Photo by Tony Greco.
By Mark Waters
As has been said by many of the most influential fire service leaders, the company officer has the most direct influence over the rank-and-file firefighters. However, this influence does not come without many challenges. This article will examine some of these challenges and offer several ideas on how to address each one.
Having taught fire officer courses for several years at the Connecticut Fire Academy, I have come realize many things, one of which being that the makeup of each fire department’s personnel is very much the same. I start each fire officer certification course with a general discussion on what I have titled the “Officer Challenge List.” The list is almost identical for each class. Many of the officer challenges in today’s fire service culture are leadership issues; not financial issues. Granted, having the finances available to ensure today’s officers are adequately trained certainly helps combat dealing with the challenges that exist. In a recent class, the class challenge list was a little longer than in past classes and, as usual, I attempted to address all of the issues on the list. Unfortunately, many of these issues were made public after one department represented suffered a line-of-duty death halfway through the course.
Some of the best and most rewarding officer discussions I have ever had existed during this course. As a result, we all looked forward to the next session to discuss these challenges. These discussions need to exist among any department’s officers at regular intervals; the culture of the fire service is one that can change within a moment’s notice.
The terms “culture” and “influence” should be in every company officer’s vocabulary. Culture is the beliefs, customs, and arts of a particular society, group, place, or time. Influence is the ability to affect the character, development, or behavior of someone or something. Any experienced fire officer knows that challenges exist not only on the fireground but also in the fire station. Personnel issues can easily take up a good amount of time on a company officer’s shift. Time management certainly is another skill that the company officer must master. Following are the top five officer challenges from this past year’s classes.
Many young firefighters come through the fire station doors with little to no mechanical aptitude. This has caused many company and training officers to rethink the term “back to basics.” The power of electronics and the Internet have consumed many young people’s lives. However, this has not helped the fire service; the majority of our business is dealing with mechanical-related challenges. Whether the call is for an auto extrication, a flooded oil burner, or an electrical fire, mechanical aptitude is required to mitigate the emergency.
The Internet is an all-encompassing resource that takes time that we don’t have when people’s lives are at risk. Therefore, company officers need to make time to train on basic tools, taking things apart, and learning the basic systems that exist in buildings, cars, and everyday life. In one of my classes, one fire officer shared a story that he was frustrated with a rookie firefighter because of his inadequate mechanical ability. He scheduled training at 10:00 a.m. on how to change a tire on the department’s utility trailer. Once this training was completed, the rookie was well-versed on basic tools and techniques, and he admitted that he now understood why it was so important to learn mechanics. It wasn’t long after that training that a call came in for a homeowner who got his hand stuck in a snow blower.
Sometimes, the company officer needs to be creative and start somewhere. I always tell fire officers in my classes not to assume that firefighters have mechanical abilities. I do not blame any particular person for the lack of these important skills. However, it is the company officers’ responsibility for ensuring that the individuals they supervise are ready to tackle the challenges that exist.
Although this is a very sensitive issue in our society today, it is increasingly becoming part of the fire service culture. Many recent articles about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental illnesses highlight the fact that they indeed exist. Like it or not, it is true, and as these illnesses become more prominent, they will continue to affect the company officer. Depression, PTSD, paranoia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, addictions, alcoholism, and anger are just a few illnesses that I have seen in personnel. These problems don’t exist only in large departments; they exist in the small career and volunteer departments as well. People are people, and the attraction to the fire service is extremely similar from department to department. This is where influence comes into play.
In my opinion, every company officer job description should include a paragraph that requires him to be a mental health professional. Most of my classes initially laugh when I talk about this, and then about two-thirds of the way through the course, students begin coming up to me about various situations and people in their departments with these issues. The company officer has the training to recognize these deep, dark secrets. Therefore, there are not many mental health professionals that can treat firefighters better than the company officer. The company officer has the ability to recognize these issues, mitigate them before it is too late, provide guidance, and prevent future problems, all without receiving compensation for an office visit. However, one of the things that most departments have not done is prepare their officers on what to do if the problem is above their capabilities.
