The 2014 Company Officer: Are You Up for the Challenge?

BY STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI

Regardless of what your fire department calls the rank of company officer (sergeant, lieutenant, captain, or senior captain), it is critical to know what you are getting yourself into should you aspire to serve at that rank or should you already be serving in that position. Often, many fire department personnel seem to begin the promotional preparation process or accept the company officer badge from their chief without knowing what it involves.

In my travels around the country discussing and presenting classes related to promotional preparation, leadership, and company officer development, I am still amazed at how many future and current company officers are in over their heads with regard to not knowing what they are in for on promotion to company officer. It’s quite scary to hear some of the things I am told or overhear from personnel serving as or aspiring to be company officers. Many do not know what they do not know, which is frightening. It still amazes me how many ears perk up and jaws drop when I discuss the significant amount of responsibility and potential liability a company officer in today’s fire service faces each day by coming to work.

THE CHALLENGES

The position of the fire service company officer has never been more challenging. Why? For a number of reasons including, but not limited to, the following: liability, responsibility, accountability, safety, public perception, lack of preparation typically offered to new company officers (training, education, and mentoring), reduced staffing or resources, social media, generational differences, and public expectation. Don’t get me wrong. I can also argue that every rank and position within the fire service above and below that of company officer comes with its own challenges and that no one rank or position is more important than another. However, the focus of this article is on the company officer.

As a chief officer, I feel that the company officer has the most challenging position in today’s fire service. Personnel in other ranks can argue otherwise, and I respect their opinions and beliefs. Let me explain why I believe the company officer of 2014 (and even beyond) has the most challenging rank or position.

It seems as if the majority of incidents a fire department responds to are or can be handled by a single company (engine, truck, rescue, or ambulance). Some may argue that emergency medical service (EMS) responses make up more than 70 percent of the responses in most communities and that those responses usually get an engine and an ambulance, so that equals two. Yes and no. In some communities, the ambulance is not provided by the fire department, and the fire department sends only one company. In some communities, the only company that may respond to an EMS call is a private ambulance company or even a fire department ambulance. In other communities that send a fire department engine and ambulance, the ambulance typically does not have a company officer onboard in most cases. So even if two companies are responding, there is still only one company officer.

Regardless of what apparatus gets dispatched to a response, it all gets back to one company usually handling most calls. That one company is usually supervised by a company officer. Even if multiple companies are responding to a single incident, many of those multiple-company responses are still handled by one company. If your department sends multiple companies to a response that sounds like a fire alarm, I will bet the overwhelming majority are false alarms where the first company investigated and cancelled the remainder of the response.

In all of those single-company responses, the one person who has the greatest chance to make or break the outcome of that response is the company officer. Don’t get me wrong: The engineer and the firefighters on the apparatus are very important personnel with their own challenges and responsibilities, but if what they do while on duty is not to the standard of the department or the public, is inappropriate, or is unethical or illegal, who will be held accountable? The company officer, their supervisor, will also be held accountable. The reason is that as the supervisor, he should have made his personnel aware of the behavior expected from them and should have done a better job training, educating, and mentoring them.

Examples

Let’s take the case of a fire apparatus driver who knowingly runs a red light and hits a privately owned vehicle, damaging the vehicle and injuring civilians and maybe the fire personnel on that engine. The end results are that the fire engine is totaled and there will be numerous medical bills as well as insurance claims and repair bills-all for running a red light. Chances are that in this situation, the local law enforcement agency will find the driver responsible for the accident, since apparatus are not guaranteed the right of way when responding with lights and sirens; we are only requesting the right of way. The department will take disciplinary action, which may include termination of the job, against the driver.

