FIRE OFFICER TRAINING PROGRAM
BY DENNIS R. MATTY
A comprehensive fire officer training program is needed in the fire service (even more than a decision on smooth-bore vs. fog-stream nozzles). Since 1992, Miramar Fire Rescue has required Fire Officer One training and five years on the job to sit for an officer-level promotional exam. The exams are given in two parts, written and practical assessment. An associate`s degree is a prerequisite for positions above lieutenant. Labor and management jointly embraced these requirements, and they have proved very successful.
These requirements have increased the knowledge base of the officers in the department, but they have not addressed the most critical issue fire departments face when developing a candidate pool: having in place a program that will develop the skill level and confidence of these prospective officers–training that begins prior to their taking a test. This program should provide opportunities for the firefighter to function as a company officer immediately after successfully completing a test or receiving the subsequent promotion, without raising concerns among administrators or coworkers.
As soon as a firefighter (candidate) has completed Fire Officer One training classes or the equivalent, as outlined in “Company Officer Certification: A Minimum Standard for the Fire Officer” by Bruce J. Cavallari (Training Notebook, May 1997), and is nearing eligibility to sit for a promotional exam (about six months prior), the following steps should be taken:
Arrange a meeting between the candidate`s own company officer and the candidate to determine if the candidate wishes to take on added responsibility and work.
Outline and explain the process of the officer candidate so there will be no misconceptions or unreasonable expectations.
Inform the rest of the shift that the candidate will be taking on a somewhat different role.
Some shift members may not be willing to go along at first, but the majority will soon adapt to the candidate`s new leadership role. The candidate should be assigned to the same company officer/station for as much of the training period as staffing and other considerations will permit.
Assign the candidate routine company officer responsibilities for several shifts, such as supervising morning vehicle checks and house duties and filling out daily reports and time sheets. The candidate should observe day-to-day shift operations and the handling of problems. Whenever possible, allow the candidate to participate in decision making. Not everyone in a given situation will make the same decision; therefore, the company officer and his immediate supervisor should agree to address any criticism or functional concerns with the company officer and not directly with the candidate. This will eliminate the “too-many-bosses” situation we all have faced in our careers as fire officers.
The candidate and company officer should review the day`s activities and keep a log of the objectives completed and those planned for the next shift. Once a few shifts have passed and the other firefighters have adjusted to the candidate`s new role, more responsibilities can be added.
Schedule training evolutions and discuss them with the candidate before they are initiated. Make the goals of the evolution clear and simple. The candidate should be able to ask for guidance but must also feel that he is in control. The candidate should make all decisions, right or wrong, without interference from the other officers or firefighters. Once the candidate has successfully completed several of the easier training evolutions, allow him to design and schedule several training evolutions of his own choosing.
Once on the training ground, the candidate will ride in the company officer`s seat and give all commands over a nonactive radio channel. This will impress on the candidate the importance of issuing short, concise, and clear commands. As time passes and the candidate improves, add multiple-unit responses, incident command, and even multiple-agency drills or unforeseen problems. The problems of changing environments should be realistic and not designed to trick or overwhelm the candidate. The goal, after all, is to build confidence in the candidate and the other firefighters he may someday lead.
Critique all drills. Include observations of the candidate`s performance as well as the crew`s overall performance. Even when the drill does not go well, make the last comments positive. The crew members should leave the critique feeling they have contributed to the training objectives and outcomes. The candidate, as the company officer, should control the critique. He should explain the overall goals of the drill and all the objectives that were met. He should seek reasons, not excuses, for objectives that were not met (areas that need improvement). Each crew member should be allowed to give an overall impression of the drill. The company officer must be ready to offer his opinion and end the critique on a positive note.
ACTUAL RESPONSE TO CALLS
Again, start out slowly. Allow the candidate to take over the company officer position on the apparatus and the responsibility of controlling routine nonemergency responses or other functions such as public education, engine company inspections, and so on. The candidate will quickly find out about the method by which the other firefighters determine how and why it is the “company officer`s job” to do all public speaking, as well as a host of other duties related to dealing with the public. On arrival at these functions, the company officer should take a position that allows the candidate time to establish himself as the leader when dealing with school teachers, civic groups, and the like. Staying out in the truck for a few minutes may be the most effective way to accomplish this.
As the candidate grows in confidence and gains the respect of the crew with which he is working, add actual emergency calls as the situation and staffing allow. Some firefighters and managers may disagree on having an officer candidate be responsible for making critical decisions. The alternative, however, is to wait and promote or move up the individual without his having any formal training and adopting a sink-or-swim attitude. This will accomplish nothing more than placing an employee in a position that will make every response a guessing game.
The company officer should stay close by and monitor these situations but should avoid the pitfall of overcorrecting or jumping in (except in the case of major mistakes), as I had to learn the first time I tried to train an officer candidate. As soon as possible after an actual emergency call, the company officer should point out the positives and discuss ways the candidate can improve his performance. This will prepare the candidate for the next call and, more importantly, for the inevitable dinner-table critique that is sure to follow, especially if the candidate established Dumpster Command in a trash fire. Once again, the company officer must be ready to step in and redirect the conversation if things did not go well. Maintaining the candidate`s confidence without giving him the feeling that he can do no wrong takes a little practice.
Helping to develop a firefighter`s skills and watching as that firefighter gets promoted and moves forward in his career can be very rewarding to the company officer and the department. A well-coordinated and scheduled officer development program allows all candidates to receive the training and confidence they will need. The statement “No one ever taught me” will cease to exist, and new employees will prepare well in advance of taking their turns in the hot seat. We have used this type of program on a limited basis for the past several years. All involved agree we should continue. n
DENNIS R. MATTY, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, is a lieutenant/paramedic in Miramar Fire Rescue in Broward County, Florida, assigned to Engine 84. He has an associate`s degree in fire science and is Fire Officer One- and Fire Inspector-certified. He is a State of Florida Fire Officer One and Minimum Standards instructor and an instructor at the Broward Community College and the Broward Fire Academy.