By Todd Shoebridge
Ever since you were young, you were amazed at the big red trucks, all their lights, and the loud bells, sirens and horns. Growing up, you watched television shows like “Emergency,” and begged to go to the theater and see “The Towering Inferno.” In elementary school and scouts you went to the firehouse on the annual station tours, or you have a family member in a department. You have always wanted to be a firefighter. Now you’ve advanced through the ranks, you’ve gained experience, you have put in your time, taken the exam, and CONGRATULATIONS, you’re top on the promotional list, and now you’re an officer. Where do you go?
Becoming an officer is a large step and entails many responsibilities. You need to be ready to accept the challenges and the conditions that go with the title. As an officer, you are now responsible for not only yourself, but also for all those around you. As you have advanced your way through the different fire department levels of your career, you should have learned about certain things that will make you a qualified officer:
- Knowledge of departmental policies and procedures as well as those of your municipality or Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).
- A basic knowledge of the fundamentals of human resource management and how it relates to your personnel and to you as an officer.
- A realization that, as the safety officer, it is your responsibility to bring them home safely at the end of every incident and at the end of every shift.
- A working knowledge of current trends in building construction and older construction.
- Knowledge of fireground strategy and tactics. The difference between offensive, defensive, and marginal attack practices
- Familiarity with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) guidelines and standards
- Understanding of time management
- Knowledge of fire inspections, education, and investigations
- Knowledge of alarm and communication systems
- Understanding of basic emergency management practices
- Documentation skills.
The art of communication is the most important and the hardest skill to master. An officer that does not know how to effectively communicate with his personnel every day jeopardizes the integrity and the well-being of those personnel he is attempting to manage. You are the go-to guy. You have become middle management.
The following are seven principles that every officer needs to practice. Try them, and you will find that your personnel will develop a more positive attitude toward their day-to-day activities within the department and toward you as their officer.
Motivate your crew. As an officer, it is your job and responsibility to keep your crews motivated. You set the tone. Complacency kills. Keeping a positive attitude within your crew will instill a sense of purpose and pride in the job that they do every day. Learn what motivates your personnel, and use those techniques to instill a sense of pride and ownership in the work we do.
Don’t forget the words “please” and “thank you” when asking personnel to complete a task (outside incident operations), These three words will take you a long way in respect and motivation of your personnel.
Be a leader. A leader is a person who has integrity and vision, is honest and trustworthy, has a drive and a commitment to achieve that vision, and the skills to make it happen. As a leader, first and foremost, lead by example. Don’t expect your crews to do things you wouldn’t do. Instill trust in your crew members. Your crew will realize that you have their best interest at heart, and they will be more likely to follow you into hazardous situations once you have gained their trust.
Communicate effectively. Communications is more than just being able to speak and write.
A leader’s communication must motivate people to work toward a common goal the leader has chosen. On average, 75 to 80 percent of your job as an officer is human relations oriented (people skills). It is your responsibility to keep your crews informed, when possible, of daily events that will affect them and the way they perform their daily duties. Make sure that you keep the lines of communication open. Open communication between you and your crews gains respect. Nobody likes surprises. Ineffective communication hurts not only your crews, but also the entire department.
Mentor your crew. Mentoring has a long tradition in the fire service and has been handed down for hundreds of years. As firefighters, we have all had officers that we have looked up to. These are the type of individuals about whom you say, “I want to be like him when I make officer.” We have also had those who have taught us what not to do. We look up to those officers that have taken the time to work with us, show us the ropes, responsibilities, and prepare us for our job and our future. There are no better teachers in the fire service than the seasoned veterans who take time out of their days to educate and train us on the way the job was, is, and should be in the future. As a mentor, don’t be afraid to relinquish some of your duties and knowledge to those personnel who will be following in your footsteps someday. That is how the next generation will learn your position. Yes, I said your position. None of us are permanent fixtures in the fire service. Too often, officers are afraid that if their secrets get out that someone will advance in front of them, or, worse yet, take all their glory. Remember, firefighting is a team effort. No one person can do this profession alone. A good officer is also a good teacher. Lead by example.
