BY STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI
Congratulations on getting promoted to chief officer! Before getting carried away with the glamour of the position, realize you are in a critical position that involves leading, motivating, evaluating, supervising, training, coaching, and mentoring your assigned personnel. Your top priorities should be to ensure that your personnel go home safely to their families at the end of their shift and that they are trained and prepared for the worst-case scenario.
Company officers are responsible for training their personnel. Who is responsible for training the company officers? That is the job of the chief officer. It does not matter whether these officers are battalion chiefs, division chiefs, shift commanders, district chiefs, super captains, or assistant chiefs. What matters is that you have a specific shift or platoon of personnel under your command. These members are looking to you for leadership, guidance, direction, training, and support, among other things. Since I am used to the term battalion chief in my department, I will use that term throughout this article for the sake of consistency.
Over the years, battalion chiefs seem to be spending less time with their company officers and crews. This is not by personal choice; they are saddled with so many administrative projects and program management responsibilities that they are having trouble finding quality time to spend with their crews. Company officers are not spending less time with their crews, but the chief officers commanding the company officers are having more and more responsibilities added to their schedules.
In the “good old days,” the battalion chiefs did not have to deal with program-management responsibilities, deliver the mail, or participate in the numerous administrative duties expected today. They trained with their crews, and they responded to calls. The span of control of the battalion chief of years past was also less than it is today. In many California cities, it is not uncommon to see one battalion chief supervising 10 (or more) fire stations, some with more than one company.
Why is today’s battalion chief getting more loaded down with assignments? Primarily, it is because departments have to do more with less, and departments do not have the luxury of additional staff positions. However, some departments and fire chiefs have come up with creative ideas to take away delivering the mail or having battalion chiefs fulfill program-management responsibility. This is done so that the battalion chief can get back to the basics and focus on training and developing crews’ skills and responding to emergencies.
Do not get me wrong: From an administrative viewpoint, there can be some benefits from and good reasons for having battalion chiefs do the things they are expected to do. Delivering the mail is a good way for the battalion chief to get out to the stations and discuss current events with the crews and to take the time to bond with them. For a three-station department, this is probably not a bad idea. For the battalion chief with more than five stations, however, this may not be the best idea. If that is the case, maybe an alternative would be to have a college intern from the local fire technology program deliver the mail. Make it a volunteer or a compensated position for someone wanting a career in the fire service. You could have the same person deliver the self-contained breathing apparatus and oxygen bottles also. He could probably hit every station every day instead of every few days, as most battalion chiefs end up doing, if they are lucky.
Whether you are a battalion chief loaded with staff assignments/projects or with an abundance of time does not matter. What matters is that you still have the obligation and requirement to train and develop your company officers and crew members. I do not plan to get into a debate about the responsibilities a battalion chief should have. That is up to your department, your governing body, and your accepted and agreed on practices. I will provide options and suggestions for battalion chiefs so they can have numerous quick drills to pick from in a pinch.
Battalion chiefs need to be very creative when it comes to training and developing their crews. If you are fortunate enough to have a drill tower, use it creatively, and do not hesitate to find locations outside of the drill tower to train also. Make it realistic and not the same old drill every time. Most drill towers are not conducive to every type of situation; that is okay. Get out into your first-due areas; pick places that are empty, such as school parking lots on weekends and church parking lots during the week.
QUICK DRILL SUGGESTIONS
Here are some quick drills a battalion chief can use to inspire personnel to be the best they can be and to ensure they are prepared to do their job when the bell goes off.
1 Turnout drill. Do not confuse this term with the one we jokingly use to refer to commercial fire alarm responses, which we call “turnout drills” because 99 percent of them turn out to be false alarms. However, we still need to prepare for the worst-case scenario, always be ready for anything, and not become complacent. Many departments strive to have a turnout time (time it takes for the apparatus to start moving toward the call after the bell goes off) of less than 60 seconds. If your department does not have a standard documented, develop one. Although it sounds all fine and dandy, how true is it? While the crew is at the station, get out your stopwatch and advise the company officer and crew that they have 60 seconds to get to the apparatus, put on their structure fire turnouts (or wildland firefighting protective clothing), get in the apparatus, and start moving out the front door. I will bet that many crews will not be able to do this.
