General Orders for the Company Officer

BY CHRIS GUSTAFSON

At 17 years old, high school completed, full of the worldly knowledge that all teenagers possess, I joined the United States Marine Corps. My parents signed me over to the federal government with little hesitation, although I should have been more suspicious of what awaited me when my mother began crying (and not the normal, happy-he’s-out-of-the-house type of crying I was sort of expecting). A few months later, hell began as a Marine sergeant corralled a group of us as we sauntered off the flight in San Diego.

Once the shock began to wear off-about two months into boot camp-it dawned on me that I was still in school. We were learning daily, though with physical punishment as reinforcement for the subjects of the day. One subject that was always good as an impromptu quiz from the drill instructor torturing us for the day was our 11 General Orders. Even today, I can remember standing at attention as the inspecting officer turned in front of me, barked at me to recite a general order, and stood there watching me stutter and sweat. Ah, memories!

Every military service has a version of the general orders. The Marine Corps has 11 to memorize. They were a guide for nearly any situation we were likely to encounter, the “Golden Rules for Marines.” In my more than 20 years as a firefighter, I haven’t encountered a universal set of guidelines for the fire service that serves a similar purpose. Yes, we have the firefighting manuals and the National Fire Protection Association standards, but they are hardly in an easily memorizable format. So, with apologies to my senior drill instructor, here are the U.S. Marine Corps 11 General Orders and how I envision their application for officers in the fire service.

1 To take charge of this post and all government property in view. “Mine! Mine! It’s all mine!” This simple phrase, perfected by Huns, Romans, and two-year-olds the world over, will serve you well when you come to work. All you company officers, it’s time to channel your inner despot!

When I arrive at the station, I begin taking charge of my post. But what exactly constitutes my post? It’s important to remember it isn’t just the station and the small stake of property it sits on. It isn’t just that shiny apparatus sitting in the bay. My post is my first-due response area and the people and property within it; the apparatus and the equipment on it; my crews; and any area to which I may respond during the shift, anywhere in the city, the municipality, or the district I am assigned to protect. I am responsible to take charge of all this for the duration of my shift. I need to act as if it belongs to me because, for the duration of the shift, it does.

Even the phrase “take charge” denotes action. I am going to work to make sure everything is covered through training, equipment maintenance, and personal preparation. Everything I see during the shift I am responsible for in one way or another. For those of you who don’t like responsibility, sorry, that’s the way it is when you get in the front seat!

2 To walk my post in a military manner, keeping always on the alert and observing everything that takes place within sight or hearing. Sometime near the end of boot camp, I was assigned a night of guard duty in the recruit depot’s warehouse area. Realistically, there was a slim-to-none chance that anyone was going to attempt to break in and unload a warehouse. I had no idea what was in each warehouse, whether I had live ammo in my weapon, or if I had remembered to lock my footlocker back in the barracks. But that wasn’t the point of the exercise or training, at least as far as I can tell. I believe we were being taught to walk our post in a professional military manner and to stay alert, even during a cold January night. That encompassed a variety of factors to make that a reality. Primarily, it came down to attitude and pride.

Pride and professional demeanor start with the supervisors. If you expect a sharp-looking, professional crew, set the example. More importantly, exhibit the attitude you expect. It starts with an attitude of professionalism not based on paid or volunteer status but on the pride you feel for the profession as a whole, its traditions, the people, and the trust placed in us by the public.

We reflect that professionalism by wearing the proper uniforms and keeping a neat appearance. Nothing did more to separate the Marine Corps from the other services than awareness in our appearance. If we were stationed with other services, it was a matter of pride that we would always be the most squared away. Personnel in our unit would check each other for ironed gear and loose threads before entering the domain of public scrutiny. Pride in appearance is a self-fulfilling action. If you have pride in what you do, look like the professional you profess to be.

This applies to our physical appearance, too. I can’t tell you that everyone should be able to run three miles in 18 minutes and have six-pack abs; I certainly can’t and don’t. But, we should strive to take the best care possible of our physical well-being for many of the same reasons. And you have all heard how a solid fitness level is vital to protect you, your crew, and the public. But the public doesn’t see you “walking your post in a military manner” when they see you walk into their home with shoes unlaced, shirt untucked, and a belly born of cheeseburgers and fried foods rolling over the lip of your stained and torn pants.

