I’ll buy almost any procedure or process, once the logic behind it (if there is any) is explained to me, although I may not always agree with it. As a young firefighter, I found it hard to grasp the actual logic behind daily building inspections. Was it really the thought of we young firefighters doing “code enforcement,” or was there another reason that at 1300 hours we had to be on the rigs and out in the district catching a few inspections in between ice cream cones and looking at girls? Now that I am older and allegedly wiser, I think I understand the logic behind what we were doing.
From an administrative standpoint, if not explained well, some of the edicts and procedures we enact can be misconstrued. That’s one of the toughest parts of being an administrator—ensuring that the reasons behind your actions are clearly expressed and understood. No one ever batted 1,000 percent, and not everything proceduralized by an administration is seen favorably by everyone in the department. That’s not the point, nor should it be our goal. Our task, however, is to examine our options carefully, consult with those affected by the procedure or process (if time is available), and then communicate not only the procedure or process being enacted but also the reason or logic behind it. To simply enact a procedure for the sake of enacting a procedure is wrong. To enact a procedure and then misrepresent the reason or logic behind it is equally as wrong.
In our department, we move newly promoted officers offshift. We are not the biggest department in the country. We have three battalion districts in the city. Almost everyone knows everyone, and we all have a little understanding of the hazards and resources scattered throughout the city.
We have no policy that restricts officers from working in the same battalion in which they served as firefighters, nor should we. Once promoted, if not gobbled up for detail to unfilled staff positions, newly promoted officers go into a relief pool and are used to fill in for assigned officers who are on Kelly Day (reduced work schedule) or sick leave. Our department has a seniority bid system in which the most senior officer requesting a bid gets the spot. If a “boot” officer bids back to the same station and shift from which he was promoted and no one else bids on it, that officer gets the spot.
I understand moving officers offshift for a period of time immediately after promotion. It allows them to “start off” fresh, so to speak, if they so desire. To move them out of district for the sake of moving them makes no sense to me. Familiarization with street locations, hydrant performance in certain areas, buildings, crew, and apparatus is necessary to make a well-rounded fire officer. This knowledge comes with time. To move an officer out of district simply to move him out of district makes no sense.
—John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is the author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000). He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.
Question: Do you believe that newly promoted officers should be transferred to new areas and be restricted permanently or for a specified time from working in the same division in which they worked before their promotion? If so, why? (In one department, lieutenants and captains are barred from ever working in a unit in which they previously served in any rank, and battalion chiefs are not to serve in a battalion where they previously served at any rank. The rationale for this policy is to create more “well-rounded” officers with varied experience.)
Rick Lasky, chief, Lewisville (TX) Fire Department
Response: I believe there is more to moving new officers away from their current crew or assignment than just wanting to provide a more “rounded” officer. This is a lot like moving people from shift to shift, breaking up current crews in an effort to “spread the wealth,” talent, or experience among all of the shifts. Most often, this is done because the chief of department doesn’t like when the troops are getting along too well or the chief feels they are too much of a “click.” Often, it’s just a matter of feeling threatened.
I have personally gone through this type of a mess, and when all was said and done, it did nothing to accomplish what the chief said it was intended to do. All it did was bust up some good crews. It always seemed that as soon as we got our crew working smoothly and well, it was time for the chief to split us up again—and it was always “for the good of the outfit.”
As for the click thing, as a chief I’d rather have a crew or company that knows each other well—a crew that knows what the other guy is going to do or is capable of. They can read each other and know each other’s limitations, strengths, and weaknesses. They know each other’s backgrounds, they know about their families, and they have a relationship that helps them through tough times on and off the job. I want crews like these. They work better and, in doing so, have a direct positive impact on crew safety. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that a newly formed crew doesn’t work well together. I’m just saying that the vast majority of the time, a crew that has been together for a while performs well.
There are times, however, when you have no choice but to move some people. Usually, this is after a major disciplinary issue or when you get to a point that a couple of people, no matter what you do or try, can’t work together. In our department, we have station leaders/coaches called “captains.” I rely on them to work their way through their personnel issues. There may be times when they need the advice and help of their leader and coach. We call these leaders/coaches “battalion chiefs.” And on an even more rare occasion, the battalion chiefs may need to seek the advice and help of their leader/coach, the assistant chief. If it makes it to the chief, it’s usually pretty important.
