BY TODD SHOEBRIDGE
Today’s company officer must be well-versed not only in firefighting tactics but also in management theory, supervision, and leadership. All too often, however, an individual may transition from firefighter to fire officer overnight; one day the person is led, the next day he is the leader. To make this situation even harder, this individual often has little or no training in management, supervision, and leadership, specifically in the art of human behavior.
Becoming a company officer is a big step that takes hard work, preparation, years of training, and some good mentors to get you going in the right direction. Unfortunately, if the new officer is not prepared when the promotion comes, that person could be in for a hard road, at least initially.
At any incident scene, the number-one priority is firefighter safety. The company officer is responsible for leading and directing the personnel under his command at all times. He must continuously size up the actions of those under his command: how the operation is going, whether it is progressing, or whether it is changing such that it requires a change in tactics. If the situation requires immediate action to maintain firefighter safety, the company officer is responsible for doing whatever is needed to protect the crew. Just like the captain on a sinking ship, the company officer should be the last one to leave. Responsible for the safety of all members under his command, the officer must ensure that all the personnel are safe and accounted for before they leave the emergency scene.
The officer’s responsibility for his personnel’s well-being also includes ensuring their safety at the fire station, during technical and physical training, at inspections, and at community events. As Chief Dennis Compton of the International Fire Service Training Association puts it, you are the disciplined soldier. Most supervisors find that preventive disciplinary procedures are superior to corrective procedures. Regarding safety procedures, Compton says, “Rather than spend a lot of time simply discussing what to do with people who don’t follow safety procedures, … it [is] beneficial and productive to discuss ways to prevent people from operating outside of our expectations in the first place.”1
Firefighters have little or no respect for an ineffective officer who is afraid to enforce his superior’s rules and orders for fear of not being liked or accepted. An officer who is perceived as shirking leadership or training duties does not have the commitment to supervise firefighters properly on the emergency scene where their lives are at risk.
Every firefighter observes the company officer for positive traits to imitate, learn, and recall when needed. Negative traits are remembered, too, but as behaviors to watch out for and avoid. Whether you have had officers you admired and wanted to emulate or officers you despised and wanted to forget, you can learn important lessons from both. Although it is easy to remember the good officers with whom you would willingly face dangerous situations, it is even more important to remember the ineffective officers you have encountered, from whom you learned traits to avoid. Always remember how that ineffective officer made you feel as a firefighter.
No firefighter who becomes a good officer can take all of the credit; most of that goes to his previous officers who strived to set a good example to the men and women under them. Today’s officers have a duty to become more professional, to learn, to train, and to keep their people safe. Remember, if you are not dedicated to the true meaning of firefighting, your crew will know. It is never too late to change.
Respect is earned; it doesn’t come with the promotion. Continually improve yourself as a fire professional. Never coast along; it only hurts those who want to do a good job.
Company officers should remember these seven priorities:
- Personal safety (yourself and family);
- Firefighter safety (your crew and other members of the department);
- Community life safety;
- Incident stabilization (i.e., successfully managing the incident);
- Property conservation (minimizing property damage);
- Community concerns; and
- Fire station, apparatus, and equipment maintenance.
When these priorities are consistently addressed in order every time, your role as an officer will be easier. If your crew knows your priorities and that this is always how you handle every incident each time, it is easier for them to do their job safely and with less supervision. If you make your safety and that of your crew the top priority, your crew knows that you will not intentionally put them in harm’s way and that you want everyone to go home the next morning. According to a saying in the fire service, “If after every emergency incident, all the members of the crew come out without injuries and are able to go home to their families, then you have had a good shift.”
You owe those firefighters who have gone before you, some of whom have given their lives in the line of duty. Commit yourself to contributing to the betterment of the fire service. Your contributions to education, training, and safety will improve the firefighting profession greatly. This improved professionalism ultimately will save lives and property while reducing our risks for years to come. Remember, “You get authority from rank; you get respect from your actions and how you handle events and circumstances.”2
There is always advice for a new officer who will listen-some of it good, some of it nonsense. The officer needs to confide in those peers and officers he trusts, those who have proven their leadership abilities. The most important point to remember is that as an officer, you now have a direct impact on what goes on with the crews who work for and with you.
When you look at the contributing factors to most line-of-duty deaths, you must acknowledge that some of them relate to the company officer’s leadership, or lack of it. As Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Battalion Chief Don Hayden has said for years, “Don’t blame the crew; don’t get on them. It’s not their fault when it comes down to it. It’s the company officer, their leader. He or she is the one who has to shoulder the responsibility of taking care of and managing the crew.” According to Hayden, when you hear a company referred to as a “dog” company, don’t look at the guys-look at the officer first. Most often, therein lies the answer and root of the problem.3
So, the safety of your crew often comes down to what type of a leader you are or what kind of an example you set. It all starts back at the firehouse, so focus a lot of attention on building those leadership skills that will work for you in the firehouse with your people.
