Preparing for the Role of Company Officer

BY ROBERT TURNER

You made the promotional list or were elected to be a first line officer within your fire department. What now? Often firefighters may wonder whether they will be able to lead firefighters in the firehouse, let alone on the fireground. As a potential officer, you are right to be concerned. When promoted to company officer, you assume new responsibilities and challenges. Both firefighter and civilian lives are at stake. You are responsible for ensuring the safety of the firefighters under your command and leading the charge to rescue lives and protect property. Your duties may include training, supervising building inspections, fulfilling administrative responsibilities, and maintaining discipline. How well will you be prepared for the new role that will rapidly become a reality?

Here is a little advice: Make certain you know your department’s standard operating procedures/standard operating guidelines (SOPs/SOGs). Gain as much experience as possible. For example, if you’ve only worked in a ladder company prior to promotion, put some time in on the engine company, or vice versa. Spend time in the office with your officers; familiarize yourself with their administrative duties. Think as an officer while on runs, and discuss the crew’s actions following the incident. You’ve worked under the supervision of company and chief officers and have been provided with excellent role models whom you can emulate.

First Line Supervisors Training Program
(1) Officers discuss how to resolve a problem presented in a scenario-based exercise in the leadership class at the First Line Supervisors Training Program. They will share their solutions with the entire class. (Photos by author.)

MENTORING FUTURE OFFICERS

Many company officers bring officer candidates into the company office to familiarize them with their future administrative responsibilities. Some officers allow the officer candidates to command the unit at fire and emergency operations under their direct supervision. Excellent training is provided to the officer candidate under the watchful eyes of the company officer. The officer candidate, on promotion, has been mentored and assumes the new role with some confidence. The mentoring of officer candidates should not be left to chance; chiefs should encourage and support it. The chief in charge of a fire department has a responsibility to make certain the new officer is prepared to fulfill the role of first line supervisor.

FDNY’s First Line Supervisors Preparation Program

To facilitate mentoring, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) established the First Line Supervisors Preparation Program. Six months prior to the anticipated promotion, candidates are sent a booklet containing information on subjects with which they should be familiar. The booklet contains basic administrative material and information on topics a company officer will encounter on a daily basis such as the following:

  • Fire, accident, and injury reports.
  • Timekeeping procedures.
  • Common emergency responses such as gas, electrical, vehicular, elevator, and carbon monoxide emergencies (the considerations and basic actions associated with each).
  • A review of the thermal imaging camera (TIC) and various meters used by the department. Officers depend on these tools to make critical decisions, and they should know how to use them.

The preparation program does not include all of the areas in which a fire officer should be knowledgeable, but the information provided forms a foundation of knowledge on which the officer can build. The overall goal is to have the on-duty officers share their knowledge and experience with the lieutenant candidates.

live-fire exercise
(2) A newly promoted officer leads firefighters during a live-fire exercise. The tactical training officer will critique the officer at the conclusion of the exercise.

Fire Officer Training Program

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications, provides the standard for fire officer professional qualifications. Fire officer training varies among fire departments according to the requirements of the jurisdiction. Fire department training budgets also have an impact on the extent and quality of officer training programs. Whether a department is career or volunteer, large or small, it’s important to have an effective fire officer training program to help the new officers achieve success when they assume their new role.

ADDITIONAL TRAINING

Following are some recommended training classes that provide basic knowledge and skills that will ensure newly promoted officers acquire a foundation on which to build and develop into proficient company officers.

• Leadership. Effective leadership is a key ingredient for a well-run department. Company officers need to understand their role in relation to higher-level managers, subordinates, and the public. They should know how to motivate, evaluate, and resolve job problems involving individual subordinates. Scenario-based training is an excellent way to explore leadership issues. It allows new officers to solve in the classroom common problems that they may encounter in the field.

• Building construction related to the fire service. It is important for the fire officer to be knowledgeable about the various types of building construction and the effect that fire can have on a building’s potential to collapse. It is also important that officers know the avenues of fire spread associated with the various types of construction. Officers must know their buildings!

• Thermal imaging theory with hands-on training. Company officers need to understand how to use the TIC at fires and other emergencies. Knowledge and understanding of the TIC enhances the fire officers’ ability to monitor fire conditions and firefighters under their command who are in the immediate fire area. Specific applications for locating fire or trapped victims, assessing fire extension, and supervising company accountability can be addressed and discussed during live burns with hands-on training.

• Injury and accident prevention. Company officers must recognize the dangers on the fireground as well as when responding to emergencies. Injury prevention lectures should include the company officers’ accountability regarding the safety of their subordinates. Officers should be made aware of the most common causes of firefighter line-of-duty deaths and injuries. Discussions should include actions that company officers can take to reduce firefighter injuries and fatalities. Lessons learned from past firefighter fatalities and serious injuries should also be discussed.