Again, our captains are extremely talented and pretty darn smart. They’re our “go-to” guys when it comes to getting things done with the troops. With some good support from above, they can get a lot of things done, and done well. With that in mind, the success or failure of that crew is often a direct result of that captain’s (or lieutenant’s) ability to lead. My good friend, Fire Department of New York Battalion Chief Don Hayde, has said for years that when it comes down to it, “If they’re a ‘dog’ company, don’t blame the guys; blame the officer.” Most often, when you look at the core of the problem, it’s the officer that’s not doing the job. The nice part about that is that that kind of officer is few and far between.
And there will be times when you need to move some people to truly strengthen some companies or a shift. But this is often accomplished by talking to all involved: Explain what you are trying to do; why you need their talents and experience on another shift or division; and that you need to do it for good, solid reasons. Many times this is accomplished through the promotional process itself when an opening occurs on “A” shift and the member being promoted is on “B” or “C” shift. Usually, if your promotional process is fair, objective, and working, you move good people as you promote them through a natural process.
Once again, I want crews that work like a well-oiled machine, and I feel lucky and fortunate when I have them. Busting up crews for the sake of busting them up or to punish a newly promoted officer by moving him for the sake of just moving him makes no sense and usually does nothing but hurt a great fire service.
Bobby Halton, deputy chief, Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department
Response: We do not agree with officers being transferred to new areas to create more well-rounded officers. We hope that officers would try to experience as many different parts of the city as possible for their own development, but we do not require it. We have taken a different approach to assignments. We use a bid system that gives every firefighter in the City of Albuquerque the opportunity to bid on available vacancies three times a year. We do not want to deny anyone the gaining of experience somewhere or the chance to work in a neighborhood they are fond of or live near.
The bids are based on seniority, and there must be a vacancy. No one gets pushed or bumped out of an assigned position. When someone promotes, retires, or leaves a position, it is posted in a memo, and bids are accepted for those positions. Members bidding must be of the correct rank and in specialty positions such as haz mat or wildland. They should have, but are not required to have, the needed certifications and qualifications. Members with “quals” and “certs” are given preference, but you can get lucky.
We found our folks like having some control over where they work, and Albuquerque Chief Robert Ortega likes happy firefighters. The system has one failsafe. The chief has right of assignment and can disallow a move and assign positions when there is a need. Only some of our support positions are included in the bid process.
Albuquerque is a very diverse city, and each battalion has different aspects that are challenging and exciting to firefighters of every rank. We found being one of the most diverse cities in America makes it easier to staff positions. There are so many opportunities to be found in the different battalions that we experience a fair amount of movement. A firefighter accepting a bid is required to spend 18 months in the position.
We also believe that liking your work area promotes an interest in that area. We have found our firefighters are very familiar with their first-due area and take exceptional pride in their houses and neighborhoods. We try to be a department that cares for its firefighters and promotes wellness and safety. We believe our firefighters know where they want to work and try to give them the opportunity to get there.
Promotions are a little different. When there are multiple vacancies, a list is posted and members are given a choice of the vacancies based on placement on the list. The system requires some effort on the department’s part, but our excellent relationship with the union and having an excellent family of firefighters have made it a great system for us.
Steve Kreis, assistant chief, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department
Response: As a general policy I disagree with moving the officer, but there are exceptions. All officers operating in line positions (as opposed to staff positions) need to be familiar with critical factors such as their first-due response areas, surrounding companies, and crew members. More importantly, company officers must have a complete understanding of these factors. Line officers (and firefighters) should be assigned to companies based on an acknowledged SOP that is objective in nature. Our system is based primarily on seniority. That being said, everybody must understand that they will be held accountable for their performance.
We all go through different phases in our careers. We work best when we get to choose our own destiny. As an example, if high-rise incidents interest us, we would be more inclined to learn the tactics associated with those types of incidents much more effectively if we got to work in those districts. The same holds true for activity levels. Some of us like companies that run a lot of calls; others want less active companies.
The option to choose may not be available when a department does not have enough effective staff officers, especially command officers. This is a problem in many departments today. Many command officers want to remain in the field after their promotion. There are a fixed number of command officer positions in any organization—some staff and some line positions. Although it is important that new command officers get line experience, it’s also important that they get staff experience. Delivering services is clearly the most important function of a fire department, but there is a lot more to operating a fire department than going on incidents.
Where we work is important to us. Establish SOPs for line and staff positions, and follow them. Take all of the internal politics (good ol’ boy network stuff) out of the station assignment process; let the members focus on their own destiny, and hold them accountable for their performance. Management has much more important stuff to do than wrestle with station assignments.
Clearly, a chief has the right to assign employees according to their wishes. But, that right should be retained for problem members. Executive and middle manager positions should be assigned according to the individual’s expertise and career path, and what is best for the department.