The law enforcement agency will probably not be able to charge the company officer because the vehicle codes or laws usually address only one driver per vehicle. However, in many fire departments, that company officer will be held responsible for the driver’s actions and may even face disciplinary action because he failed to do the job, supervise! This really isn’t any different from parents being held accountable for the actions of their children. Now I realize there is an age difference; I say that not meaning to be disrespectful toward firefighters or engineers. I am trying to correlate the actions of being a parent with those of being a supervisor. Although not exactly the same, those who are parents and supervisors can probably agree there are some similarities. I know many will think it ridiculous to discipline the supervisor; however, who was in the best position to train the driver? Who could have said, “Slow down” or “Stop”? The company officer is the commander of the company and is ultimately responsible for what occurs on his watch.

I remember hearing a firefighter friend of mine in another department complain about the captain’s being a “jerk” because the captain relieved firefighters of their driving duties because they were driving too fast. Apparently, the captain told the driver to slow down. For whatever reason, the firefighter did not listen and continued to exceed the speed limit. Since the firefighter did not comply with the first request, the captain ordered the driver to immediately pull over and switch spots with the firefighter riding in the back (the department, like the one I work for, runs three-person engine companies, and both firefighters are trained to drive apparatus).

This firefighter was furious for being insulted like that and for being called out in front of the other firefighter. Further questioning revealed that the captain never yelled at him, but he was stern and to the point. After the new driver took over, the captain told the firefighter, “We’ll talk about this when we get back to the station; for now, focus on handling the call we’re almost at.” The engine made it safely to the call, albeit a short delay to swap drivers, and the emergency they were summoned for was handled without incident. The replacement driver drove the apparatus back to the station without incident, and the original driver and the captain had a long discussion, which included a review of expectations (which included following department policy and the state vehicle code, both of which were apparently violated while responding), discipline, and a performance improvement plan and evaluation period to ensure the same behavior was not repeated.

Was that company officer a jerk for doing what he did, or was he just doing his job? How many company officers would not have even said anything in the first place? They may have let the behavior continue and shirk it by saying, “That’s the way he always drives” or “He’s been driving like that for 10-plus years; I’m not going to change him,” basically enabling and condoning the behavior. The company officer was doing what he was paid to do-be the supervisor; be the one who says no when needed, the one who provides a reasonably safe work environment for personnel, ultimately being the designated adult he is expected to be.

Did that company officer insult the driver? Well, that comes down to perception. Not having been in the apparatus and without the chance to talk with the third person in the engine or the captain, my opinion is that the driver felt insulted because the captain was doing his job and because the driver, whom I know pretty well, did not like someone telling him how to do his job, especially after he had been doing it for a number of years without incident (or so he said; I believed him because he was my friend). I think the captain was just doing his job and did the driver a favor. Company officers are there to prevent their personnel from hurting themselves and others. Also, the driver was insubordinate to the captain for not responding to the first direction to slow down.

I told my friend, the driver, when he asked for my opinion, that the captain probably saved his career and his marriage by doing what he did. He looked at me as if I were an idiot and not a good friend because I was not taking his side. Sensing that this was the case, I added that had that captain not done what he did, there was a good chance that one day something really bad would have occurred, because bad behavior that has no consequences one time usually encourages the individual to continue with the same behavior until he gets caught or something really bad occurs.

In the case of the driver above who ran the red light, if he had killed or injured someone, he would have been cited by law enforcement and would have faced disciplinary action, which could include termination. Then he would have been out of a job and wouldn’t have been able to provide for his family.

Knowing what I know now, I believe the captain handled it correctly. Remember the saying, “Praise in public, discipline in private”? The captain did just that. Had the captain not stopped the inappropriate behavior immediately, it would have meant he condoned the behavior.

If the captain did not act, the other firefighter who was riding in the jump seat of the apparatus and was asked to drive could have interpreted the captain’s inaction as approval of the driver’s behavior. When something inappropriate occurs, there is usually at least one person watching the situation unfold and looking to see if the supervisor will do something to correct the inappropriate behavior. The officer must do the right thing, do his job, even if it is difficult to do so.

