Going from a Young Volunteer to an Officer

By TYLER HUBER

With a national shortage of volunteer firefighters, more and more young volunteers – regardless of their experience level – are finding themselves in positions of leadership. Some of these volunteers are ready for their responsibilities, yet some don’t realize all the challenges that are involved.

Young volunteers are appointed as officers for many reasons. One reason may be that their department is rebuilding and doesn’t have a large enough volunteer base or, because of a changing of the guard, many more experienced members have stepped back, stepped down, or quit. Being an officer is more involved than just changing your helmet and receiving a trumpet, even for volunteers. You need to know some history behind that trumpet.

The Speaking Trumpet

The trumpet, which most likely represents your rank as an officer within your department, was originally used to communicate on fire scenes. This was not an effective way to communicate with interior crews. Trumpets, like many of the items that we used to use in our profession, were made of brass and were kept by the member in charge of the incident. Thus, the more trumpets you had, the more “important” you were. So now that you are important, what else is there? A lot more, of course.

Being an officer is more than a position; it carries great responsibility. Like anything else, the position can be given or taken away, so use it wisely. Everything you do will affect the public’s perception of all firefighters. The fire service receives tremendous trust and respect from the public, but it takes only one individual to mess that up. Your crew is part of this as well; you are responsible for ensuring that they are doing their job correctly. If you find them doing anything that you – as someone from the public – would take issue with, you need to address the behavior or incident; otherwise, you are just as guilty.

Along with being responsible for your crew’s behavior, you are also responsible for its safety. The biggest job that you have is to ensure that those under your command go home without injury. This extends to all aspects of the job. Fire Department of New York Battalion Chief (Ret.) John Salka told me during a discussion about riding in the front right seat that you are there “to do more than honk the horn!” You are the navigator for the driver, you’re an extra set of eyes, and you’re there to ensure that the driver is driving with “due regard” and following all applicable laws. If you don’t arrive at the scene safely, you’re doing nothing to help the person who initially called in the response.

You are also responsible for your crew’s training. Plan training, change it up, and go back to the basics using any and all methods to teach such as hands-on, lectures, and slide presentations. Also, if one of the firefighters under your command gets injured or killed, it affects more than just that member; it will affect spouses, children, parents, coworkers, and friends. Also, when the investigations start, you’re the “star witness” and one of the first people at which the finger will be pointed. Safety is important, but how do you enforce it with your buddies?

The “Buddy Complication”

The “buddy complication” is difficult for young officers. You want to be a good friend before and after your promotion. However, this presents its own complications. Friends will never intentionally put you in a tough place as a leader. They may push a little just because they are your friends, but that’s normal. Take this in stride; it’ll show that you’re a good leader. Your friends can be some of the best indicators of how you are doing as an officer. They will speak bluntly and frankly with you. If you are a fair and just leader, the friendships will last.

On the other end of the buddy complication is the more “experienced” firefighter, who can present difficulties for an officer because he may have been someone whom you looked to for guidance or mentorship, and now you outrank him. These people can be your greatest asset; pick their brains, and get them to tell their “war” stories. Odds are they have done more and seen more than you have. This will empower them and make them feel as important to you as they should be, and this will earn their respect. Be mindful that some of them may not have attended recent training and may have more traditional methods for doing things. If this is the case – especially with training – allow them to do something their way and then show them the new method. Typically, this will cause them to see the new method as superior and ask you to teach them about it. In some cases, you may be able to work with them, taking aspects of both methods and developing something that works even better for your department.

If you have an issue when dealing with a more experienced firefighter, discuss it directly with him privately. This shows that you respect him enough to address concerns directly with him. Typically, most of these problems stem from a misunderstanding or an incidental issue.

Also remember not to let your ego get the better of you. Just because you’re an officer doesn’t mean that you’re better than everyone else; you just have more responsibility. You’re now the one who enforces the rules, not tests them. In addition, you can’t always be the “fun” boss; run the firehouse the way that you wanted it run when you were a firefighter. We all like structure, so keep it structured but relaxed at the same time. This may mean setting the proper examples. For instance, when you return from a call and everyone sits down to relax but the truck is dirty, ask your personnel, “Hey, can a couple of you help me wash the truck?” “Help me” is the operative phrase. This shows that you’re not above helping and that you remember where you started. After all, respect is earned, not given.

After Gaining Their Respect

Now that you have the respect, people will approach you with problems. Some approach you because of respect, and some do it to test you. When someone brings a complaint, listen to it fully; and if you have a question after the person is done talking, ask for clarification. In some cases, ask if the person has done anything to correct the issue. A good supervisor I once served under said that for every problem you bring him, bring a possible solution as well. Personnel who are upset will also approach you. Allow them to get everything off their chest; this is related to the “fight or flight” mechanism that the human body uses. As a defense mechanism, people prepare themselves for a fight even when there may not be one. Allowing this person to vent his concerns will allow him to speak calmly and normally. Sometimes, you must take corrective actions, which can be just as difficult as handling complaints.

To handle giving bad news, use the “bad news sandwich.” This is a way to correct someone without his feeling like he was attacked. It starts by supporting him for something he did right before referencing the thing that he did wrong. Next, tell him the issue and how he can correct it in the future, and conclude your talk with another positive statement. Once you have taken this type of corrective action, keep it confidential. Keeping all discipline and discussions confidential builds respect from your personnel. These decisions and actions are difficult parts of being a leader.

Lessons Learned

Think about decisions you have made so far. What were the outcomes? What did you learn from these situations? If you haven’t had to make a tough decision yet, remember to take a breath before you do if you’re not sure of what to do. Eventually, you will make decisions based on past experiences and learn from their outcomes. A major factor in making decisions as an officer is that you don’t want to delay or be indecisive. Make a solid decision and stand behind it. If your decision turns out to be a bad one, change it. Everyone makes mistakes, but good leaders recognize them and fix them. Where and how you make decisions as an officer will be different from what you did as a firefighter.

As an officer, you will not be on the nozzle like you used to be – you have a more important role to play. You now have to back your crew. You may back your crew from the interior, but this time you will be standing back, avoiding tunnel vision and looking for hazards. Additionally, you may have to stand outside, observe conditions, and run the scene.

Take as many classes as you can such as those for fire officer development, safety officer, reading smoke, building construction, fire conditions, and anything else that you think may be of benefit. Read books, magazines, and articles that will add to your knowledge base. Last, find someone who is new to the department and mentor him; this is dually beneficial. You will help him develop skills while polishing your own. For example, if you don’t fight a lot of fire, your hose movement skills are probably weak compared to when you took your certification class. Be the officer that you would want to have – sometimes fun, sometimes the authority.

TYLER HUBER is an 11-year fire service veteran and a lieutenant with the Falls Township (OH) Volunteer Fire Department as well as a full-time firefighter/paramedic with the West Licking (OH) Joint Fire District. Huber is also a fire and an emergency medical services instructor with the Newton Township (OH) Fire Department’s Training Division. He has taken fire officer I and II courses as developed by the National Fire Academy and several other officer development courses.

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