From the Jumpseat: Nurturing Your Officers

By Mark Cotter

Our young lieutenant was either remarkably calm or scared to death. We were responding to a structure fire in a multi-occupant dwelling, his first opportunity riding in the front seat of the first-in company, and he just silently stared through the windshield. Regardless of the reason for his quiet demeanor, he and the rest of us were confident because the Duty Chief was on the scene and had established Command, and a veteran officer was riding with us in the crew compartment to provide supervision and support. The new supervisor was being well supervised.

The incident commander (IC) ordered our company to proceed directly to the front of the structure and stretch an attack line to the fire, while the second-in engine, already en route, was to lay in a supply line. On arrival, we found a garden-style apartment, set back from the roadway about 50 yards, requiring extra hose lengths to be deployed to reach the fire itself. Additionally, with the involved apartment in the middle of the balconied second level and the stairwells located only at the far ends, the IC instructed us to bring a roof ladder to shorten the length of the stretch. Still, we reached the involved apartment without significant delay, and quickly extinguished the fire.

As we completed our primary and secondary searches and began overhaul, we noticed that our lieutenant was not among us. Surprisingly, he was still back at the engine, assisting the pump operator in hooking up the supply line. Later, during our curbside postincident critique, each member related how his activities contributed to the outcome. This exercise easier because the operation had gone well. We eventually came around to our junior officer’s perspective, and he reported that he had focused his efforts on establishing a water supply as that was, in his view, the primary goal of our company.

In fact, that is one of many potential objectives of an Engine company, but it was not our assignment. The lieutenant was still thinking as a pump operator (a required preliminary function before promotion to officer in our department), which acted as a barrier to him correctly processing the present situation and orders. A brief, private discussion between the other officer on our rig and the junior officer allowed the latter’s performance to be appropriately critiqued, and left this call a valuable lesson without the usual collateral damage having occurred.

The incident provided a sheltered opportunity for this newly minted officer to apply theory to practice, and can be repeated until he can consistently demonstrate the necessary perspective and judgment. Having a veteran officer on-scene to act as a mentor, though, eventually moves from being a necessity to being a luxury. Although competence will gradually develop for at least the more commonly received types of alarms, additional “street-level” methods are needed in order to ensure the continued development of officer skills in other situations, as well as for the constant reinforcement of lessons already presented.

Company members have a key role in continuing this process, although I have witnessed scenarios where members may actually stunt the development of an officer’s skills. Evidence of negative attitudes I’ve encountered include criticisms of any little mistake or variance from SOP that the budding officer makes; hesitancy in following orders, usually accompanied by asking for justification or explanation; and withholding helpful information that could have assisted in making better decisions or preventing later mistakes. Whatever the origins of such behavior, its effect on a new officer can be malignant.

Instead of continually testing and challenging a new officer, wise firefighters will realize that team improvement also includes efforts at strengthening the leader. And, like all other training, it should be both planned, a process often specified by department policy for officer advancement, ideally supervised by a higher-ranking mentor; and spontaneous, which occurs as the need or opportunity presents itself. Such efforts at leader improvement require taking the opposite approach of the critical crew member. Supportive strategies include providing respect for the rank, awaiting orders, and talking things out, each of which will be discussed below.

Veteran firefighters might argue, correctly, that these “strategies” are actually the behavior which should be expected of any line firefighter toward any officer, and that is certainly an accurate assessment. While discussions of the value of officer development will hopefully educate some firefighters with negative attitudes toward officers, even those already better adjusted to authority might benefit from these guidelines for improving our bosses’ skills.

The concept of providing absolute respect to officers is one that has its roots in the military, with the key benefit being a predictable response to directives, contributing to the improved efficiency of operations. A similar culture has been successfully institutionalized in many fire departments, especially large, urban organizations. All departments should try to cultivate a similar deference to officers. In addition to enhanced fireground and firehouse efficiency, allowing new officers to experience the respect inherent in their rank can be a great motivator toward improved competency.

Any prestige inherent in becoming an officer is balanced by an even greater increase in responsibility, particularly the burden of realizing that the well-being of fellow firefighters is, to a great extent, in the officer’s hands. When new officers exhibit humility, they have likely reached this conclusion on their own, and are already striving to become worthy of the honor. If pomposity is the primary attitude, though, then new officers may benefit from some of the following methods.

Awaiting orders before proceeding, even with non-urgent tasks, forces the officer to practice formulating and communicating a plan, two very complex tasks. Many of us already know our roles at most types of incidents, and are able to begin actions with little direction. Although this independence is efficient, it gives the officer little practice in size-up, developing an action plan, initiating that plan by issuing orders, and evaluating the outcome of the operation. Reining ourselves in, especially at incidents when time is not pressing factor, is difficult, but can serve as a valuable training exercise.

Although company members must be supportive, they must also be willing to provide feedback if that respect is being threatened by the officer’s actions, whether on or off an incident scene. It is vital that respect does not morph into isolation. Talking things out means creating opportunities and an atmosphere where discussing issues and critiquing performances is an accepted, positive behavior. (See From the Jumpseat: Talking it Out) The officer benefits when he or she is able to be informed, to his or her face, that there were shortfalls in his or her performance. Again, the better officers will seek out and benefit from this feedback. Making a habit of performing post-incident critiques, in one form or another, on all calls ensures that there is at least a chance for communicating the different perspectives and concerns of all company members.

Although these practices are appropriate for rank-and-file company members to implement, higher ranking officers have as their own, separate, duty the expectation that they will work with their subordinates to better develop command skills. With this dual support, from above and below, a new officer can develop the skills that will improve the efficiency and safety of the entire company.

Mark Cotter joined the fire service more than 30 years ago, and is currently a volunteer firefighter/EMT-B with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. Previously, he served with departments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as an EMT-paramedic, emergency services consultant, and fire chief. The author can be reached at fromthejumpseat@comcast.net.

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