Driving fire apparatus and responding to incidents are only two of the many responsibilities and liabilities a company officer must manage, supervise, and lead. Look at any fire service publication and you will see situations occurring daily across the country like those mentioned above. These incidents involve on-duty fire department personnel and engender negative publicity for the department, the community, and the overall fire service. They also result in disciplinary actions, investigations, and taking money from the budget to pay legal fees, medical costs, and repair services.

Too often, we learn about on-duty personnel at the fire station (or some other work-related location) involved in inappropriate behaviors such as cheating, stealing, drug dealing or drug purchasing, using alcohol, engaging in sexual transgressions, committing domestic violence, or some other negative behavior.

PREPAREDNESS

Ultimately, company officers need to be on top of their game, 24/7, 365 days a year. Why? Because their personnel, their supervisors, their department, and the public expect them (and their personnel) to be prepared and ready when they get a call. At the bare minimum, company officers should be continually searching for training ideas for their personnel.

The following resources can help the busy officer with fulfilling the training needs of personnel:

  • Fire service trade publications: Every month, a new issue of Fire Engineering (in digital and print) arrives in the mailbox or the inbox. Each issue is jam-packed with articles that cover a variety of fire service topics. If your department provides each station with a copy each month, that is great. If not, spend the money to get your own subscription. Take the time to first review the entire magazine and then hand select a few articles to share with your crew, picking out in advance certain points for discussing (some may be current topics, trends, or hot buttons; all will enhance the discussion) to reinforce your personnel’s skills.
  • Free e-mail mailing lists: Some of the best of these lists to keep you and your crew on top of what is going on in the fire service locally, nationally, and internationally are the following:
    Fire Engineering: http://www.fireengineering.com.
    Firefighter Close Calls: http://www.firefighterclosecalls.com.
    -The United States Fire Administration: https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/USDHSFA/subscriber/new?.
    -The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation/Everyone Goes Home: http://www.everyonegoeshome.com.
  • Social media outlets: I used to shy away from the social media outlets mostly because I was unaware of the potential each can offer. Granted, each can present a set of problems if I choose to do something stupid such as posting pictures or words that could be considered unethical, illegal, insensitive, or just plain inappropriate for whatever reason. However, lately I have found the value of Twitter-not necessarily for tweeting something but to stay on top of the abundance of information available at our fingertips at a moment’s notice. Facebook is another social media tool that can have its plusses if used appropriately.

Every company officer should subscribe to all if not the majority of the above resources as well as others. Doing so allows you to keep your finger on the pulse of the fire service and, more importantly, your and your crew’s knowledge, skills, and abilities. If you scour these resources on a regular basis, you should have no problem finding training items for your personnel.

Remember also that the hands-on practice is necessary for everyone from the rookie firefighter all the way up to the most senior person on the job. Even the 30-year veteran firefighter needs to regularly practice donning a self-contained breathing apparatus in the department’s standard timeframe, throwing ladders (especially those not regularly used), and performing other basic skills we sometimes take for granted. Sometimes long-time veteran firefighters don’t take the time to improve their knowledge, skills, and abilities through regular training or self-education.

When I was a newly promoted captain, I went to different stations before I was assigned my permanent station and tried to inspire and motivate the senior personnel to get out and train. Some reacted as if I were asking them to cut off their legs and move to a foreign country. Of course, many loved to go out and train. I have observed that some of the more “veteran firefighters” need training the most. They have convinced their captains for many years that they don’t need to train for whatever reason, and their captains didn’t want to rock the boat. If you don’t train, you lose your edge and your sharpness.

In many cases, it’s not that these veteran firefighters can’t do the training or what is asked of them but that they are probably embarrassed to have to show what they know in front of others, especially the newer members who may look up at them. I don’t always jump up and down when I get to participate in certain training events, but I have never found a training session that I looked back on as a waste of time. I can honestly say that I was happy for participating in virtually every training session because the training humbled me and showed me I was not perfect. That’s why it’s called “training.” I would rather make the mistakes during training than during the real incidents when all eyes (including social media eyes) are on my company and me.