Some people may argue that we do this every day anyway. Most of us do put on our turnouts every day. However, do we do it expeditiously and correct every time? Also, if you do it every day, it should be easier to accomplish this task in less than 60 seconds.
National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, does not distinguish between night and day and allows up to 80 seconds for fire responses, which is not a lot of time to ensure that we get our gear on before we put on our seat belt, since that seat belt should not be removed until we arrive—not even to put on our gear.
2 Portable master stream operation. Tell the crew members that they are dispatched to a structure fire. On arrival, direct them to put their portable master stream (deck gun, and so on.) into operation. It is one thing for them to have to put the master stream into operation while it is attached to the apparatus; that is usually easy to accomplish. It is another thing to have to remember how to get it off the apparatus, pull the appropriate amount and size of hose, and secure it to the ground in an expeditious and safe manner. Be very careful about where your water is flowing, and ensure that you are not causing damage by the water runoff.
3 Large-handline operation. Most fire crews practice only with the 1½- or 1¾-hoselines. Those lines will put out most of our fires; however, when we need the big water, we need the big water! Have your crew put a 2½-inch handline into operation for exposure protection or an interior attack. It may take two or three people to properly deploy it. Get your personnel out of the mindset of thinking 1½- or 1¾-hoselines should be used for every fire. Do not forget that the fire will not go out until the gallons per minute (gpm) poured on the fire exceeds the British thermal units (Btus). This simple concept is violated daily nationwide. This is a perfect drill for a church parking lot or school parking lot (when the site is not occupied by others). Be very careful about where your water is flowing, and ensure you are not causing damage by the water runoff.
4 Prefire planning. Meet your crews in their first-due area for building and site familiarization. Make it a multicompany drill; have the first-due officer provide the facility tour and discuss the necessary strategy and tactics to combat a fire should one occur. Don’t limit it to fires; other emergencies, such as EMS calls, hazardous materials calls, or fire alarm sounding calls, may also pose problems. Make sure items such as fire department connections (FDCs), hydrant locations and limitations, stairways, access/egress points, and exterior key boxes are pointed out for everyone to see.
5 Other than the drill tower training. Instead of going to the same old drill tower time and time again, spice up your drill routine. I like taking the drill tower off site and using large parking lots or structures to make things more realistic. Examples include parking lots, shopping centers, and schools. Use these facilities at low-traffic periods such as the weekends, so as to not interfere with everyday business. Be careful about trespassing on private property. When in doubt, it is always best to get prior approval from the property owner if you are going to be on the property for a training session. Explain what you are doing and why you are doing it. If nothing else, it’s a great way to educate the public about what you do and why you do it. We need as many allies and advocates as we can get, especially when times get tough.
6 Size-up practice. Take photos of various buildings and properties in your first-due area. If you are really creative or have fire simulation software programs, you can add fire and smoke to make the photos more realistic. Don’t limit this one to just company officers. Have all members take their turn practicing size-ups on various static photos. Those firefighters may some day aspire to be company officers or chief officers, or they may find themselves acting as a company officer. If nothing else, even if they want to remain a firefighter for the rest of their career, it will help them to better understand what their supervisor is doing and what they can expect, which should ultimately make them better firefighters. Practice makes perfect.
7 Drafting operations. Even the municipal fire department may find itself having to get out the hard-suction hose and draft water out of a static water source in the absence of accessible fire hydrants. This is one of those skills we do not use that often. However, when you need it, you really need it. Do you work for a city fire department and think you will never have to draft? Imagine a fire at a school with the yard hydrants out of service, inoperable, or inadequate. Your options are a few thousand feet of supply line from the hydrant in the street or the large swimming pool next to the burning building. Make the swimming pool your first choice, and attempt to draft out of it if you know how.