The second part of this order says to always keep on the alert. We can’t see everything occurring in our first due all the time. But we should be aware of the activities taking place there. How? By driving through your first-due area, creating preplans, knowing where new construction is in progress, knowing the red-flag areas such as the bars that are going to be packed on Friday and Saturday nights, or the meth house where we pick up an overdose every week. Talk with the police officers patrolling your area about what’s going on in their world. We are fortunate to have an excellent relationship with our officers, and when they come to the station for a cup of coffee or to do some paperwork, they are an excellent source of information about the types of crimes occurring in our first due. We also pass information to them. When we’ve run our third dumpster fire in the past six hours in the same area, we can let them know to watch the area for suspicious behavior. Be aware of high-profile events occurring where you might respond, whether it’s a marathon or a motorcycle rally. It’s an unpleasant revelation to be called to a gunshot wound and find that you have an outlaw motorcycle gang rally going on in your area. Sure, the party is going to be great, but it may bring some harsh surprises.

3 To report all violations of orders I am instructed to enforce. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I had heard that hundreds of times in my life, but it never really made sense until I became a company officer. Now it seems like golden wisdom handed down from God himself. Actions I’ve taken that caused me the most trouble appeared when I chose to look the other way when there was an infraction. It has always come around to bite me. Once I let the offender slide, I was responsible, at least in some part, for whatever action happened next. As soon as someone gets away with something, it’s a guarantee everyone will expect to be treated similarly.

Don’t believe me? If you have kids, try this. Let it slide when one child doesn’t make his bed in the morning or throws his clothes on the floor. See if his brother doesn’t chafe and rebel when you ask him to clean up his messes. First words out of his mouth: “But you let (fill in the name of the purportedly favored sibling) get away with it!” Even if you’re not playing favorites, either with your crew or your offspring, it certainly appears that you are. Play fair by holding everyone to the same, correct standard.

At other times, I have violated orders to good effect. As company officers, my chief has authorized us to make decisions to help others if it’s morally right and in the best interests of all involved or, as we refer to it, if it passes the “headline test.” If we’re not afraid to see our actions written in large type across the top of the next day’s newspaper, then it’s generally okay to do it.

For example, when driving back to the station, we spot a broken-down vehicle on the side of the road with an elderly lady baking in the unforgiving Arizona sun. We stop to assist and find we can’t easily fix the car. She has no one to call to take her home, and she has groceries in the car that are going to spoil. My city directives clearly say we are not allowed to pick up civilian passengers in city vehicles. Black-and-white, cut-and-dried, right? But, my conscience tells me it’s the right thing to do. Can I defend it? Absolutely. We load her and the groceries up and take her home and make sure she calls a towing company for her vehicle. Later, so she doesn’t get blindsided by a report and so I can brag about the customer service ethic of my crew, I’ll call my battalion chief to explain that, technically, I violated orders. Would it pass the headline test? I believe it would.

Understand that I’m not saying you need to be an absolute, by-the-book sort of leader. Those types of people get lost when unusual or unexpected situations happen or they get fragged by their crews sometime during the new moon phase. Use your common sense and your moral compass as your guides in situations where you have those options. Follow your standard operating procedures in all the other instances.

4 To repeat all calls from posts more distant to the guard house than my own. Here’s where we address the issue of rumor control. We’ve heard the phrase, “Tell a friend, telephone, tell a firefighter.” I’ve passed on a few juicy morsels myself. We are masters of passing on unconfirmed information because “hey, we were just chatting around the kitchen table, right? I wasn’t saying anything that should be taken as a solid fact. I can’t help it if they took it that way!”

Let’s return to our example of dealing with kids. Parents, have you ever just been thinking out loud and said something like, “Wouldn’t it be great to go to Disneyland this summer?” Two weeks later, your kids are crying and pleading to go to Disneyland because “you promised”! The words you speak are heard and acted on. Your attitude sets the example.

