building Stronger Companies

BY PAUL J. URBANO

When visiting with fire-fighters from other fire departments, conversations often lead to comparing similarities and differences among departments such as run volume; numbers of engines, trucks, and rescues; staffing levels; and how personnel are assigned. One common observation I have made is that many fire departments, not just large metro departments, assign personnel to specific companies as opposed to fire stations.

For this article, “company” refers to the personnel, not the apparatus. Engines, trucks, and heavy rescues are types of fire companies; their respective apparatus are the largest and most expensive pieces of equipment fire companies use to do their jobs.

Generally speaking, we are young in today’s fire service (not much time in rank or on the job); we have fewer fires than decades past; and we require a wider array of knowledge, skills, and abilities to do our jobs well. This is especially true in departments that also must maintain proficiency in special operations such as hazmat, technical rescue, dive and swiftwater rescue, back country and high-angle rescue, and so on.

Developing proficient fire companies is critical to our success on the fireground; therefore, it’s important to seek practices that improve our teamwork and increase our margin of safety.

One way to do this is to adopt the practice of dedicated company assignments. This means assigning an officer, an engineer, and firefighters to a specific fire company (i.e., an engine, a truck, or a heavy rescue) instead of to a fire station and constantly rotating from apparatus to apparatus.

ASSIGNING PERSONNEL IN ANCHORAGE

When visiting other fire departments, I’m often asked how the Anchorage Fire Department (AFD) assigns personnel. In multicompany fire stations, the AFD has gradually adopted two types of rotating: (1) rotate/mix company members within a company—i.e., today one engineer drives for an officer; next week another engineer will drive for the same or a different officer, and (2) rotate from apparatus to apparatus—i.e., today I’m on an engine; next week I will be on a truck or rescue apparatus.

Following is a little background on how we began rotating personnel in the AFD. In 1995, we began integrating fire and EMS. Firefighters became EMTs and started working on ambulances, and paramedics became firefighters and starting working on advanced life support (ALS) engine companies.

Rotating personnel to staff an ambulance or to fill a vacancy is acceptable, because it’s part of staffing fire companies (it’s the exception), but this operational and cultural change to constant rotating seems to have propagated more rotating. Initially, just the firefighters rotated, but gradually, all personnel at multicompany fire stations began rotating, which has since become the norm.

Some say because of the constant rotating, continuity is developed at the station level instead of at the company level. Fire departments are essentially teams functioning within teams—i.e., companies within stations, within battalions, within districts, and so on. On the fireground, when stretching an attack line or searching for victims, it’s the companies, not the fire stations, that perform as single tactical units (cohesive teams).

BENEFITS OF DEDICATED COMPANY ASSIGNMENTS

Many fire departments use dedicated company assignments; others don’t. Adopting dedicated company assignments can improve overall operations in the following ways.

Safety

Obviously, improving firefighter safety is paramount. A cohesive team is essential to the safety of our internal (us) and external customers (the public). Not knowing your company members well may contribute to the potentiality of a mishap.

Look at national statistics, and you’ll see that many firefighters killed or seriously injured in the line of duty are members of makeup (temporary) crews or are fill-in (acting) company officers. The Pittsburgh (PA) Bureau of Fire experienced three firefighter fatalities in a 1995 fire. Five of the officers who responded were acting officers, and 14 of the firefighters responding were riding in different positions than the ones to which they were normally assigned.

The last AFD line-of-duty death occurred in 1976 during the unification of the city and borough fire departments. Personnel were rotated and mixed to better unify the newly combined AFD.

If your department has suffered recent close calls (serious injuries or Maydays), consider them as “red flags” and reevaluate your current practices to determine how best to minimize risk.

Communications

We know effective communications are lacking on nearly every fireground operation. Although there may be a multitude of reasons for this, think about the impact of working with different people and on different apparatus on a continual basis. Improving fire company communications can result in safer fireground operations.

Fire company communications can be approached from two equally important perspectives: intracompany (communications within companies) and intercompany (communications among companies). Both are vital on the fireground. With constant rotating of personnel, it’s easy to see how company communications can be negatively affected.

Imagine the impact of passing on station, apparatus, and equipment information among a few dedicated company members as opposed to everyone in the fire station. It may explain how some information gets missed.

Teamwork

It’s important that we enable company continuity (uninterrupted union), company cohesiveness (sticking together tightly), and company consistency (harmony with one another). Individually, we may be really good at our jobs, but building stronger companies (teams) is what’s really important.

Company officers should have personnel assigned to them, as they are for annual evaluations. What better way to observe your company members’ performances than by working side by side with them on a regular basis?

Attempting to train and provide experience for everyone in everything we do could pose a tremendous challenge and ultimately result in the mixing of company operations—trucks doing engine work and vice versa. Mix company operations only when it is absolutely necessary, not as standard operating procedure. The exception is the quint concept.