8 Radio operations. Technology has rapidly progressed from the fire service of yesterday when there was only one portable radio on an apparatus and there was only one primary channel for dispatch and maybe one or two channels for command and tactical operations. Today, many departments are issuing portable radios to every person riding on the apparatus. Consider your portable radio as part of your personal protective equipment and a tool for increasing your safety on the emergency scene. Today’s radio may have hundreds of channels, in different zones, banks, or talk groups. Navigating from one channel to another can be a challenge. Your personnel should be able to operate their portable radios with gloves on, in the dark, and blindfolded. Take the time to review how to use the radio, what each channel is used for, when to use each channel, and how to care for and maintain portable and mobile radios.
Also review communication procedures for neighboring jurisdictions and the problems or limitations you may face. For example, our primary dispatch channel is 154.250. A few of our neighbors also use the VHF frequencies. However, a couple of our neighboring departments are on 400-megahertz systems; one is even on an 800-megahertz system. The major problem is that we cannot talk to them on our standard mobile and portable radios. This can be a significant problem, especially during the heat of the battle. Learn how to work around potential communication problems in advance so that if you are ever faced with similar situations you will have a plan for proper communication.
9 Multicompany drills. A creative battalion chief can do a lot with two engines, one truck, and himself. Basically, that is a first-alarm assignment in most jurisdictions. Do not just limit every drill to a residential structure, one-story, and about 1,200 square feet. Spice it up, and be creative. Plan and prepare for wildland incidents, high-rise incidents, mass-casualty incidents, hazardous materials incidents, technical rescue incidents, and just about anything else you can think of. Rotate companies through different positions and roles; if you have people aspiring to promote, this is a great way to get them practice time in the captain’s seat.
10 Apparatus show and tell. Most departments have specialized apparatus beyond the standard engine company. It is very possible that many of your personnel do not get to work on or with those specialized apparatus on a regular basis. For example, if you have a new hazardous materials unit, have the crew explain its capabilities, demonstrate its use, and open up the cabinets and show everyone the equipment. Do not forget to show crews your command vehicle: its capabilities, its limitations, and the equipment it carries. Just as a chief officer needs to know the capabilities of the fire apparatus, firefighters at the fire stations need to know the capabilities of the chief officer’s command vehicle. They may find themselves having to obtain equipment from the vehicle or assisting the chief officer with documentation or rendering some other form of command post assistance at a major incident.
11 Review department information. Take the time to review new rules and regulations, policies and procedures, standard operating procedures/guidelines, and even strategy and tactics for various types of incidents. You can do this in the classroom, at the fire station, or around the tailboard of the apparatus. Review key issues and commonly occurring problems. Many fire departments are at the point of information overload regarding the number of binders with which a firefighter is expected to keep up. Even the best of chief officers cannot remember everything. However, if they can at least remember where to find the information, they are halfway there. Plus, it is a great way for the battalion chief to stay on top of information. It also provides a great discussion and question-and-answer forum.
12 Review firefighter fatality/injury and significant incident after-action reports. You can download this information from many Web sites; you can learn from the good and the not-so-good experiences of others. Also, it is sometimes better to hear information from an actual incident as opposed to a chief officer lecturing about not wanting someone to do something. Provide real life and reality by discussing significant events. We can all learn something from our past tragedies and misfortunes.
Being a chief officer is not easy. Tremendous responsibility and liability come with the position. Many people are under your command; they are counting on you to be the best you can be and to train them to be the best they can be. In many departments, the battalion chief is the senior ranking officer after the chief has gone home for the evening. That is a lot of weight on your shoulders.
Properly preparing your personnel to handle in advance the emergencies and activities they will face is critical. Your customers deserve the best service, and the battalion chief is in a position to ensure that they get the best service possible through highly trained company officers and personnel.
● STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI has been in the fire service since 1992 and is a battalion chief with the Santa Clara County Fire Department (Los Gatos, CA), where he has served since 1995. He is an adjunct faculty member in the Chabot College (Hayward, CA) Fire Technology Program, where he has instructed in fire technology and EMS classes since 1993. He was awarded the 2008 California Fire Instructor of the Year Award, is a former president of the Northern California Training Officers Association, and is a state-certified master instructor and chief officer. Prziborowski has instructed at FDIC and has had numerous articles published in Fire Engineering. He has completed the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and has a master’s degree in emergency services administration from California State University, Long Beach.
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