As a Young Company Officer Sees It

BY CHRIS J. STEPHENS

Today’s fire service is witnessing a rise in the promotion of young and inexperienced firefighters into the ranks of frontline company officers. Fire departments across the country are hiring younger firefighting candidates and thus promoting younger company officers when such positions become available. With the promotion of a young firefighter come positives and negatives associated with age and inexperience. On the positive side, a young fire officer may be more inclined to new ideas, thoughts, and education. With this same young officer, though, come some of the following negatives: inexperience in fireground operations, decision making, management, leadership, and communication. Whether you work for a career, volunteer, or combination department, the young company officer is becoming more common.

As a young company officer myself, I have learned much in the short time that I have operated as a frontline supervisor. Some of these lessons I learned through my own errors, some through others’ errors, and the rest I received as advice from fire service mentors. I realize, as we all should, that I will continue to learn new lessons through specific events for the remainder of my career. As company officers, it is our choice whether we carry these lessons to duplicate the results of good decisions while at the same time not repeating the results of the poor decisions we have made. Below are some of the more important lessons that I have chosen to carry with me.

RESPECT IS EARNED, NOT ASSIGNED

Although a promotion is a proud moment in a firefighter’s career, with the new badge comes great responsibility. In every department, like the rookie firefighter, the new company officer must earn his company’s respect; it is not automatically assigned with the new badge. In a paramilitary organization, a promotion comes with a level of recognition simply because the promotion has now placed an individual in a supervisory decision-making role. A young officer must always remain conscious of his actions while building and maintaining a high level of mutual respect within the company. This will take time, patience, discipline, and self-observation, but in the end we must remember that badges do not earn respect—people do.

MANAGEMENT IS NOT LEADERSHIP

Make no mistake: Management and leadership are not synonymous. Management is the person or persons controlling and directing the affairs of a business, an institution, or another organization. Leadership is the influence with which one person can obtain others’ aid and support to accomplish a common task.

I have read before that management involves power by position, while leadership involves power by influence. From the fire service point of view, you might say that firefighters have to follow managers, but they want to follow leaders. As young company officers, we need to balance leadership and management and then fine-tune it for our individual styles. Not every manager is a leader, but every leader knows how to properly manage. Which one should we strive to be, leaders or managers?

DON’T MICROMANAGE

Micromanagement is managing or controlling with excessive attention to details. An officer who assigns a task to a company member, explains the step-by-step process to complete it, and then watches over that member’s shoulder has created a micromanaged product. If the officer applies this management style constantly, it can create an atmosphere of distrust. I realize that some personnel, for whatever reason, may need to be micromanaged because they are new to the fire service or their work is consistently unsatisfactory. But not every company member needs to be managed in this fashion.

Any opportunity an officer takes to show trust of personnel through action and empowerment through the delegation of responsibilities and freedom will help create a more positive work atmosphere. Empowerment + Trust = Positive Productivity. Learn to assign a task and then allow the person assigned to it the freedom to complete it correctly without your direct involvement. Simply stated, for a frontline company officer, some situations call for autocracy; some call for democracy. Choose wisely. No one likes the constant feeling of a “thumb on their back.”

KNOW WHEN TO FOLLOW

As company officers, we must be familiar with crew resource management (CRM). Some fire service personnel learned of CRM from studies conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the airline industry. CRM can be applied in normal or stressful situations. A close examination of cockpit flight recorders (if available) is part of a thorough aircraft crash investigation. When studying the moments that led up to a crash, the flight crew’s reactions to the incident are closely analyzed to help determine the cause. Through these studies, investigators determined that in the final moments of an aircraft incident, crew integrity could—and would—become compromised by the application of management styles that did not fully use the flight crew’s skill base. Leadership, clear communications, and informed decision making were often found to be neglected during these crucial moments. Human error became a large contributor to the final results during these incidents.

CRM is an applicable management strategy that fits very well within the fire service. As young officers, we must realize that we do not have all the answers. Recognizing this early will assist us in understanding the importance of CRM. As mentioned above, maintaining clear communications, exemplifying qualities associated with leadership, and focusing on informed decision making can help reduce the margin of error in time-sensitive situations such as fireground operations. Applying CRM to dynamic fire service situations means simply maintaining situational awareness, trusting our firefighters’ abilities, delegating responsibility while evenly spreading the workload, and communicating effectively internally and externally.

COMMUNICATE EFFECTIVELY

Effective communication may be directly associated with leadership qualities; however, it is a skill acquired over time with experience. Knowing this, a young firefighter promoted to company officer may lack experience in effective communications.

The frontline company officer must recognize the two main areas of chain-of-command communication: the fireground and the firehouse. In turn, these areas each have three communicating paths: from upper to the lower ranks down, from the lower to the upper ranks, and from rank to rank.

