By Brian Zaitz
Congratulations! You have just been promoted to the rank of company officer, the pinning ceremony is over, and it is time for that first day on the job. You reflect on past company officers, you review all the courses and experiences that have gotten you to this point, and you look forward toward your future and your impact on the organization. You walk-in that first day and see five firefighters looking to you for guidance, leadership, and safety. How do you ensure this will happen? The answer: Have clear, established expectations.
It’s essential to set expectations early and to reinforce them daily through your actions as the company officer. That first day will set the tone for the remainder of the year, and it will either make your job enjoyable or miserable. Remember that if you don’t say it, you can’t hold them responsible for it. A simple acronym to use to organize your thoughts on this matter is SOAP–no, not the way to set up a medical report, but rather Station, Operations, Apparatus, and Personnel. This memory tool can help the company officer organize expectations related to that first-day meeting.
S – Station
The station is home to the firefighters and the apparatus and the image of the fire service to the public when not on alarms. For this reason, the station must be clean, organized, and maintained. It is imperative to clearly define your expectations for the crew related to the station. Relay your ideas on what clean means to you (it is horrible to say, but we have all worked with a firefighter who has a vision of clean as taking out the trash). Establish cleaning as a routine daily activity. It is key to remind firefighters that cleaning is not a once-a-day activity but a shift-long process to maintain a high level of order and regard for the station.
While discussing the station, advise your firefighters of any extra projects or details that you wish to see completed around the station. Go over any daily duties associated with the station. This may include such things as extra cleaning duties, grounds keeping, or appliance maintenance. Even though these tasks may be set out in a policy book or daily duties sheet, it is important to set your expectation that they be completed daily. You are the formal leader, not the book or sheet.
The most important role the company officer has with the crew pertains to operations. It’s ultimately the responsibility of the company officer to keep his or her crew safe. The key to safety is once again stating clear expectations for the fireground. Be very detailed with your crew regarding operations and riding assignments. Give out tool assignments; again, even if these are pre-established for your department, reinforce them verbally with your crew. Discuss various alarm responses specific to your area and station. Also, review any standard operating procedures or preferred operating methods with the crew. This may seem redundant, but repetition is another key to success.
Likewise, detail your expectations for classroom and hands-on training. Set the bar relative to how you want the crew to perform on training evolutions in terms of everyone participating and being engaged during the course. Establish and enforce the rules for cell-phone use and talking during classroom sessions. Note that it is important to lead by example; make sure that if you set a guideline, you also follow it. Again, this may be set in policy, but it doesn’t hurt to reinforce the rules. The company officer sets the expectations.
Apparatus and the associated tools on these apparatus play a critical role in allowing us to perform our job-associated tasks daily. For this reason, it is necessary to inspect, maintain, and clean the apparatus and tools every day. Most departments have established daily or weekly inspections of apparatus and equipment that are “routine” to their department. Once again, reinforce the expectation with clear verbal guidelines of how you expect the apparatus to be checked. It may be necessary to assign personnel to certain equipment if your station has multiple pieces of apparatus. If you decide to take this route, make sure you rotate personnel so everyone is familiar with all equipment in the station. This is a great opportunity for company-based training led by crew members.
As it relates to checking apparatus and tools, challenge yourself and your crew to turn the “routine” apparatus and tool check into training sessions. Don’t just check the saw for fuel and oil–review the tool’s use on the fireground, how to change the blade on the saw, and discuss which blade is useful on what material. Stimulating the mind early and often will lead to an engaged and productive firefighter who has his mind in the game when the alarm sounds.
The crew is the most vital asset under your command as the company officer. This is a responsibility that you cannot take lightly. The goal of the company officer should be to create an environment that will harness the individual assets of each member into one cohesive machine that works seamlessly both around the station and on the fireground. This task is much easier said than done; but once more, it all comes back to clear expectations.
For example, if you have a daily workout policy, do not simply assume it will be done; state that it will be done daily as part of the activities. This is also an excellent opportunity to set crew goals. Be careful during this initial meeting; do not try to ascertain individuals’ strengths and weaknesses, as it can take the meeting in an entirely different direction and cause a loss of focus.
When determining your expectations for that first day, think about the things that are important to you as the company officer, your crew, and the department as a whole. Review your department’s mission statement and values. Linking your expectations back to either the values or the mission statement is a clear way to ensure that you are headed in the right direction. Remember, there is only one first day on the job. It is your responsibility and duty as the company officer to clearly define your expectations to your crew.
Brian Zaitz is a 12-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with the Metro West Fire Protection District in Wildwood, Missouri. He is an instructor at the St.Louis County Fire Academy and a member of the FEMA USAR Team MO-TF 1. He earned an AAS degree in paramedic technology from St. Louis Community College, a bachelor’s degree in fire science management from Lindenwood University, and a master’s degree in human resource development from Indiana State University. He holds several certifications, including officer II, instructor II, hazmat specialist, paramedic, and the fire officer designation through the Commission on Professional Credentialing.