By Thomas A. Merrill
In the previous two articles, I discussed many important things a firefighter can do to gain credibility and respect before being promoted to an office as well as when first entering that office. As a new officer, you want your fellow members to trust and have confidence in you, but that trust and confidence doesn’t just start when first stepping foot into office. As mentioned in my previous article, not all of the skills and traits that helped get you elected or appointed will make you successful as an officer. However, there are many things you can do to create and enhance your reputation as a competent and dedicated company officer.
As a new officer, start leading by example with everything you do. How you act, talk to people (fellow firefighters and the general public), and even how you dress is all observed by your members. If you are a minimal contributor unprepared for your areas of responsibility or you don’t train regularly, it will not go unnoticed. People expect their officers—their so-called “leaders”—to raise the bar and lead by example at all times.
Remember, officers set the tone in many ways. In the previous article, I discussed how important it is for the officer to take care of his assigned jobs and take pride in his work. It’s equally important that the officers take care of their jobs with a positive attitude; nobody likes Negative Nellies! Positivity is a force multiplier, but so is negativity. Although your firefighters might love to complain, they look down on officers who are always griping. This might sound unfair, but it’s just the way it is. Maintain an upbeat attitude and spread positive vibes throughout your organization and you will enhance your reputation as an engaged and energetic officer who people genuinely enjoy being around.
As an officer, there is usually always something needing to be done. Whether it’s truck checks, typing department minutes, paying the bills, meeting a vendor, or simply taking care of a minor tool repair, you need to consistently take care of tasks on the administrative and firematic side. Unfortunately, these jobs might require more time spent in an office or out on the apparatus floor than spent watching TV in the clubroom. Let your actions define who you are more than your words. It’s always easier to do the bare minimum; take shortcuts; or say, “Not my job.” However, truly successful and respected officers consistently take on projects and complete their assigned tasks without needing to be prodded, reminded, or hassled.
Doing your job requires time, and a volunteer’s most precious commodity is time. There is never enough of it! As an officer, it’s not uncommon to have more projects and jobs to do than there seemingly is time to do them. The successful officer develops good time management skills that helps him finish his required work while not interfering with his family life and full-time employment. It’s not always easy, but good time management is paramount to be successful.
One night, I picked my department’s training night as the night I would accomplish many of my assigned jobs. I was going to be at the firehouse anyway, so I would arrive a bit before drill and stay after the drill to do what I needed to do. Members knew that it was not uncommon to find Merrill out in the apparatus bay late at night taking care of his rig or working on a project. It worked for me and allowed me to get done what I needed to accomplish.
Take advantage of the time you have and pick what works for you. A chief once told me a story of how his department broke an ax at a fire and needed to replace it. It was not a huge deal; it just meant the ladder truck was short one ax until a new one was purchased. The new ax arrived in quick time, and the chief placed it in the equipment room and notified the truck officer that his new ax was ready to be placed in service. The officer simply needed to log it in the computer inventory log and label it to designate to what truck the tool was assigned. Weeks went by, and the ax sat in the equipment room. One day, the chief asked the officer why he had not placed the ax in service, and the officer explained that he had been very busy with work and his kid’s sports events. His explanation was reasonable, except for the fact that the conversation took place at the firehouse while the officer was waiting for a crew to return from a medical call. He responded to the firehouse from home and missed getting on the responding squad, so he was sitting in the clubroom waiting for them to return, enjoying a soda and conversing with other firefighters. He was not taking advantage of the time he had at the firehouse to finish this simple job. Certainly, this is was not a crisis situation, but it serves as a strong example of how important it is to take advantage of the available time to get done what needs to get done. Our volunteers seem to be busier than ever today, with many other things going on in their lives, so good time management will help officers finish their work successfully.
As you settle into the officer ranks, present yourself as an officer that members can trust while working to gain their respect. If you have been consistently completing your jobs at the firehouse, you are already gaining their trust, and they will respect you for your due diligence. However, to truly gain their respect, extend that respect back to them. Remain approachable and become known as an officer the members can approach to discuss things, seek answers, and even engage in problems they may be having. Never make up answers if you don’t have them, but try to get the answer, if possible. If you resort to making up answers, it erodes all credibility. Your members will actually respect you more if you admit you don’t know the answer. However, you must get them their answer if you said you would.
