From the Bay Door to the Front Door: Knowledge for the Company Officer

By Joseph McClelland

In my previous aritcle, we covered some topics that a new officer should be focusing on, at the least, to help prepare them for the leadership role of a company.

This time let’s talk about a couple topics that should be a must on everyone’s training list, not just the new officers. Until you get comfortable with being in a chaotic situation while giving orders to people looking to you for answers, you should be studying up on these.


With the new, lightweight construction, are we seeing rollover and flashover faster? How do we train and prepare for these intense situations? There is only one true way I know of and that is to make those situations happen for us to witness and document. That’s right, I’m talking about one of those metal boxes we set on fire…with us inside.

I have always been leery about going into a flashover simulator. I mean come on, we train on how NOT to get into a flashover situation. Now we’re putting people in this atmosphere ON PURPOSE while we sit on the floor of the small metal box and light it on fire?! 

But this past summer, while teaching Fire College at the Illinois Fire Service Institute, one of the classes being put on was covering flashover/rollover training in such a simulator.

Some other instructor and Is walked to the back of the lot where this training was going on. We introduced ourselves to the gentlemen teaching the class and asked if it was possible for them to put us through the “can” during our lunch. They were more than happy to show us.

The instructors were from L.A. city and put on a very informative and awesome class. We were in awe of what we saw inside the simulator and actually went in twice more to see the simulations again. I use the term simulations, lightly, because they indeed got the can to flash and roll over many times during our class.

Are we training our officers to know these signs, from both old construction and new? It is now my firm belief that every firefighter needs to attend this type of training, (put on by trained instructors) to see firsthand the conditions that lead to flashover and actually just how little smoke is needed to ignite the atmosphere. It isn’t just the liquid, velvet black smoke we have been taught is needed to create flashover; light brown and even white smoke can reach the proper temperature as well. An entire room or house full of contents is not needed to reach these conditions and temperatures, either, since they are flashing these cans with only pallets, straw, and maybe some CDX boards.


A big subject we need to be teaching our people is self-survival skills. As I sit writing this, there have been two recent Mayday calls for help in fire departments very close to me.

One was in a fairly large department where three members needed to call for help because of changing conditions, and a highly publicized Mayday that resulted in the death of a decorated veteran Chicago firefighter.

These men all knew they were in trouble and called for help. Are you certain you or your crew will make that call? And more importantly, know what to say when they are in a literal fight for their life? Thinking that it can never happen to you and your crew is setting you up for disaster.

Training for this can be on going and easy each day. It’s as easy as having your members practice a Mayday call while they are; mopping, washing up the dishes, cleaning the washroom, or doing just about anything. There should be no excuse for not practicing this skill, since it can be done anywhere. If you are, or think you are in trouble, please make the Mayday call. It can save your life.

Also, you should be covering bail-out methods either with a ladder at a window or with rope or webbing.


So is that it? Not by a long shot.

What can the new officer do to be as prepared as possible? Be proactive.

If you are assigned to a shift/station where you always work with the same people, you will need to get to know as much about them as possible, namely their strengths and weaknesses.

Identify who on your crew is a heavy breather, comfortable with a saw and being up on a roof, claustrophobic, or afraid of heights. Identify who can swing an ax with good results or carry a 24-foot ladder by themselves. Can they all pull a charged 1.75″ line by themselves? How long does it take them to breathe down a full air bottle? How long can they last pulling ceiling? How about wood or plaster lath? Are they strong enough to hold the spreaders for a while on an auto accident?  Are they working out to stay in shape, or better yet, are you setting the tone yourself by being the first to the weight room or on the treadmill?

And don’t forget, your crew needs to know you and how you react to chaos as well. As a new leader, with your crew looking to you for possible life-altering decisions, do you have the experience they are looking for? How many fires have you been on the initial attack line at a fire? What is your experience level at this time? If you have not had very much hands-on, real-world experience, do you really have what your crew needs from a leader? Reading books and watching videos is better than nothing, but that is not enough training to be a leader. If you don’t have the line time, you need to go get it to be taken seriously and trusted by your crew.

This list goes on, and we all know people in the above paragraph, but it is the company officer that needs to learn this about his/her people and what they can do to ensure all members can function at maximum ability on an emergency scene and assign tasks accordingly.

If you are on a volunteer or part-time department, your job is even harder because of the fact that you may never know who your crew will be from call to call.

Ensure that each member knows the rig or rigs they may ride out on intimately and confidently and all the equipment on those units and how they work (especially the self-contained breathing apparatus–this is not the tool to get complacent with and you should be training your people on it as often as possible.)

The best way to do this, of course, is to get out and train. I am aware we have so many other functions we must perform every shift to keep the department running, but job related training should be frequent and ongoing every shift.


Joe McClelland is a firefighter with the Midlothian (IL) Fire Department. He was previously a part-time firefighter with the North Palos (IL) Fire Protection District and is a field instructor for the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute’s Cornerstone Program.

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