It is a necessity to pass on information that pertains to our job, safety, and ability to do our job in the most efficient manner possible. Make sure that what is being passed on pertains to the job and is accurate. If you’re not sure, don’t repeat it. If you feel it’s vague or untrue, check with your chain of command to get the real scoop.

5 To quit my post only when properly relieved. How many times have we seen the call come in right at shift change? The firefighter who is finishing his shift has to get to his second job or get the kids to school, and he doesn’t have time to run another call. So, he takes his gear off the truck, and the truck leaves. The call turns out to be a code or a fire that really requires all personnel. Instead, the call is run with one member short. You don’t leave a spot unstaffed unless you have prior approval. If you need to be somewhere at the end of the shift, make sure the person relieving you is there on time or a little bit early. Don’t take your gear off the truck until you are relieved. Make sure your relief has like-for-like (e.g., advanced life support, engineer) capabilities.

6 To receive, obey, and pass on to the sentry who relieves me all orders from the commanding officer, the officer of the day, all officers and noncommissioned officers of the guard only. Use whatever means you have in your department to pass on important information. The means aren’t important-making sure it happens is. Informal conversations, formal pass-downs, log books, computer-based activity reports-they all work, but only if you use them. Don’t be afraid to call after you leave. Some of the more important items I’ve gotten from the off-duty officer have come from phone calls after he got home. “Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention ….” We have dry-erase boards, magnetic boards, weekly and monthly inventories that are electronically logged in, and somehow we still lose pieces of equipment and no one knows what happened to them. We move the status boards closer to the truck and we design easier spreadsheets, all to no avail if no one uses them. Ensure your personnel are using whatever forms are available.

7 To talk to no one except in the line of duty. Obviously, this doesn’t apply as stringently to the fire service as it does to the military, but it does apply. When you’re doing the job, concentrate on the job. Don’t allow your crew members to use cell phones or text while on scene, and don’t do it, either. Do your customers get the impression you hold their best interests at heart if one of your crew is texting his girlfriend about dinner plans for tomorrow? Does the citizen feel it’s great customer service if she comes in for a blood pressure check and your firefighter makes her wait until the YouTube video he’s watching is done? Do your job first; personal issues come second. Cell phones, texting, and paging on calls are all unacceptable when you have a job to do.

8 To sound the alarm in case of fire or disorder. Simply, if you see a problem, fix it. If it’s bigger than the scope of your responsibility, call it up the chain. But today it seems people are too willing to pass on a responsibility rather than try to fix a problem that’s well within their scope of duty. I had this lesson pointed out to me when I was a relatively new engineer at another department. Captain Kerry Swick, an excellent officer, was reviewing my performance evaluation and goaded me for calling the mechanics too often. I chafed a little at the negative item but recognized its validity. I had been calling the fleet mechanics for simple things like replacing vehicle light bulbs. The truck would be out of service for much longer than necessary until the mechanic arrived. I could have accomplished the same thing in five minutes. Fix what you can. Call for help (“sound the alarm”) when you need help.

Conversely, if you are in a position of leadership, allow your people the opportunity to fix the small problems without relying on your approval or micromanagement of the situation. As you move up the ladder, the problems you allow to be handled at the level below you become bigger. Be comfortable with that until the people under you show that they can’t handle it or demonstrate incapacity to learn from their mistakes. There are few things that suck the confidence from a new leader more than consistently being second-guessed by a controlling supervisor. Allow your people to learn from their situations and mistakes.

9 To call the corporal of the guard in any case not covered by instructions. When you’re not sure of what to do, what do you do? Sometimes, the shelves of standard operating procedures and general orders just don’t offer the answer to the questions you have. Sometimes you won’t even have the opportunity to get back to the station and consult the books. The “headline test” is a valuable guideline, but occasionally you need more. That’s why there is a chain of command.

As paramedics, we follow the same sort of mentality. No matter how long you’ve work in the medical field, eventually you will run into a situation you never imagined, one never covered in the standing orders. The responsibility is too great to carry on one medic’s shoulders-mentally, legally, and financially. So what do we do? We call the doctor at a base hospital to get advice and guidance. At some level, we pass on the responsibility to the doctor. I’m not one for passing the buck (See General Order 8), but we need to rely on the personnel who have been around longer than we have and seek their advice.