Well-rounded officers are important, but the bottom line is that we want the best officers possible in the critical positions. Forcing someone to learn something he doesn’t want to learn leads to mediocrity. Let line officers choose where they want to work through the use of an SOP, and deal with any exceptions accordingly.
Katherine Ridenhour, captain, Aurora (CO) Fire Department
Response: Most organizations are not large enough to “ban” people from working in a district or with a company where they had been previously assigned. Department policies regarding placement of promoted people should be consistent and fair to reduce grumbling and ensure effective use of personnel. It is a delicate balancing act.
After evaluating both sides of the issue, I disagree with establishing any policy that may adversely affect the overall efficiency at emergency scenes and our primary goal of serving the community with the best level of training and experience. All officers understand the value of knowing their districts, and new officers have a lot to learn besides just districts. Hopefully, new officers have been well prepared through department-sponsored officer development programs and have had plenty of time in the front seat either “acting” or “stepping up” to the position before being promoted. These are the best ways to set them up for success, as opposed to “throwing them to the wolves” on their first day as boss.
The other side of the issue is that new officers need the opportunity to find their own style, strengths, and limitations without carrying prior baggage. It is usually impractical to think they will effectively find their leadership traits within their own company. It is easier to develop those traits in an environment where people are not as familiar with each other—especially in the fire service, where officers need to delineate those gray areas between being boss and “one of the guys.” Therefore, it is good to be shipped away from familiar surroundings and have your first assignment in a new company. Sure, it’s difficult to learn a new district. From my experience, it takes about a year to become confident in a new area. But there are trade-offs for everything, and it’s the balancing act that counts most.
Once officers prove themselves capable of command, organization, and leadership, they should be allowed to go where it best suits the organization’s needs. A prime example is that of firefighters who have been on specialty teams such as technical rescue or haz mat who then get promoted and want to come back after a certain time (one year seems reasonable). It usually works out best for all involved to have these people return to these teams because of their experience and familiarity with the district.
With regard to assigning battalion chiefs to a completely new district, I would much rather work for a battalion chief who is familiar with the district and aware of the target hazards and other area characteristics. When a chief officer is the newest one in the battalion, it becomes the duty of the battalion’s officers to teach the chief the district, and one year at that level is not long enough to feel confident when multiplying the district coverage information. Chiefs, perhaps more so than officers, need to be confident of their first-in districts and knowledgeable about the hazards before the alarm.
The best thing for new officers is to put them in a place where they can grow and thrive, learn their job, define their leadership style, and gain credibility—regardless of district boundaries. New chiefs should be placed where they can best serve their crews safely and use their vast knowledge and experience in the most advantageous manner for our customers—once again, regardless of boundaries. As with all decisions we make as officers or organizations, if we keep one thing in mind above all else, we will do what is right. We must always base our decisions on what is in the best interests of our citizens. Then, it will be the right decision for all.
Ron Hiraki, assistant chief, Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One
Response: Assigning newly promoted officers or supervisors to a different work group has been a common practice within the fire service and in private business.
This practice may not always be practical or beneficial to the organization, its members, and its customers. In a large fire department, it may be possible to transfer the new officer to a different work group. However, the new officer may have acquired special skills and experience (e.g., haz mat, technical rescue, marine firefighting) that may be lost or wasted if this rule were strictly followed.
Good managers/leaders need to base their decision on what’s right for everyone involved. To provide a consistent rationale for their decisions, managers/leaders should consider the following factors when making such a decision:
- Vacancy. Where is the vacancy for the new officer? Do your fire department rules allow the transfer of members simply to make an appropriate vacancy or use a person with better skills or more experience? Are the transfers fair, or will they adversely affect morale?
- Does the new officer have special knowledge and skills? In addition to knowing people, neighborhoods, response routes, and buildings, a member may have spent years acquiring a special skill such as technical rescue. If there is a vacancy, the organization should capitalize on that special skill by assigning the new officer to work in that work group. Saving the cost of training a new officer in technical rescue makes good business sense.
- Personal qualities. Newly promoted officers may have five or 20 years of service. This may be their first career, or they may have come to the fire service with other managerial and leadership experience (e.g., business, school teacher, and military). Additionally, some new officers may be better suited to adapting to a new work group and challenges. Therefore, some new officers may do better in a new work group while others may do better by staying in a familiar work environment. The goal should be to help the new officers succeed, not just to “round them out.”
- Work group needs. Some work groups may have specific needs, such as training probationary firefighters. The work group itself may be new and require a leader who can build a solid team. Some work groups may be better suited to adapting to a new officer than others.
