BY RICK LASKY
The history of the battalion chief’s aide takes us back to a long time ago when these aides made their first appearance in the fire service. The value of this position and what it could offer administratively and on the fireground was realized very early. Probably the biggest value, though, was being able to provide the battalion chief with another set of eyes and ears at an incident, thereby allowing the chief to make a more informed decision regarding the actions companies would have to take at a fire. There was no argument as to what the position did for the day-to-day operations, but the impact it had on the fireground was tremendous.
Many of the large-city departments had these aides in place, as did some of the departments next to or near those departments. But somewhere along the way, some departments forgot just how important the role of the chief’s aide was. Coupled with the never-ending budget battles that so many departments go through, slowly it became one of those positions that became expendable, one that was easy for some chiefs to eliminate from the budget. What was just as surprising was that some of the chiefs who allowed those positions to be eliminated would have fought tooth and nail to keep them back in their day when they used them. However, many departments and chiefs are still fighting to keep them in place.
When you look at all of the efforts nationwide to reduce the number of fireground line-of-duty deaths, you can’t help but agree that at the top of the list are the following:
• Failure to implement and follow standard operating procedures.
• Failure to use an accountability system.
• Poor communications and several other contributing factors.
(1) The chief�s aide can be a tremendous asset to a battalion chief running an incident. [Photos courtesy of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department.]
One, though, that stands out clearly if you were to look at the causes and lump them into one general category, would be the failure to read the building and the fire properly. An aide can assist the incident commander (IC) in his decision-making role in many ways. One is simply being that other set of eyes and ears for the IC, as was mentioned earlier, and the following, which just flat out make the fireground easier, safer, and more organized:
• Provide the IC with another view of the building for size-up purposes.
• Serve as the accountability officer, controlling the incident accountability system.
• Assist with communications or serve as the communications officer, freeing the IC to think and to complete other tasks.
• Serve as the research officer for the IC, providing critical information on everything from water mains to preplan information to hazardous materials-the list goes on and on.
• Track apparatus in staging and those committed to the scene.
The aide can do pretty much anything that will make the incident run more smoothly and, more importantly, more safely.
BRINGING A SPECIES BACK
It has been exciting to see the resurgence of this position and to see more and more fire departments requesting to add this position to their ranks, whether it be for the first time or to bring it back after years of absence. With the volume of work and numerous responsibilities today’s battalion chief has to handle, and with that list growing each year, the aide position wouldn’t be a wasted one.
In the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department, we have found that this position is extremely valuable and that it will have a tremendous impact on firefighter safety. Administratively, the aide’s position provides support to the battalion chief in the following ways (and these are just a few):
• Assists with the daily staffing issues;
• Prepares and works through payroll issues;
• Along with number 1 above regarding apparatus and station assignments, works with the vacation and sick call situations as well;
• Prepares injury reports; and
• Is a great point of contact for the battalion chief when he is unavailable.
The aides aren’t there to make it so the battalion chief isn’t needed; they are there to be a partner to the chief and part of a team that enhances the smoothness of the day-to-day shift operations. The battalion chief can concentrate on working with his shift instead of being tied to all of the paperwork that comes with the position.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
2) Having the aide track firefighter accountability and using the mobile computer terminal (MCT) frees the incident commander to concentrate on decisions that must be made during an incident.
Over the years, those trying to eliminate the position have been arguing that the aide is nothing more than a “chauffeur” (not to be confused with the valued chauffeur’s position in the Fire Department of New York) or a glorified driver for the chief. They couldn’t be more wrong! Driving is just a small part of the process. But, while we’re on the topic of driving, having someone else drive to the scene allows the battalion chief to check preplans and actually read the mobile data terminal (MDT) and mobile computer terminal (MCT) before arrival. The aide can get you in close, then move the vehicle or position it so that it works to the chief’s advantage. The aide provides a lot of the same opportunities as the driver of the engine, truck, or squad does for the company officer while en route to an incident. So if calling the aide a “driver” does not sit well, call the aide a “field incident technician (FIT),” “command tech,” or “chief’s aide”-or make up a title of your own.