Use your chain of command; these leaders want to know anyway. If you’re a supervisor, there are few things worse than getting blindsided by a decision that was made by personnel working for you.

Use your peers. If you have friends in the same position as you, bounce ideas off them. Use trade journals such as Fire Engineering to build a mental toolbox of possible solutions to unforeseen problems.

10 To salute all officers, colors, and standards not cased. Respect the traditions and ranks of the fire service. I have heard all the stories regarding the new generation of firefighters, how they don’t respect their elders as much as in the past, how everything is up for questioning. The old paramilitary style of running the station and the training doesn’t cut it anymore. We may not follow the styles of saluting and station inspections, but we need to respect the people in higher ranks. We do that by using their appropriate titles, listening when they speak, and granting them the little courtesies that the department bestows in an unofficial manner. For our department, when a chief officer arrives at the station, unless he wants to talk to the entire crew in an official capacity, someone, or everyone, makes sure that his car is washed. If it’s already clean, we clean the windows or detail the inside of the vehicle. You may not love the officer, but respect the rank.

Use the title of a person who is a superior rank to you. I have a person I came on the department with more than 18 years ago. He is now the executive assistant chief. Although we started at the same time, he has worked hard and earned a position of authority. I wouldn’t dream of calling him anything but “Chief” when we’re in a public setting. If we go to have some beers and I sense we’re in an informal setting, I may relax a little with that but never in front of the crews. When I was promoted to captain, a senior engineer with several more years on the job than I, and a person I highly respected as a professional, immediately began calling me “Captain.” He has ever since. At first, it was embarrassing (honestly, it still is), but I admire his commitment to an attitude of professionalism. I’ve noticed a decline in the respect we give our national colors. We used to take the colors down in times of inclement weather and at 1700 hours each day. The probationary firefighter would take the colors out at sunrise or at 0700 hours and raise them. If the pole was lit all night, it would only come down during inclement weather. I believe that the public still looks at us as a guide for patriotism. Need proof? Look at the iconic photo of 9/11 with the firefighters raising the American flag over the ruins of the World Trade Center.

11 To be especially watchful at night, and during times of challenging, to challenge all persons on or near my post, and to allow no one to pass without proper authority. We all know how attitudes change when the clock shows zero-dark-30. Where we may have been patient and caring with a customer at 1400 hours, at 0200 hours their chief complaint now just seems like whining. We just want them to make a decision about whether or not they want to go to the hospital so we can get back to bed. As a leader, set the standard for how we treat people and situations at any time of the day or night.

Don’t let a long shift change the way you do business. Customer 15 should receive the same level of care and professionalism as Customer 1 did when you were fresh and clean at the beginning of the shift.

Your tactics and manner of dealing with fire alarms, patients, and working fires shouldn’t change when the sun sets. Be especially watchful at night.

•••

The world has changed. We all need to maintain a higher sense of awareness of the situations and people around us. Is there a person taking pictures of where we just staged on the fire alarm at the hospital? Was he there the last time, too? Why is there a backpack sitting near the gas main behind the theater? On an emergency medical service call, is there an apartment filled with cases of baby formula and no infants in sight? Pay attention to items that seem out of place, both for your personal safety and because the information you pass on could save others.

Will you memorize these 11 general orders and challenge your crews with repeating them verbatim when quizzed? Not likely! But follow these guidelines for a smooth-running station. Review them occasionally to see if your core guidelines are still the same. If you read them and see yourself in some of the bad examples, get back on track. It’s never too late. Semper fi!

CHRIS GUSTAFSON is a captain/paramedic and 19-year veteran of the Glendale (AZ) Fire Department. He is assigned to Engine 158, which covers the University of Phoenix Stadium (Arizona Cardinals) and the Jobing.com Arena (Phoenix Coyotes). Gustafson’s certifications include hazardous materials technician, technical rescue technician, incident safety officer, and terrorism liaison officer.

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