In smaller fire departments where firefighters and officers work together more closely and more often, it may be a moot point to try to move them around. The firefighters and officers will most likely know the strengths and weaknesses of each other. Regardless of the department’s size, let’s provide good training and mentoring to help the new officer succeed instead of focusing on a strict rule of transferring a new officer to a different work group on promotion.
Bob Oliphant, lieutenant, Kalamazoo (MI) Department of Public Safety
Response: The concept of moving newly promoted officers out of their current assignment is nothing new, and the justification that it produces a more well-rounded officer is a guise. I believe the real reason is to weaken or dissolve allegiances that developed during the time a person held a particular assignment. It makes sense for someone who has just entered the rank of supervisor, especially if that officer may have to supervise peers who were coworkers for a period of time. Breaking the bond with former coworkers can be tough, and moving a first-time supervisor to another assignment can avoid a lot of pitfalls.
While promoting a first-time supervisor out of his current assignment might have some merit. I don’t see why a person moving through the ranks would always have to take a new assignment. Experience has to account for something. The aspects of this job are becoming more specialized all the time. I would hate to lose the expertise of someone who could command a high-rise fire to someone with experience in residential fires just because of a promotion. People should be allowed to stay where their interests and experience can be used to the best advantage.
I don’t have a problem with moving first-time supervisors to new assignments. Beyond that, I would like to capitalize on the experience of people who continue to advance through the ranks and put them where they could do the most good, even if they served there previously.
Nicholas A. DeLia, chief/fire marshal, Groton (CT) Fire Department
Response: Not all departments, especially smaller ones, have the resources to move officers to new assignments. The most positive effect of moving the officer is to give him the opportunity to start the new job fresh. While some investigative calls will be made and information gathered, the new officer will be given the chance to make decisions without being reminded of past mistakes or poor choices. If our goal is to create a well-rounded fire officer by rotation, then the movement should take place when acting or filling in for other officers. In many large cities, you are the fill-in officer before you get permanently assigned.
I know some officers who like that position and have forgone a fixed job for the experience gained by working all over the jurisdiction. I think permanently putting new officers in completely unfamiliar surroundings is unfair to them and the crew they are expected to lead. The officers may request to be moved because of personal knowledge or limitations, or to better themselves. Assigning a new officer is often critical for the small department attempting to prepare for the future. Hopefully, the assignment will benefit the department and the individual.
John Salka, battalion chief, Fire Department of New York
Response: Newly promoted officers, specifically lieutenants or whatever the first line supervisor rank is just above firefighter, should probably not be assigned to a company where the officer served as a firefighter. The obvious reason here is that this new officer in his new role as “boss” may have difficulty dealing with subordinate firefighters with whom he served as a firefighter in the past. Beyond that, I think officer assignments should be based on several factors, including the makeup of company personnel, the types of buildings in the response area, the officer’s previous experience, the company’s needs, and the local battalion and deputy chiefs’ preferences.
If we consider the importance of having a fire officer who is familiar with the buildings, transportation systems, streets, and highway layout and the other fire companies in the area, it becomes apparent that an officer who stays in a general area, such as a battalion or division, has a tremendous advantage over an officer who has never worked there before and is unfamiliar with all those features.
To take this a step further, we can look at the advantage of having company and chief officers who are familiar with other officers. Knowing the work history, capabilities, and work habits of fellow company officers makes an officer more familiar with his new environment and allows him to concentrate more on his duties and responsibilities than on remembering names and company numbers of people he has never met or worked with. Additionally, he probably has already formed an opinion of some of these other officers and considers some of them mentors.
As Frank Brannigan and Vincent Dunn have stated many times, we must all be familiar with the buildings we enter to fight fires. Having knowledge and experience with specific buildings and general building types concentrated in a certain area is a dramatic safety advantage for a fire officer. This one element is so important that it outweighs the benefit of moving officers around to different areas to make them well rounded. There are obvious advantages to both policies, but having a well-rounded officer is an advantage for the department; having a fire officer who is familiar with the area’s buildings and personnel enhances the safety of the officer and of the firefighters he supervises.
Leigh Hollins, battalion chief, Cedar-Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue
Response: I disagree with transferring newly promoted fire officers outside of their previous work areas. Although the policy of transferring these new officers has some merit, I believe it is like most decisions in life—there are pros and cons that need to be weighed from the perspective of what is best for fire department operations and the people who make your department what it is—the firefighters and officers on the street. I happen to feel that the benefits of not transferring these officers far outweighs the benefits of transferring them.