SOME MORE BENEFITS
Besides the obvious fireground safety and administrative enhancements, there are the mentoring aspects of the position and the capabilities that come with that area. Some departments have made the rank of the aide position equal to that of captain, considering the fact that the captain is next to be promoted to battalion chief, thereby giving those at the top of the battalion chief promotional list the best advantage and learning process available. In some departments, the aide works side by side with the battalion chief; such a program is currently used in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). In Lewisville, this position’s rank is at the driver engineer level. Our ranking system runs from firefighter to driver engineer, driver engineer to captain, and captain to battalion chief. The way we’re set up still serves as an excellent mentoring system for our department. Through this process, we are able to accomplish the following:
• We can assign one driver engineer for consistency’s sake to this position on each shift.
• We allow the battalion chief to sub other driver engineers into this position, to provide the experience to more of our personnel. Often, this is done when the FIT is on vacation, sick, or in school.
• When a driver engineer is nearing promotion to captain, the battalion chief can assign that firefighter to the FIT position so that he can share the philosophies and expectations of the new captain, setting the tempo for a good transition to that new position.
• A captain being promoted to battalion chief can be assigned to the FIT position so that the battalion chief can do the same thing with this individual in preparation for the role of battalion chief. Again, this is similar to the mentoring process within FDNY. Let the new battalion chief work side by side with the current chief-make decisions and handle tasks under the watchful eye of the battalion chief. This is definitely an invaluable tool in preparing for that promotion.
(3) The field incident tech can handle the landing zone for the battalion chief, allowing him to work the actual incident.
Another thing that comes to mind is our medical helicopter service and landing zone requirements. We land helicopters on a regular basis to assist in transporting victims to a trauma center. We have a hospital in our city, but many times the patient is in need of treatment provided at a larger trauma center in Dallas or Fort Worth; we fly them there. In the past, this would have required the battalion chief to respond to the scene and handle the landing zone (LZ) set-up, safety, and communication with the inbound helicopter or helicopters. Now the FIT handles the LZ; when a rescue or vehicle is involved, the battalion chief can be dropped off at the scene to handle incident command duties, freeing the company officer to oversee the rescue operations.
Since the implementation of this position in Lewisville, it has dramatically improved our department’s operations administratively and on the fireground. Our battalion chiefs had no idea of what the impact would be, but no one realized that it would have as much of an impact as it has on day-to-day operations.
We “borrowed” as much information as we could get on the position before implementation so that we would get the most out of it. We even went as far as to send our FITs to ride out with the third battalion in Dallas and with Battalion Chief Stuart Grant and his aide in an effort to capture as much as we could. Dallas Chief Steve Abraira, a progressive chief, was more than accommodating and helped us out greatly. Shortly after that, the FITs were sent to do the same thing with FDNY and a couple of their battalion chiefs and aides. In both instances, they were on “our clock”; it was viewed and funded as a training experience. This training experience proved invaluable for our personnel.
We knew we were on track when at a multifamily fire, on checking with the FIT as to where we were apparatus- and alarm-wise, he paused and said “fourth chief.” We said, “Good job.” We had been stressing in our training that in a fast-moving incident companies were to keep coming as long as they were being requested. That was a first-having an engineer pull a fourth alarm-and it was great!
I realize that lately many departments are fighting to survive, to keep their budgets from getting slashed to pieces, to keep firehouses open, and not to lay off firefighters. But, if the timing is right and you have the chance to add the aide position, you won’t be sorry. The only downside for the battalion chief, if you can call it one, is that as the FIT is trained, he gets promoted. This position provides a great promotional training tool for an aspiring officer. Aside from hitting the books, when it comes to the tactical and in-basket personnel assessments, they’ve been there, they’ve done it, and they’ve “worn the T-shirt.” They usually do well at promotion time. The chief’s aide is a position well worth bringing back to the forefront!
RICK LASKY, a 25-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. Previously, he was chief of the Coeur d’Alene (ID) Fire Department and training officer for the Darien-Woodridge (IL) and Bedford Park (IL) Fire Departments. While in Illinois, he taught at the Illinois Fire Service Institute and Illinois Fire Chiefs’ Association and received the 1996 International Society of Fire Service Instructors “Innovator of the Year” award for his part in developing the “Saving Our Own” program. He is the lead instructor for the H.O.T. Firefighter Survival program at FDIC West and is co-lead instructor for the program at FDIC and FDIC East. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and serves on the FDIC, FDIC West, and FDIC East advisory boards.