Company officers have a responsibility to ensure a safe apparatus response. Accident prevention lectures should include the officers’ accountability regarding the safety of their subordinates during response and while operating on roadways. This includes ensuring the use of seat belts by all firefighters on the apparatus. Company officers should be made aware of safe apparatus response practices. Apparatus accidents should be evaluated with emphasis on how they may have been prevented.

• Problem assessment, firefighting tactics. Company officers need to understand the tactics of firefighting at different types of dwellings. Size-up factors and special problems associated with various occupancies as they relate to life, construction features, and operational procedures should be discussed and highlighted during group feedback periods. In addition to discussion, the officers should be given fire scenario exercises. They should demonstrate the ability to conduct a proper size-up, identify any problems, and determine the strategy and tactics that they would implement. These exercises allow the officers to develop their tactical decision-making skills in the classroom environment.

• Problem assessment: firefighter assist and search team (FAST)/rapid intervention team (RIT). Company officers will now be responsible for leading a FAST/RIT. Discussions should include position, responsibilities, the department’s operational procedures, and case studies of prior FAST/RIT operations.

• Problem assessment: smoke dynamic and ventilation tactics. Ventilation tactics have changed in many departments based on the increased knowledge of fire dynamics occurring in the modern fire environment. It is critical for officers to understand how building geometry, materials, furnishings, ventilation, and firefighting tactics can influence fire growth and spread and lead to untenable conditions for firefighters. “Ventilation profile,” “ventilation-limited fire,” “ventilation-induced flashover,” and “flow path” are concepts with which an officer must be familiar. This knowledge and understanding directly affect firefighter safety.

• Hands-on tactical training. This training gives the new fire officer experience in giving orders and supervising during various live-fire scenarios. It is invaluable for officers who do not go to the field prior to completion of officer training. In FDNY, the officers are being trained to supervise field units that are special-called to the Division of Training for live-fire burns. The tactical training staff, as well as the regularly assigned officers, critiques the new officers on their size-up, radio communications, ability to direct a team search, and other essential skills. Hands-on training should include an exercise on the removal of an unconscious or seriously injured member. The exercise should emphasize the officer’s role in this important operation. Training should be provided on procedures that should be followed when there is water loss or water supply problems.

• Hazardous materials emergency response to terrorism: operations. The FDNY/International Association of Fire Fighters certification course prepares the fire officer for understanding and operating as safely as possible at terrorist incidents. The officer is trained in the use of basic metering devices that detect weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This class provides the officers with the information they would need to make informed, controlled, and safe responses to incidents involving WMD. In addition, first responder operations-level hazmat information that serves as refresher training is highlighted throughout this program. Officers learn many of the principles that apply to hazmat, emergency medical services, and crime scene responses that also apply at WMD responses.

• Utility emergencies. Utility emergencies comprise a large percentage of the responses in many departments. In FDNY, fire officers are taught how to operate safely at various types of utility emergencies. The training is included in the First Line Supervisors Training Program. It is taught by Con Edison emergency response supervisors. They discuss the hazards that fire officers may encounter when responding to various utility emergencies. They address electrical operations and the hazards associated with overhead transmission wires, underground vaults, transformers, feeder cables, and substations. They also lecture on gas operations at residential and commercial occupancies. Steam operations and the associated hazards are also discussed.

• Arson awareness. This training enables the officers to recognize signs of possible arson fires and to preserve evidence for trained fire investigators.

• Legal issues. Equal employment opportunity training helps fire officers to understand the various types of situations that are not appropriate for the workplace and how to deal with the issues and whom to notify. Officers must be aware of what sexual harassment is, how to prevent it, and how to initiate the appropriate steps to eliminate it.

Officers need to be knowledgeable about the rules and regulations regarding corrupt or criminal activity. They must take appropriate action when allegations are made involving these activities.

• Counseling and critical incident stress. Fire officers must be taught to recognize signs of possible problems with members and to know what help is available within their departments. The officers’ responsibilities should be explored with regard to firefighters with problems related to alcohol or drug dependence and other serious personal problems that affect job performance.

• Fire Service Instructor 1. A major responsibility of company officers is to conduct training, the company drill. This course prepares officers to deliver instruction effectively from a prepared lesson plan. The officer learns to communicate effectively and how to conduct cognitive and psychomotor training.

•••

The list would be endless if I discussed all of the knowledge, skills, and abilities required of a company officer. The training process does not stop with the promotion and officer training school. Evaluation by superiors of the officers’ performance in the field should be ongoing. Self-study and professional development must continue if the officer is to stay sharp and up to date.

ROBERT TURNER is a battalion chief with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), where he has served for 35 years, 15 years as a chief officer. He has served as the director of the New York State First Line Supervisor’s Training Program at FDNY since 2010.

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