Train with your crew. Training is a vital part of what we do, now more that ever. Convey the importance of training with your crews. Make each shift a training day. If there is no formal training scheduled on a particular shift, take the crew out on driver training. Get the rope bag out and brush up on your knots or learn some new ones. Practice buddy breathing with your self-contained breathing apparatus. Practice a rapid intervention scenario. Practice putting up ladders out behind the firehouse. Preplan a building in your district that you’re not familiar with, discussing the layout, the construction type, and the potential risks and hazards. Would a rescue be a concern, and if so, where and how would you deal with it if it happened? What are the exposures? Where is the nearest water supply and is it enough to sustain a prolonged fire attack? Would this be an offensive or a defensive incident? What hazardous materials do you need to address? The more you train with your personnel, the more comfortable you will be with them, and they will be more comfortable with you as their officer. Remember, this profession is a team effort. Freelancing will get you killed.
Be a supervisor. A supervisor is the team leader, overseer, coach, facilitator, and a manager in a position of trust. It is your job to make sure that work is completed safely, effectively, and in a timely manner, and that everyone comes home.
Be a good listener. Be open to what your crew has to say. Take time to be a good listener. If one of your crew members needs or wants to discuss something with you, make time to do so. Save what you’re working on your computer, put your cell phone on vibrate, and assign another crew member to answer the phone and take messages for you. Such behavior shows your personnel that you honestly care about your crew and what they have to say. This behavior also instills respect from your personnel. Being a good listener is probably one of the most important ways to instill trust and respect in your personnel, after good communication.
The No. 1 priority at any incident scene is firefighter safety. The officer is responsible for leading and directing the personnel under his command at all times. Additionally, the officer must continuously size up the actions of those under his command–how the operation is going, whether it is progressing or changing such that it requires a change in tactics. If the situation requires immediate action to maintain firefighter safety, the officer is responsible to do whatever is needed to protect the crew. Just like the captain on a sinking ship, the officer should be the last one to leave.
The officer is the one person responsible for the accountability and safety of all personnel under his command. The officer must ensure that all the personnel are safe and accounted for before he or she leaves the hazardous area.
Respect is earned; it doesn’t come with the promotion. Remember that a leader must lead from the front. An officer should strive to better himself every day. It is your responsibility to motivate and keep your people heading in the right direction. It is also your responsibility to keep yourself motivated, educated, and up with new trends, management, and leadership skills, as well as equipment in the fire service. Never coast along, because it only hurts those who want to do a good job. Officers should remember these six priorities:
- Personal safety (you and your family);
- Firefighter safety (your crew and other department members);
- Community life safety
- Incident stabilization (i.e., successful management of the incident);
- Property conservation (minimize property damage); and
- Fire station, apparatus, and equipment maintenance.
When you address these priorities consistently in the same order every time, your role as an officer will be easier. If your personnel know your priorities, and that this is always how you handle every incident each time, it is easier for them to do their job safely and with less supervision.
If you make your safety and that of your crews the top priority, your crew knows that you will not put them intentionally in harm’s way, and that you want everyone to go home at the end of the incident and at the end of your shift.
As an officer, you must not be afraid to make a decision. Whether it is the right one or the wrong one, you must be able to decide and justify it if questioned. A decisive officer instills trust and leadership with the crews. Having the ability to make a decision in the heat of battle or in every day life defines your character.
Becoming an officer can be one of the best jobs in the fire service or one of the worst. Too often, firefighters hurry for the collar brass, the ability to climb into the front seat of an apparatus and blow the air horn, and talk on the radio before they are ready. This is the easy part of the job. As we have discussed above, an officer’s duties far outweigh just blowing the horns and talking on the radio.
Officers today must continue to keep up with the changing times. Technology is moving forward at an astounding rate. Building construction is becoming lighter and more unforgiving to firefighters. Lawsuits are ever present, and proper documentation is a crucial part of our daily actives. With the number of structure fires in decline, now more than ever it is the officer’s responsibility to keep crews in a state of readiness, and not let them become complacent and lazy, and to make sure that “Everyone Goes Home.”
Todd Shoebridge is a 30-year fire service veteran and a captain and an EMT with the Hickory (NC) Fire Department, where he has served for 20 years. He serves as North Carolina’s Lead Advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) “Everyone Goes Home” program. He holds the following certifications: National Registry (PROBOARD) fire officer III, rapid intervention, National Fire Academy Mayday instructor, hazardous materials technician, level II fire service instructor, basic VMR rescue technician, and fire/arson investigator (CFI) through the NC Fire and Rescue Commission. Shoebridge has associate degrees in biology and ecology from Montreat College and is a graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in fire science.