Salvatore Scarpa: Where Did All the Good Captains Go?

By Salvatore Scarpa

Growing up in the fire service, you probably had an image in your mind of the firefighter you wanted to become, didn’t you? Perhaps it was a brawny smoke eater who kicked in doors and fought the red dragon head-on like in the movies. Or maybe, it was drill instructor who had you face-down pushing cement because a hundred push-ups was just the way he started his day. Perhaps the memory that helped you get through the academy was that of the firefighters who showed up in a big fire truck at your school and demonstrated all the incredible tools they carried to save people’s lives. You probably had some mental image of a hero you wanted to be just like when you became a firefighter.

After passing the academy and getting on the job for a few years, your role model has probably shifted. As you gain time on the job, it’s likely your role model has shifted to a company officer you hope to be someday. Ask any firefighter who aspires to that position what traits make a good officer, and you’ll hear words like confident, honorable, experienced, integrity, and more. We all know officers who emulate those qualities. They’re instructors on the shift revealing their knowledge and experience on the drill field or at the burn tower. They’re go getters involved in department projects and constantly going to school. They’re the officers who come to work excited about their job and never complain about their duties, their department, or the front office. These are the leaders on our shift. These are the captains we aspire to be.

But in some departments, in some areas of the country, something has happened in the fire service to change some of that. What’s changing the fabric of our organizations that causes there to be fewer heroes to look up to? Why is it that the company officer struggles to keep students’ attention on the drill field? Why has going to class become more of a firefighter chore than an opportunity to glean new knowledge? Where is the emboldened spirit of our officers’ corps? Where is the zeal and enthusiasm for the job that inspired passion for a calling that is the fire service? Where have all the good officers gone?

Role of the Company Officer

Perhaps one of the most important transitions in a firefighter’s career is when he is promoted to the position of company officer. We’ve all heard the cliches about going from friend to boss, from co-worker to supervisor, and from follower to leader. These are all true, but there’s more to it than that. Becoming a company officer means you’ve taken on a whole new level of responsibilities. You’re responsible for reports to write on every call; for equipment that is supposed to be there at the beginning of every shift so you can do your job; and, ultimately, for the rig that gets you to where your unique skill set is required. But that’s the easy part!

The company officer is also responsible for the lives of the crew he leads. This is true every time you get on the apparatus to go somewhere and look back to make sure every member is seat belted in. This is true every time you take your crew through a door down a smoke-filled hallway to find a fire or a victim in an unfamiliar building. It is also true when you sit down with your shift and train on communicable diseases they may encounter while running an EMS call; when you go over policies and procedures and standard operating guidelines for respiratory protection during overhaul; even when you conduct a post incident analysis of a call or review near miss cases that occurred in other jurisdictions.

The company officer functions in the capacity of a mentor and coach for other firefighters. As a mentor, the company officer provides guidance and offers opportunities for development. By being an active listener, the officer can identify strengths and weaknesses of the firefighters he supervises. This critical insight provides a blueprint of sorts for developing opportunities for learning that will aid the firefighter along his career path. As an officer, you have a responsibility to help develop those you supervise. Weaknesses in application of skills are opportunities for training. Deficiencies in personal behavior or habits are opportunities for coaching. Providing alternatives and allowing individuals to determine the best course of action are classic coaching techniques that help members develop to their full potential. After all, isn’t that what we want for our members?

The company officer has the responsibility to be a role model. As a role model, all facets of your life are up for observation–and scrutiny. People in general have role models throughout their lives both in and outside the fire service. I remember as a young person the people I looked up to and considered my role models; they were always on display. If they were teachers, fire officers, or even family members, I never just thought of them simply in the capacity of their roles. I admired them as a whole person. For example, one of my teachers growing up was also a family friend, so I frequently had the opportunity to see how he interacted with me and others in a variety of circumstances: in the classroom, in church, in our home. When I observed fire officers, I viewed them both on and off the job to see how they lived their lives, how they interacted with their family and their community, as well as how they led the crew at the station.

When you’re someone’s role model, you can’t just turn it off. The idea that you are on display as a role model 24/7 (beyond the role in which you typically see yourself) should have as profound an impact on you as it does on those who look up to you. It’s not good enough to be proficient in your role as a fire officer. You need to be a good officer, a good family member, and a good community member. The image of a role model can be shattered quite easily. How would you react if you found out that someone you looked up to and respected was a heavy drinker, who routinely staggered out of bars flashing the officer badge to avoid any legal troubles with public intoxication or drunk driving? My guess is your entire image of that person would change dramatically. You may even lose respect for them as an officer and a person. Thus, it’s important to remember that your obligations as company officer don’t end at shift change!