Similarly, if you tell someone you’re are going to get them something they need, deliver on it. As an officer, members may come to you for something of which that you are in charge. For example, if the officers’ banquet is approaching and a member tells you—as the officer in charge of uniforms—that he needs a pair of white gloves to wear with his Class A uniform. If you know you have some spare gloves and tell her you will get them to her before the banquet, you better follow through with it. Perhaps you are the department secretary and a member approaches to you needing the form to change his beneficiary for some insurance they receive through your department. You must remember to get it for him. What the member needs might not be all that important to you, but to the person needing it, it is paramount. Now, the department is certainly not going to fall apart if the member doesn’t get what he needs, but if he does, members will recognize that not only are you doing your job competently but, more importantly, you care about them. Your reputation as a trustworthy and competent officer is enhanced.
The new officer can also gain credibility by helping new members assimilate comfortably into the department and gain a better understanding of department operations. Unlike in years past, many members joining today are not familiar with or have family connections in the fire service. Chances are good that they did not spend anytime in the firehouse before volunteering to sign up. This provides a great opportunity for the new officer to serve as a mentor and work with these new members.
Once, I witnessed a tremendous opportunity for an officer to work with new members slip right through his fingers. The department had been alerted for a one-pumper response to an incident. Two brand-new, eager, and energetic firefighters came out onto the apparatus bay to see if they could get on the apparatus, but it was already fully “crewed up” and headed out the door. The new members were slightly confused as to what they should do next. A captain directed them to wait in the department clubroom, where he sat with them and waited for the rig came back from the call. Lost here was a tremendous opportunity for that captain to work with these new members and, at the same time, enhance his reputation by taking a few minutes to help them better understand some part of the department’s operations. For example, he could have taken the new members into the apparatus bay to examine the department’s other rigs and equipment as well as review bulletin board posts concerning upcoming training. Or, he simply could have sat in the clubroom to discuss with these probies things that could have helped them be better informed firefighters. It would have taken the captain just five or 10 minutes to not only help teach and mentor these new members, but, in the process, solidify his own reputation as well.
This same thing can happen on the administrative side. I once heard a story about a fire department meeting that became very contentious because of a controversial bylaw vote that was taking place. For one member, who had been with the department for only a week or two, this was the first meeting he had ever attended. Chances are, many of you reading this have been to just this type of meeting. It becomes heated, and arguments ensue as members passionately defend their point of view regarding the proposed bylaw. Eventually, a vote is held; one side wins and another side loses. Yes, there can be hurt feelings and some people are upset, but life goes on and, as time passes, the new by-law is usually not even given a second thought. In time, members may even laugh about how controversial it had been at the time. However, this new member was shaken by the heated debate and left the meeting seriously questioning whether he wanted to be part of the organization. He was afraid to talk to anybody because he thought he would get labeled as a “friend” of either the pro- or anti-bylaw people. He wondered what type of organization with which he was now involved because members became so angry at each other amid this major dysfunction.
Here is where the department president or some other executive officer could have stepped in and exhibited strong officer and leadership skills. Knowing that the controversial bylaw vote was going to take place at this member’s very first meeting, an officer could have talked to him ahead of time and explained the situation; why it was going to be controversial; how it was probably going become heated; that a democratic vote would be taken; and, after all was said and done, department operations would continue on as normal. Members would still gather in the clubroom afterward, despite being on opposite sides of the vote, and still proceed to answer calls and serve the community. This new member would be better informed and, at the same time, look positively at the officer who took the time to mentor him.
Working with new members enhances an officer’s reputation and showcases his own personal example of command presence. In the next article, I will discuss the importance of command presence and other ways a new officer can help gain credibility, respect, and a positive reputation in his department.
THOMAS A. MERRILL is a 35-year fire department veteran and a former chief of the Snyder Fire Department in Amherst, New York. He is a fire commissioner for the Snyder Fire District. He served 26 years as a department officer including 15 years in the chief officer ranks. Merrill recently completed five years as chief of department. He has conducted various fire service presentations throughout the Western New York area as well as at FDIC. He also is a fire dispatcher for the Amherst (NY) Fire Alarm Office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.