In the firehouse, an example of upper- to lower-rank communication would be the implementation of a new standard operating guideline (SOG) throughout the department. An example of a lower- to upper-rank communication would be a report that a piece of equipment was found broken at morning checks and needs to be repaired. A rank-to-rank communication example would be an officer passing on apparatus information to another officer at the morning shift change.

On the fireground, an example of communication from the higher to the lower ranks is an operations chief assigning an engine company to attack. A communication from the lower to the higher ranks could be the above engine company’s informing the incident commander or operations chief of high heat and then calling for ventilation. A rank-to-rank communication could be the two company officers communicating relative to the best ventilation point.

Some effective communication key points for fireground and firehouse communications are as follows:

  • Do you understand the message you have received so that you can disseminate it clearly and effectively? Do you need to communicate the message now, or can it wait? What is the proper communication medium for the message—e-mail, face-to-face, radio, phone, or other?
  • Once communicated, does the feedback you received confirm that the message was understood? Company officers are the true communication paths for the department. We need to learn how to take information in, process it, filter it, and then redistribute it to the proper receivers with no loss of accuracy.

KNOW YOUR PERSONNEL

Although this knowledge may take you time and strict observation to gather, if you apply this knowledge correctly, the outcome can become more predictable with fewer negatives. The blanket approach of interacting with personnel is indicative of a young or new officer in which an officer applies a standard style of interaction to different personnel and expects a standard result.

Disciplinary and task assignment interactions are two areas in which you can apply the blanket approach. Supervisors must learn each employee’s reaction behavior. With this knowledge, we can adjust our approach to personnel in an attempt to create the desired result. I’m certainly not saying that we should treat each individual employee differently, but there are ways we can tailor our messages to produce more positive outcomes. Fire company adjustment is a compromise. The personnel must adjust to the supervisor, but the supervisor must also adjust to the personnel. If a company officer can learn an individual firefighter’s reaction behavior and adjust the communicated message, then most times the assigned task or disciplinary interaction will have fewer obstacles. Learning to do this and applying it are qualities of officers who are dedicated to their firefighters.

THE RESPONSIBILITY NOBODY WANTS: DISCIPLINE

Promotion to company officer comes with the newly added responsibility of initiating disciplinary action when warranted. I am not sure how to teach a young or an inexperienced officer how to discipline; however, I can share advice I received when faced with an incident that called for disciplinary action.

  • Recognize which disciplinary issues need an immediate final decision and which you have time to finalize. If you can take a full shift to address a disciplinary issue, take it. Your more-thought-out final decision will most likely be a proper fit to the incident.
  • Never make a final disciplinary decision while still emotional (angry) over the incident. The “anger-based” decision will most likely be an exaggerated response that will not fit the incident.
  • As a company officer, you must ensure that you have every piece of the puzzle before initiating your final decision. An officer owes it to his personnel to thoroughly investigate any incident that may lead to a disciplinary action.
  • Never initiate a disciplinary action that makes you “feel good.”

LOOK IN THE MIRROR

Frontline company officers in the fire service are in the position to build and maintain close relationships with the troops they work beside every shift. Knowing this, you must realize that the company officer also has more influence with his respective crew than any other rank or position in a fire department, especially in the following four areas: group direction (good or bad), group integrity (established or not established), group motivation (progressing or stagnant), and group attitude (positive or negative).

It takes time, patience, and dedication to positively establish any one of these four areas of influence; it can take only one moment to quickly reverse any positive establishment within these areas as well. Sometimes these regressions result from direct or indirect negative contributions from certain company personnel. Other times it can come from the company officer’s own management behavior. This is where company officers need to have the courage to look at themselves and critique their decisions, the direction in which they are leading their companies, and the way in which they are handling specific situations. Through their simple actions they have the ability to affect the entire company positively or negatively.

If your company is moving down a negative path, you should look at yourself first for the cause. If you find that through your own actions you have been promoting negative behaviors within the company, the first step is to immediately cease that action. The second step is the most difficult: You must admit fault. These first two steps will begin the company rebuilding process and clearly establish a breaking point in the negative behavior. The third step is to fix the broken behavior. Communicate to the troops the course of action you intend to initiate to reverse this negative behavior, and then reevaluate the results after some time has passed. The ability to self-critique and then adjust personal negative behaviors will help to positively rebuild the officer’s four areas of influence within a fire company.

•••

The random pieces of advice highlighted in this article are merely narrow views of a rather broad subject. Although these views tend to lean more toward developing leadership and management in young fire officers, a fire officer at any level may find an undiscovered lesson among these topics. I share these lessons to help prevent others from having to learn them through their own errors. Remember, sometimes the best lessons learned are those learned at another’s expense.

CHRIS J. STEPHENS is a lieutenant with the Decatur Township Fire Department in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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