The Right Stuff

It’s likely that few company officers today took on the challenge of becoming a lieutenant or captain with the intention of being bad officers. No one works hard for the promotion just to ride out the position for the rest of their career (generally speaking). I remember when I tested for promotion to captain. One of the evaluators asked me, “Why do you want to promote to the position of company officer?” I had my answer already prepared and I responded without hesitation: “I want to be a company officer because I want to be in a better position to effect change. This position affords me that opportunity.” As a company officer, you have a tremendous opportunity to influence change, to effect a positive outcome, and to make a difference in people’s lives. What have you done with your position?

The position of a company officer is one of leadership. You have an opportunity to lead. Consider what you are leading your crew and those around you to do. Are you inspiring them to achieve something greater than themselves? Are you challenging them to be a part of something that impacts their community? Are you directing them to enable their career to have an influence in the fire service? Harold S. Geneen (past president and CEO of ITT Corp.) says, “The essence of leadership is the ability to inspire others to work together as a team–to stretch for a common objective.” As a leader in your department, you have the responsibility to draw on the strengths of your team to achieve something. This is not just true on the fireground but in general as well. What can your crew do for the shift, the department, the fire service, the community?

In the Kansas City (MO) Fire Department (KCFD), a group of talented and dedicated individuals took a tragedy in their department and turned it into something incredibly positive. In December 1999, KCFD Battalion Chief John Tvedten was operating at a four-alarm fire in a large warehouse when he became disoriented after being separated from other firefighters. Running low on air, he issued a “Mayday” call for help. Although rapid intervention crews were able to locate him, they were unsuccessful in reviving him after he had succumbed to the smoke and toxic gases of the fire. Several KCFD firefighters honored his memory and 26 years of public service by developing a Large Area Search Team (LAST) program that they have presented to fire departments across the country. They banded together to develop a program designed to teach firefighters how to search for missing or trapped firefighters in large structures. Their program has impacted a great many organizations. Their team effort, inspiration, and leadership transcended themselves and their organization and have made an impact on the fire service at large. How honorable is that? (Remember the words used to describe those you admire? Was honorable one of them?)

Some might argue that the essence of being a good officer is being expertly skilled in fire attack, extrication, rescue, and all those technical competences. While this is important, being a good officer is a lot more than knowing your way around the fireground. Being a good officer also means being a good listener, a good mentor, and a good coach. It’s seeing the good in your firefighters and challenging them to be better. Make no mistake, a competent, trained, and confident fire officer should be a fire scene tactician. He should be able to “slay the dragon” and save the victim. But he should also be able to develop subordinates so that they can become successful officers as well.

The Model Officer

What was it that inspired you to become an officer? What characteristics do you expect your fellow officers to exhibit? What do others who are looking to become officers need to bring to the table? An incessant desire to improve yourself and those around you is a good start. The model fire officer is constantly seeking new knowledge and looking to pass that knowledge along to others. Being a lifelong learner is critical to not becoming stagnant in your career. The modern fire service can be adequately characterized as dynamic and changing. As such, it is critical to stay abreast of the latest in trends, technology, and techniques to be most effective in your job.

A passion for learning and a passion for teaching often go hand in hand. A good fire officer must also seek to pass along the knowledge he has gained to others on the crew, the shift, the department, and the service in general. Consider that every officer must constantly be engaged in an effort to train his replacement (also known as succession planning). Chances are that you don’t want your replacement to be like you; rather, you want your replacement to be better than you. Put your people in positions where they can succeed and they will. Give them opportunities to be challenged and to grow and they will surprise you. As leadership coach James Rowan says, “All great leaders train leaders while they are leading.”

Finally, good officers should be engaged and enthusiastic. Engaged officers are building networks and involved in the fire service beyond their organization. They recognize that there is more to the fire service than just what their organization has to offer. They recognize the value in engaging with colleagues from other organizations (even outside the fire service) to expand their paradigm and keep them sharp. Engaged officers are enthusiastic. They’re enthusiastic about their job, their organization, and the service in general. They see value beyond what their career brings for them and they’re passionate about sharing it with the community they serve. These are the kind of role models officers should aspire to be.

There is no doubt that the fire service today is full of talented firefighters and experienced officers. The firefighters are looking at those in positions of authority and observing their behavior both on and off the job. They’re looking to see whom they should model their careers after so that they may be successful officers in the future. Today’s fire officers must realize that part of their charge as supervisors is to develop their subordinates. They should model good behaviors and help firefighters become part of something larger than their organizations. They should provide leadership, mentoring, and coaching as they work to train a superior replacement. They should strive to instill the importance of education and engagement so that their careers are both rewarding and fulfilling. If we fail in this endeavor, if we’re not good stewards of our positions, we’ll someday be wondering, Where have all the good officers gone?


SALVATORE SCARPA is the deputy chief for the Shawnee (Kansas) Fire Department. He has served more than 22 years in the fire service in career and volunteer departments. He is a national presenter on emerging issues in fire service leadership.


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