As technology changes, so too do the calls to which we respond. The fire service is no longer just a “fire department”; we are an all-hazards, end-all, catch-all organization. We are called not only to fires, accidents, emergency medical services situations, and so on, but also to many of the extreme societal issues that exist. Considering the extreme winter that the northeast endured this year, many departments had to respond to calls for no heat, overcrowded shelters, roof collapses from snow, and missing children during extreme temperatures, to name a few. The company officer is the individual who is most often looked on to remedy these situations. Currently, there are no courses that train firefighters on most of these responses, so once again, the challenge falls at the feet of the company officer.
A 15-minute training or “tailboard” session is sometimes better than a four-hour class. The company officer must know when to effectively provide beneficial information to the troops he supervises. Many of the younger firefighters lack life experiences which are vital to understanding the issues, mitigating them, and ensuring a high level of customer service.
Safety is known as a culture. Some do not like the term “safety” or all the principles that go with it. It is absolutely necessary for the company officer to define and communicate your expectations. That being said, a company officer must lead by example, walk the walk, and talk the talk. As a company officer, never assume that firefighters understand your expectations if you have never had the discussion with them. You must reinforce the points; assuming that having one conversation with them will be enough for them to want to follow you is unrealistic. For those members with children, the conversations are no different. Safety expectations should include but not be limited to seat belts, turnout gear, uniforms, eye and ear protection, and proper lifting, to name a few.
It takes a special person to be a firefighter; one who is willing to risk his life for a complete stranger. However, although our business is not safe by any definition, we must ensure it is as safe as possible. For example, day after day, we are still reading about firefighters being ejected from a vehicle. Why, I ask, if nothing else, wear the seat belt for the people that love and care about you. Firefighting gear is expensive; cities and towns buy it for you to protect you, so wear it! Again, the company officer is the influencer to determine what is acceptable in the culture.
Every fire department has a plethora of individual opinions. Firefighters are rarely, if ever, short on opinions. However, the company officer is often taxed with the job of keeping conversations on department issues calm, clean, and factual. The company officer MUST focus on the facts. All too often, a simple firehouse rumor can quickly get out of hand. This can affect the attitudes of firefighters in a flash, which ultimately can affect the level of service they provide.
Attitudes can also affect an officer’s ability to lead the company and ensure that it is acting as a team. Some might think that this is easy to remedy, but it often requires leadership skills and influencing techniques to change course. An officer’s attitude can also quickly impact the crew’s attitude.
I often compare the fire service to a football team, but the stakes are a lot higher for us. If a member of the football team misses a block or doesn’t do his job, the team doesn’t gain any yardage. The same applies to firefighters on the fireground. If ventilation does not take place effectively and in a timely manner, firefighters can get injured or killed. Therefore, although everyone is entitled to a bad day once in a while, a company officer must ensure that his team is a well-oiled machine. This can only take place if the company officer can influence the team to have the right attitude and instill in them that their fellow firefighters and the residents they serve rely on them to be the best they can be.
Being a company officer is the best job in the fire service. As a company officer, you have the ability to influence firefighters to be great while instilling in them what is acceptable in your department’s culture. However, this does not come without its challenges. Company officers quickly become familiar with the “90/10” rule: an officer spends 90 percent of his time on 10 percent of his people. The percentage numbers may be altered slightly, but by traveling around and teaching in many different departments, I can tell you that those numbers are pretty consistent. This is one of those areas that no one told you about before you were promoted, but you will have to deal with after you are. That being said, define your personal expectations, communicate them, lead by example, and reinforce them. This will ensure your time as a company officer will be a great experience.
Mark Waters is a 19-year fire service veteran and a lieutenant with the City of New London (CT) Fire Department. He is also the Fire Officer Program coordinator and an adjunct instructor for the Connecticut Fire Academy. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and has a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He has been published previously in Fire Engineering.