The merits of having well-rounded officers (who supposedly will become well-rounded by such a policy) vs. having “street-smart, experienced” officers who know the type of firefighting that goes on in their divisions (because they have done it for years) and are familiar with the “people” need to be evaluated to determine what is best.
Should you take an experienced suburban firefighter and assign him to fight fires in the ghetto? NO. I’ll take the “street smart” officer who knows his division any day.
The “well-rounded” approach has some merit. The new officer is treading new territory, which can be a good thing, if one likes change. This policy would give the officers new perspectives, and they will need to acclimate to many different things relating to their new duties. In the long run, this may be the most beneficial, but it would take much longer for this to be realized.
On the other hand, if new officers were to stay at certain fire stations (or within the division at least), they can hit the street running, and the benefits should be realized quickly. These benefits should continue through the years: They should get better and better as they gain more experience. What price would you pay to have an officer who knows the neighborhood, knows the people, knows the fire duty, knows the building types, knows the tactics, and so on? As long as he can take on the responsibility of supervising “old friends,” as the commercial says, “PRICELESS.”
I think I hit the nail on the head—”old friends.” It is the department administration’s “fear” (of old friends) that drives the policy of transferring new officers—the fear of what we call the “good ol’ boy” network. I’ll take it any day over a group that has no relationships going between them. If this fear is what the problem is about, I say this: “If the newly promoted officer can’t deal with supervising his buddies, he should never be promoted in the first place.”
In Cedar Hammock, for several years we moved firefighters and officers every three to six months so they could become well rounded. Our department is small enough so that even if you transferred new officers, they would still work with friends, so our efforts were a genuine effort to have an officer get to know the “entire” district.
However, our district does not vary that much from one end to the other—mostly residential, with apartments and mercantile—very little industry. When we entered into an interlocal agreement with the neighboring fire district, which has a large industrial area, we changed our way of thinking. We permanently assigned officers and firefighters so that we could have the most knowledgeable firefighters and officers in certain zones. The side benefit to this, which we never enjoyed before, was the station “ownership” our personnel took, which had a major effect on a smooth-running station, camaraderie, and brotherhood.
It is always best to have the most experienced and knowledgeable people work in the division/district they know best, where they will be the most beneficial to the department and their firefighters and themselves.
Larry Anderson, assistant chief, Dallas (TX) Fire Department
Response: First of all, establishing such a policy could easily hamper a department’s ability to adequately staff the apparatus and stations around the city. Fire administration cannot control retirements and turnover within a department. We all know about Murphy’s Law. I tend to think Murphy was an optimist, as even things that cannot go wrong will. That being said, I believe variety in a fire officer’s career is advisable. We all know of some crusty old veteran who has spent his entire career in a particular fire station on a particular shift. Whether this person is an officer or not, he will usually begin to develop an attitude of “us” and “them” and generally have disdain for “them.” Having personnel cross shift and first-alarm boundaries helps alleviate the problem of having several “different” fire departments within one city.
I have seen situations in which a firefighter was promoted to officer and did an exemplary job without changing fire stations or shifts. By the same token, I have seen the opposite when other factors came into play. Personalities, agitation, work history, and familiarity can all be factors that produce challenges to a new officer’s effectiveness. There is certainly a shortened learning curve when newly promoted officers can stay in a district where they know the response routes, target hazards, and residents, but I feel that a newly promoted officers should, at the very least, change shifts. Transferring to a totally new area can lengthen the learning curve but ultimately will produce a more experienced and well-rounded fire officer.
As firefighters advance through the ranks of a department, they should welcome the opportunities to serve in various capacities and different parts of a city. The best executive officers are those who have experienced the difficulties encountered in as many situations as possible. Chief officers can more effectively deal with a haz-mat team, ARFF, or tricky extrication if they have experienced the challenges firsthand. Hard-and-fast policies often appear to be a solution but seldom work. I definitely advocate diversity in a fire officer’s career but feel it can be accomplished through individual attention and mentoring from a concerned executive staff.
Marc D. Greenwood, lieutenant, Akron (OH) Fire Department
Response: “If you were in charge,” I asked, “would you automatically transfer newly promoted officers?” A high-ranking officer responded, “Yes, I would transfer them.” He spewed the words as if he had been waiting for someone to ask him that question. His roller-coaster experience of supervising friends and company members he had worked with calcified his opinion.
He commented that friends were the worse offenders; they sought to take advantage of their friendship with the officer—leaving the officer perched on a high wire with no safety net. In addition, they criticized officers for what they considered imperious behavior, when the officer was simply seeking to implement departmental policies.