Work on keeping a good attitude; it’s catching. Talk with your battalion chief and ask what that person expects from you as a company officer, and then explain your expectations to your crews. Be reasonable and realistic. Again, lead by example. Remember, your crew is watching everything you do, so do the right thing. Keep a good attitude, be fair to all members, and don’t play favorites. But don’t do the right thing for the wrong reason.
Take pride in your position as company officer; it really does matter. Seek out good mentors, and be one to your crew as well as others with whom you come in contact. Remember “The Golden Rule”: Treat others as you would like to be treated and how you would have liked to have been treated when you were a line firefighter. Practice, preach, and promote safety. Remember, the crews are yours now. Now, you really can control the gossip and rumor mill. Continue to market your department and the profession the same as you did as a firefighter.
It takes courage to lead. Make the right choices and decisions. Although they may not be the most popular at the time, go with what�s right and honest. Integrity is where it all starts. Don�t compromise it for anyone! And never stop learning or ever be afraid to ask questions.
Nobody knows it all. Know-it-alls and �perfect� people in our business get people hurt and killed. It really is your time to make a difference. Learn to read your people like you read smoke at a fire. Be the officer you always wanted to work for.
LEARNING FROM OTHERS
Over the years, I learned much from seasoned company officers, as well as from the National Fire Academy training programs, the University of Maryland degree program, individual training, and the officer accreditation program. Also, I have learned a great deal from watching and learning how other officers handle certain incidents and problems and from veteran firefighters who, for whatever reason, have not advanced but carry a great deal of knowledge. Some of those lessons are listed below:
• Don’t let the position go to your head.
• Communicate with your crew. Respect contrasting points of views at the firehouse table. It’s all about teamwork.
• Be a good listener, and keep everything in the strictest confidence and away from third parties or rumor mills.
• Do not assume total control of the team. Empower your members with duties and responsibilities; make them feel like they are part of the team.
• Know that friends are friends and business is business. When at a business, you are the supervisor and manager of the house. There is a separation anxiety when going from being a part of the peer group to a supervisor. To alleviate such anxiety, talk with veteran officers or your battalion chief.
• Be accountable for your actions. Remain truthful. Own up to your mistakes: Learn from them and move on. “Brainstorming” is not an option. The buck stops with the company officer. You are in charge of your crew. You are responsible for everything in your house.
• Focus on total team safety. Always mandate that your team adhere to the rules, regulations, standard operating guidelines, and directives.
• Write incident reports as if you were testifying in court. Reports should always be clear, concise, and in plain language whenever possible. Focus on the following questions: What happened? Where? What did we do in response? What was needed to accomplish the objective? How was the incident resolved-what was the final outcome?
• You are responsible to ensure your team’s development. You will evaluate subordinates under your charge (individuals and teams)-the strengths and the areas that need improvement. This is accomplished with training; counseling; mentoring; and training for promotion, early corrective action, and maintaining an open line of communication.
• When it is necessary to counsel a subordinate, always discuss the issue on a one-on-one basis. Never yell. Never embarrass a subordinate in front of peers. As a reminder, keep in mind we are developing our people, not tearing them down.4
There are many more tips in becoming a successful fire officer-too many to list. Becoming a successful company office takes time, training, and patience. When you decide to be a company officer and accept that position’s responsibilities, you accept a large weight to carry around. If you do not demonstrate responsibility in yourself, you cannot expect to be responsible and account for the personnel under your supervision.
Training to be a company officer does not happen in a day or two-it should start the day you enter the fire service. To cope with today’s new challenges and tomorrow’s unknown ones, current and aspiring company officers must work harder than ever to keep up with changes in technology and changes in society that directly or indirectly impact the fire service.5
As a company officer, you must never forget that individuals are precisely that-individuals. They are unique. A fire officer should follow one rule: “Know your people.”
1. Managing Fire and Rescue Services Self-Study Course. (Washington D.C.: ICMA University, 2002), 152.
2. Moyer, Robert, The Company Officer, Dec. 1, 2000, www.suite101.com/article.cfm/firefighting/53595, accessed May 1, 2006.
3. Fire Department Company Officer (third ed.), (Stillwater, Okla.: IFSTA, 1999), 75.
4. Eckles, R.W., R.L. Carmichael, and B.R. Sprehet; Essentials of Management for Front-line Supervisors. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996) 46.
5. “Speaking of Fire.” Fire Protection Publications, Fall 2002, 2(3), 7.
TODD SHOEBRIDGE, a 25-year fire service veteran, is a senior firefighter/EMT with the Hickory (NC) Fire Department, where he has served for more than 14 years. He serves as a relief engineer and fills in as company officer as needed. Shoebridge has associate’s degrees in biology and ecology from Montreat College and is completing a bachelor’s degree in fire science at the University of Maryland.