Training

Within a dedicated company, you have the opportunity to train on a topic and build on it. On a rotating company, you train on a topic today and have to train on it again and again to train all the personnel who rotate through your company. If this is certainly not an efficient or effective use of time, is it really the best way to build cohesive teams?

Think of all the nonemergency assignments fire departments are tasked with daily, such as station and apparatus upkeep; quick-action plans; postincident analyses; standard operating guidelines and policy review; public education, fire prevention, and public relations events; customer service rides; dinners; birthdays; tours; car seats; and bike helmets, for example.

Although these tasks are very important to our internal and external customers, so is proficiency in emergency operations. We must not lose sight of what kills firefighters. With a finite amount of time and constant rotating, how can we from a company perspective be expected to master or at least be proficient at everything that’s expected of today’s fire service?

Moreover, many fire departments purposely assign experienced firefighters to truck and heavy rescue companies, because they normally have more training and experience. (Note: Years on the job don’t necessarily equal years of experience.)

Continual training within a dedicated company provides opportunities for fire company synergy. Constant rotating creates opportunities for training gaps; training gaps create opportunities for mishaps.

Accountability

Obviously, accountability is an integral part of firefighter safety. Our accountability system is only as strong as its weakest link; therefore, it’s imperative that we do not allow standard operating practices to interfere with the accuracy of our system.

For example, just before shift-change—when some personnel from the off-going shift are mixed with some from the oncoming shift or there is a last-minute change of personnel (rotating to another company for various reasons)—an alarm comes in. Have we just created a weak link in our accountability system? Depending on your system, maybe the tags haven’t been changed or the chief’s staffing roster hasn’t been updated.

Constantly rotating personnel, especially multiple times during a shift, increases the potential for developing a weak link in our accountability system.

Discipline

This is one of the most challenging, yet important, aspects of company leadership. Unfortunately, when we think of discipline, we tend to focus on the punishment aspect when we should be looking at it as improving behavior or seeking corrective results.

Since these matters are confidential, administering discipline must be done in private and on a one-on-one basis instead of in a group setting. With constant rotating, it’s difficult for a company officer to establish progressive discipline consistency. Not only does this have a negative impact on the organization, but think about the impact of this inconsistency from a subordinate’s perspective.

Pride and Ownership

In general, you may have noticed that people don’t take care of rental cars as well as they take care of their own. I’m not saying all personnel are not taking pride in their fire stations, apparatus, or equipment, but it’s difficult to be consistent with constant rotating. It’s difficult to have pride without ownership. Creating a sense of esprit de corps goes a long way toward inspiring fire company enthusiasm.

Operating at the Professional Level

Anchorage Chief Craig Goodrich uses a pro football “going to the Super Bowl” analogy to instill preparedness in the members: “Our team must consistently demonstrate the same discipline, teamwork, focus, and dedication it takes to get to the Super Bowl.”

In high school football, playing both offense and defense is appropriate for that level. Imagine a pro football team switching players each Sunday so they can learn each other’s positions and assignments, and so they don’t get burned- out tackling running backs or scoring touchdowns all the time. This team is not going to the Super Bowl, and this coach is getting fired! Playing at the pro level requires continuity; cohesiveness; consistency; and, ultimately, fire company competence.

In the book Good to Great, author Jim Collins says: “Good is the enemy of great. How can good (fire) companies become great (fire) companies if good is good enough?”1

Change is uncomfortable and unpopular, and we shouldn’t change for the sake of trying something new but rather to improve the way we operate. This dedicated company assignment concept uses the development of proficient fire companies (teams) as a vehicle for change.

Some argue that specializing limits our ability to deliver all of our various types of services, particularly with limited staffing. Others feel generalizing spreads us too thin, lending itself to the “Jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none” cliché. Being the jack-of-all-trades can be beneficial and yet somewhat challenging in today’s fire service. Even with dedicated company assignments, we’re more likely to be generalized specialists (jack-of-many-trades, master-of-some).

Unfortunately, many layers of requirements drive our daily staffing—i.e., ALS engines, specialty teams, acting time, training, leave, and sick time, for example. However, this should not impede good fire companies from becoming great fire companies. Rotating company personnel or rotating from apparatus to apparatus should be the exception rather than the rule.

The concept of dedicated company assignments is not a cure-all, but coupled with a disciplined, progressive training culture, this practice can improve teamwork while increasing our margin of safety.

Reference

1. Collins, Jim. Good to Great. (New York: Harper Collins, 2001).

PAUL J. URBANO began his fire service career in 1986. He’s been a member of the Anchorage (AK) Fire Department since 1995 and serves as the captain of Station 1. He has an associate’s degree in fire service administration from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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