However, another officer considered the idea of keeping officers in areas of familiarity a sound strategy. The officers know the capabilities of personnel, they are experienced working on the apparatus, and they know the locations of the buildings and water supplies in their district—factors that help new officers to succeed.
My personal experience is a combination of these two divergent opinions. I remained on the same shift after my promotion, which means I supervised firefighters I had previously worked alongside of, consulted with, and considered friends.
One time, a close friend took advantage of our friendship, and a moment of truth landed in my lap. After the vehicle and equipment checks, I confronted him in private. I explained my responsibilities as company officer and suggested that he wouldn’t have tried that stunt with another officer. He understood my argument and apologized. Our friendship has deepened, and we have maintained an excellent working relationship since that time.
On another occasion, I worked a duty trade and found myself working with strangers, and I was a stranger to them—by no means an ideal situation. After dinner, the fire phone rang. The shift commander directed me to send a firefighter to another duty station for the next shift. I checked the company journal and activities book and then informed a firefighter he had to report to another station his next shift. He walked away grousing that it wasn’t his turn and implied that he wouldn’t report. Oops, another moment of truth. Using my legitimate authority, I calmly reiterated my directive, “Report to Station X for your next shift.'” By the way, he reported for duty on time.
After many years as a company officer, I believe it’s best that new officers remain on their present shifts and work in their assigned battalions when possible. After all, when officers are transferred, they will make friends on the new shift, so you can’t escape the friendship factor.
The fire service must apply ingenuity, creativity, and flexibility when grappling with complex issues such as officer deployment. Certainly, digging our heels in, increasing our decibel level until hearing protection is needed, and banging on tables obscure the central issue—developing competent and confident officers.
Why is this important? Clint Smoke (Fire Protection Technology Program, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, N.C., in “Growth Potential,” Fire Rescue, Aug. 2001) cites the following about officer development: “Retired Chief Morton Shurtleff taught an officer development course for the National Fire Academy and the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. Students were asked what aspect of promotion they feared the most. The majority of students said they feared being promoted without adequate officer training. They weren’t just concerned about learning basic fireground command or scene size-up skills, as important as they are. These students hungered for training in disciplining, counseling, handling grievances, and other personnel issues.”
Therefore, departments must provide foundational educational experiences for officer candidates so new officers can digest the nuances of leadership, analyze the various leadership styles and models, study the relevance of group dynamics, learn to motivate and model appropriate behaviors, gain skill in performing objective self-evaluations, and learn how to elicit constructive feedback from crew members.
Officers must invest in their own professional development. They can read any of the excellent works dealing with leadership in the fire service. For long after the promotional exam announcements have yellowed and become tattered, officers will be evaluated by crew members on the bases of their courage, integrity, truthfulness, fairness, and passion for the job.
Josh Thompson, lieutenant, Avon (IN) Fire Department
Response: I come from a small department where we virtually know everyone on all shifts and stations and know most of the areas in the entire district. This question begs us to ask many other questions.
First, are every shift and station on the same page in the way most common things are done (excluding basic SOPs, and general policies), or do they act independently of each other? I have observed that there seem to be “multiple departments,” one for each shift and one for each station, which allows a lot of inconsistencies that lead to a lot of other problems.
Second, do you have an internship of some kind to effectively evaluate potential officers? Most other “professions” have strict training and evaluation programs before promotion. Do we allow EMTs who know how to perform ALS skills fill in for absent paramedics? No, because they must go through a training program complete with clinical time and licensure. Do we allow student paramedics to treat patients without supervision? No. But, we allow potential officers to sit in the seat without supervision.
Paramedics usually have responsibility for one patient at a time; company officers have the responsibility for several people all the time, and more when a call comes in. Why aren’t we supervising potential or newly promoted officers before they are thrown to the wolves?
Don’t get me wrong. I came from the environment that says if you have this-and-this certification and you score high in the promotional process, abracadabra, you’re now an officer. I have learned a lot since then and will continue learning, but there needs to be a change in this process.
Third, are preplans, training, and SOPs common and consistent among the different shifts and stations? For us, training is relatively consistent between stations but different between shifts. Plans are in the works that will help us become consistent. SOPs—what are they? Scarce, inconsistent, never reviewed, pages in a binder? (Note: We are working to revise them, slowly.)
