First-Due Battalion Chief: Playing in Your Own Sandbox

By Daniel P. Sheridan

My article on the qualities of a good incident commander (IC) has just come out in Fire Engineering magazine. One of the qualities that I speak about in the article is that of not micromanaging. As we move up the ranks in the fire service, it usually takes time to adjust to the new rank. Speaking from experience, it took me a while to be comfortable being a lieutenant. I realize that the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) is unique in the sense that our officers are there strictly to supervise and don’t get involved in the actual physical work of stretching hose, forcing doors, cutting roofs, or any other task assigned to the firefighters. FDNY officers’ only responsibility is to oversee their unit and report to the next level of command.

When I first got promoted, it took about a year to make the adjustment. I had gotten promoted out of a squad company; at the time it was one of only two in New York City. I was used to being very active and involved. When I was promoted, I was assigned back to the regular division. That in itself was an adjustment. I was now working in units that were first- and second-due units, no longer the extra unit on the working fire. When you work in the squad, you are always at the IC’s disposal. I now had to put on my thinking cap again and make the kind of difficult decisions that the first-due units have to make.

The second adjustment I had to make was that I no longer was the guy forcing the door, cutting the roof, or stretching the hose. I remember many a time at a fire wanting to take the halligan and force a door; there were occasions where I was the first one up to the fire apartment and had to use my small officers’ tool to force a door, but I didn’t make that a habit. Once at another good fire when I was a firefighter, our officer forced the door event though he knew darn well that I had the forcible entry assignment that day, and I was not happy about it. The idea is that the officer needs to be looking at the bigger picture and not focus on one task. If the officer gets caught up in one task, then who is in charge? The officer also needs to supervise the firefighters working on the outside team, coordinating ventilation and entry. I believe that it is human nature to want to revert to our comfort zone and do what we know we are good at, but it takes time and discipline; eventually, you will settle into the new role, and you will become very good at it.

Another issue is staying with the job you are assigned to do, or “playing in your own sandbox.” I was a lieutenant in a busy engine company that was housed with a very busy, proud ladder company. One of the lieutenants I worked with was very aggressive. Some engine company officers like to hang back and let the ladder company officer deal with finding the fire. The idea is that the ladder company takes its forcible entry team and locates and confines the fire; from there, it is supposed to call back to the engine and let it know where the fire is. After the ladder locates the fire, it begins searching for victims. I used to like to be a little more involved. I knew where I was supposed to be–at the front door with my team. What I would do, when possible, was to canvass as many people on the way up to the fire floor to get a sense of what was going on (you can get a lot of good information from the fleeing occupants). I would get to the floor below and figure out which apartment was directly below the apartment on fire. I would take a quick peek in, if I could, and then head up to the fire apartment and join the ladder in searching the fire apartment for the fire’s location. This sometimes would upset my partner in the ladder company. He felt that I was encroaching on his territory. I just felt that I needed to get a better look at the apartment before I brought in my team. I would always get back to the front door when I needed to be.

DOUBLE DUTY

I had two experiences in my time as a lieutenant that stand out in my mind of when I was forced to “play in the other sandbox” because there was no one else there, but this was the rare exception and not the rule. At one of the fires, the officer from the ladder company had a mask malfunction and his inside team consisted of two very young firefighters. I now had to supervise the search for the fire and manage the hose team. We found the fire when the fire burned through the hollow-core bedroom door. I got so caught up in the search and trying to confine the fire that I forgot to call for water in the hoseline. Luckily, I was working in a squad company at the time, and the nozzle firefighter had his own radio and was able to call for water. In most departments, the officers would think: What’s the problem? In FDNY we are programmed to do the one task, either engine or ladder, so it is unusual to have to do both at a fire.

The other fire was similar: The engine officer had mask issues, and I wound up supervising my inside team and the hose team. The problem at this job was that it was the top floor of a large multiple dwelling and we had a heavy fire condition in a Collyers’ Mansion-type apartment. When the nozzle firefighter showed up in the living room, I knew he was a probationary firefighter and this was his first nozzle job. He was very nervous; I had to stay by his side. I now had to devote all my attention to him. It turned out fine. He was able to extinguish the two back rooms that were involved. This is why it is so important to stay within our job task. What if it didn’t turn out fine? I was supervising my two inside firefighters, the three firefighters on the hose team, and my outside firefighters. That is a lot to manage in a very precarious situation. Normally, the span of control in a situation like that would be one in three, at the most.

CLIMBING THE LADDER OF RESPONSIBILITY

Moving on up the ranks, the leap from lieutenant to captain was seamless. On the fireground, we do basically the same job; the only difference is the administrative stuff. The next huge leap is from captain to battalion chief. Again, there was an adjustment period, about a year. The only difference is that when you go to battalion chief, you probably have already spent some time as an acting battalion chief. I was a captain for more than five years, and I had been acting battalion chief many times. The role of a battalion chief is still very different from that of captain. As a firefighter, you are responsible for yourself, but as a company officer, you are responsible for your unit. As a battalion chief, you are responsible for the whole box assignment.

As far as being a battalion chief is concerned, the problem is not so much whether or not you are playing in your sandbox. The greater danger is being a micromanager. One thing I learned from being a member of the FDNY Incident Management Team (IMT) is that delegation is a wonderful thing. I have lots of confidence in the officers who work in my division. At a fire I speak directly to them, except for an emergency transmission or something that the chief needs to know right away, i.e., if there is fire in the cockloft. I had a fire one time where the chief was up on the fire floor telling me how to put out the fire; that is not his role. Let everyone do their job unless it is not getting done.

As a chief, there have been a few instances where I had to bite my tongue. A few times I was in the lobby of the fire building and watched firefighters trying to force a door. You can’t imagine how frustrated I get–I want to grab the halligan and force the door myself. I can’t even talk to the officer because it is his job to direct the forcible entry team, and I would never undermine an officer on the fireground in front of his firefighters. You may win the battle, but you will lose the war. I remember a battalion chief who ran around the fireground with a halligan in his hand. He had no credibility with the firefighters.

The IMT is very keen on everyone staying within the confines of their own task. We had recently been activated to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. I was put in charge of an operation in one sector. There were some issues that popped up that were not directly under my charge but that indirectly affected my sector. Even though I knew how to solve the problem, I stayed out of it. We did make a suggestion on another situation that was causing a headache, but on the team we all know that we need to play in our own sandbox. It is sort of a mantra with these teams.

Our sector was assigned a member to be in charge of a particular part of the operation. This guy wound up becoming so invasive that I finally had to talk to him about staying out of my business and doing only what he was tasked to do. Later on in the day while the members were operating, he stumbled onto one of our operations. He started screaming at one of the firefighters who was operating and then proceeded to stay right on top of him while he was operating, instructing him every step of the way. The right way to approach a situation like this, if you feel that it is unsafe, is to talk to the member’s supervisor, who was standing right there as well. You would express your concerns to him and have him instruct the member who is operating. This team member is a very new battalion chief; I can tell already that he will have a rough career as a battalion chief.

We all have great intentions on the fireground. We all want to do the best job we can to protect and serve our community, but sometimes it is best to just let everyone do their job. As the old saying goes, Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

Daniel P. Sheridan is a 25-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and a covering battalion chief iassigned to Division 6 in the South Bronx. He is a national instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. He is a consultant for firetecinc.com.

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