Forcing new officers to work in different areas has only one, far stretch of good behind it: It could assist in eliminating the buddy-to-boss attitude. However, simply switching shifts but remaining within the same area might help alleviate that, although it could create other problems. The biggest problem with such a policy is that this newly promoted officer is reentering a probationary period (in relation to a new area, new people, and new attitudes). Yes, that officer should have the sufficient knowledge, skills, and abilities, and training. But not allowing for a transition period in a new area or the opportunity to stay in a familiar area is a recipe for disaster. The only thing more dangerous is allowing two probies to work together in a dangerous environment without supervision. Sending a new officer to work with a new crew can be complicated in many personal ways. Have you ever heard “That’s not the way so-and-so did things” or “We are going to have to train you (the new officer) in how we do things around here”?
Although some change is good, those decision makers with all the bugles must evaluate the most effective and best way to alleviate the problems associated with change. All of the above should apply to operational chief officers—battalion chiefs (BCs) also; but for many, there is no process for evaluating potential BCs, just the “I-like-you” political appointment.
Jim Murtagh, deputy chief (ret.), Fire Department of New York
Response: The organization usually wants to move new officers to different areas so the officers can become more diversified in fireground experience and command decision making and to help the individual in the transformation from firefighter to fire service leader. This concept is based on the belief that moving the newly promoted officer away from the familiar and sometimes very personal relationships will afford the officer a better chance to learn and exercise the numerous leadership skills a good command officer needs. In a new environment, the officer would be able to say no or give an order that may not be liked without having to worry about hurting friends’ feelings.
With regard to not letting officers work in units from which they were promoted, becoming a leader is difficult. Keeping the newly promoted officers in the same environment where they know the secrets and habits of the group may not be conducive to the officer’s command growth. However, once there is sufficient turnover in the unit and the habits and practices of the unit have changed, the justification for this concept no longer exists; thus, the restriction should be considered invalid. I know of many fine officers who went back to the units from which they were promoted. They became very effective leaders of their units. This is an area where strict application of rules may be dysfunctional for the organization. You must consider the conditions at the time of promotion, the conditions at the time the officer is being considered for assignment to the unit, and the officer’s proven leadership abilities. I believe new officers should be reassigned but not banished.
Not all officers want to move up the ranks to chief. Many are happy to become and stay a company officer. They are often very knowledgeable about their work areas, proficient in what they do, and comfortable in their surroundings. These officers should be allowed to stay in these areas; they are an asset to the organization. Chief officers need to be well-rounded, and they need company officers who are specialists. However, officers who elect to take this route need to know their choice could diminish their chances of being promoted to higher ranks. However, it does not mean that if the candidates change their minds in the future that they will not be given the chance to move to other areas that will help them expand and diversify. Officers who willingly accept the moves to diversified areas are sending a message to the organization that they seek further promotion and responsibility. The organizations should work with these officers and provide them with the tools and opportunities to grow.
From the unit members’ viewpoint, the considerations will be the following: Will this officer be able to effectively lead and look out for my well-being? What do I do while my new officer “learns the ropes” in this section of the community? At some point in all organizations, teams or groups will have to work with leaders who come from outside the group. This means they will have to train the new leader to become knowledgeable about the team’s prevailing problems, tasks, practices, and activities. Members must also be tolerant of the new leader’s initial limitations and take into account what they perceive to be the new officer’s immaturity.
Good fire departments have systems in place to overcome any individual’s immaturity. These systems are built on teamwork, and the team fills in the blanks while the new member learns the ropes. The apparatus driver and the dispatcher know the routes, and the team members know the buildings in the area. I believe that an understanding rapidly develops between the team members and the new officer and that they adjust within a short time and revise their assumptions to make the system work.
The family problem is more difficult and has significantly stronger impact on the individuals and the organization. All new officers are first and foremost human beings and have individual viewpoints and commitments. An officer put into a difficult family position as a result of a promotion and change in work assignment will be under significant stress and less effective or even detrimental to the organization’s well-being.
Enlightened organizational leaders should have a system in place to take into account personal issues that would have a negative impact on their personnel. However, this is not a one-way street: The candidates must recognize the organization’s needs and take into account their role and future in the organization. The organization needs well-rounded leaders willing to work in the organizational structure and its value system.
To make this work, it is the organization’s responsibility to have a system in place that provides officer candidates the opportunity to buy in or buy out of the promotion process and clearly spells out obligations and responsibilities for both the organization and the officer candidate. The system would lay out the organization’s needs and what the officer candidate needs to do to be prepared to accept a promotion. It is the individual’s responsibility to know what is required, how to prepare, and the impact the promotion would have on family obligations. The individual should not expect the organization to meet all needs but should reasonably expect to be able to work out some arrangement that can accommodate short-term problems or difficulties.
The organization program may also be structured so that promotional credit or points are awarded to candidates who have demonstrated diversification, knowledge, and abilities by having worked in different areas, assignments (training, fire department administration, or fire safety education and prevention), or platoons. The system could award two points per year for the first three years in a new area, assignment, or platoon; one point for the next two years in the same assignment; and one-half point per year for each year spent in the same assignment. No points would be awarded for time beyond 10 years in the same assignment.
Fire departments need two kinds of officers—well-rounded officers in senior positions and technical experts who may stay in the same work area for long periods, maybe their entire career. All officers should be exposed to some degree of diversification and to different personalities while learning to function as company officers; therefore, I believe all officers should be sent to a new area for a period of time sufficient for them to experience and develop leadership skills. They should then be allowed to go back to the areas in which they had previously worked—unless other factors would make the assignment dysfunctional for the new officer or the fire department.
Danny Kistner, battalion chief, Garland (TX) Fire Department
Response: Transferring newly appointed officers to new response areas has more benefits than deficits. In a nutshell, familiarity breeds complacency; and in the fire service, complacency can become deadly. Familiarity can be found in relatively benign forms, such as friendships with fellow firefighters, fire response to the same occupancies, and even emergency medical calls.
Camaraderie is one benefit of longevity in the fire service. Relationships are built and fire service families are created when one establishes a foothold at a particular fire station assignment. This is a good thing. Trust is one byproduct of bonding.
The drawback, however, is that camaraderie is much valued. All of a sudden, a junior officer is thrust from a position of friendship and peer to that of a supervisor. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to discipline a “friend.” A former coworker may be inclined to ask for favorable treatment. A junior officer may tend to treat a former coworker with more tolerance than a unit member with whom he is not as familiar, whether consciously or unconsciously.
A firefighter who has been in one area for any time becomes familiar with that area. There may come a time when this firefighter feels so familiar with the area that he no longer feels it necessary to continue studying buildings and streets. As a result, knowledge plateaus eventually weaken, and complacency sets in.
It has been my experience that new officers make a point to become acquainted with new surroundings so that they will make sound decisions on the fireground. They review sprinkler and standpipe locations, high life hazard occupancies, and other target hazards.
Firefighters who respond to EMS calls can also fall into the familiarity traps. The “frequent flyer” patient, who seemingly abuses the system, may have a dire medical emergency that is overlooked because of the familiarity. Will a newly appointed officer be able to differentiate and, more importantly, redirect firefighters convinced this is just another wasted run?
A transfer to a new assignment best suits a firefighter who has just been promoted to a junior officer position. The slate is clean, and expectations are high. The new officer is energized from his promotion and eager to perform.
Ernest E. McCloud, chief, Indian River Co. Fire Division,
Vero Beach, Florida
Response: Although the size of the department makes a difference, I generally disagree with the transfer policy. I feel that the company officers, particularly at the command level, benefit from the experience and institutional knowledge they gained in the area they “grew up” in and can effectively transfer that experience to the battalion. It is important, however, that officers be well-schooled in the entire department. This can be accomplished by rotating firefighters between companies or battalions. This way, when they are company officer material, they should have a picture of the department, or at least a larger part of it.
Company officers, on the other hand, should have no problem transferring to battalions that connect or are conjoined to their home battalion. You can also offer incentives to officers transferring out of their battalion on a voluntary basis. A new officer has enough to deal with without having to learn an entirely new department from scratch.
Lance Peeples, instructor, St. Louis County (MO) Fire Academy
Response: I believe that newly appointed members of a department should be rotated through the various engine, ladder, and specialty companies within a fire department, as well as through different geographic areas of a city. This rotation process should probably begin after an employee has been on the job for a year. This would allow a single supervisor to keep track of the new employee so that he could be adequately evaluated on job performance.
The rotating process would allow firefighters to gain a broad exposure to the various companies, building construction types, and target hazards that might exist within a given city.
The rotation process would proceed until a member has five years of service, at which point he could apply for a permanent assignment. This early rotation system would then allow a newly appointed company or chief officer to be appointed to areas where he had not been permanently assigned, reducing the argument that a newly appointed officer has not served in a specific geographic area and would be less familiar with the fire problem in that area. It would also help to eliminate the difficulties newly appointed officers have when supervising employees they closely worked with only recently. A disadvantage of this system is that if employee turnover is high and large numbers of newly hired members are rotating through a small number of companies, unit cohesion may suffer. Managers must be alert to prevent this.