The company officer, if you have not figured it out by now, is the training officer of his crew. Some departments have a dedicated training officer who may be a company officer or chief officer assigned to work a 40-hour workweek at the administrative offices and is responsible for determining the overall training plan and scheduling of the activities the personnel complete throughout the year. It is sad that in today’s economy, the positions that often get reduced or eliminated first are those 40-hour office positions in training and fire prevention-all of which are there to support the line personnel. I cringe when I hear company officers complain about the lack of training being provided by their department. If you don’t like it, change it! There are so many resources out there for company officers to use to train their crew that there should be no excuse not to train your personnel every day. Make every day a training day!

Ever since I entered the fire service, I remember hearing the need to “get my two hours of training in each day.” I think that number is a pretty universal one no matter where you work. The challenge is trying to get two hours in at once. Working in the fire service, you realize how easy it is for the day to get shot or get away from you if you don’t start each day with a plan and attempt to stick with that plan. When I worked in the fire stations, I remember seeing a day get shot, which as a firefighter wasn’t a bad thing. But, as a company officer, having a day get shot without getting anything accomplished is not usually the best thing because the work keeps piling up and, at some point, your supervisor-the battalion chief-will be on you asking why you aren’t getting your training hours completed, your hydrants inspected, your fire prevention inspections completed, and so on.

I remember it well: Start the day at 0800 hours, go check out the rigs, around 0900 hours go into the kitchen for a bite to eat and to review the plan for the day, go over any necessary e-mails or official department memos that went out since we last worked, and then the bells would go off. After an EMS response, we were back at the station. It was time to do the paperwork and the patient care report. It’s now 10:30 a.m.; well, we might as well just go to the store to shop for the day’s meals. Back at the station at around 11:30 a.m. after doing a little shopping and “area familiarization.” It’s time to prepare and eat lunch. We get another call; a fire alarm is sounding. Back in quarters at around 1:00 p.m., time for the safety nap. It is now around 1:30 p.m. The bells go off for another EMS response. Back in station at around 2:15 p.m. We need to do all the related paperwork. Next thing you know, it’s almost 3:00 p.m. It’s too late to do anything now. We might as well try to get the workout in before it’s time to prepare dinner. Does that story sound familiar? All too familiar, I bet. Another day is shot with no training or minimal training, another day without getting to those fire prevention inspections or hydrant maintenance duties, and that was a light day with minimal call volume!

Just because you run a lot of calls, it doesn’t mean you’re dialed in when it comes to your training. All of us need regular ongoing training and education if we want to be on top of our game. If you’re a company officer who thinks the above scenario where the day is shot without any training (at least two hours per day-two quality hours at the minimum) happens more than you care to mention, it’s time to reevaluate how you plan your day.

Instead of trying to get in two hours of training at a time, shoot for little blocks-15 minutes here, 30 minutes there. Maybe while you’re having the morning briefing each day while at the kitchen table having breakfast, throw in a Firefighter Close Calls e-mail that came out on your off day or pick an article or a cover shot from a magazine to review and discuss, or review a department policy or standard operating procedure. Each of these is a quick little drill that doesn’t take up too much time.

The morning briefing around the kitchen table is very valuable in so many other ways. When I was a captain working at a double-company station, the other captain had a routine of reviewing with me when I first arrived the logbook since we last worked. If we got off duty at 0800 hours four days ago, he would open up the log book starting from when we left the station and would review all of the responses and items worthy of making the logbook such as station repairs, apparatus issues, or other significant events that may have occurred but that might not have been passed on to us verbally by the off-going crew. This ensured that we did an extra special morning checkout and that we were up-to-date on what was happening in our company since we went off, and it taught us to learn our first-due area. If we knew the crew ran a cardiac arrest call at 0330 hours last night, we checked the oxygen tank to ensure it wasn’t empty. We knew the emergency medical technician or paramedic on the rig would have checked it (at least I expect them to do so every day, but as we know, complacency sets in for the best of us, myself included), but it doesn’t hurt to really be on the lookout for things like an empty oxygen tank. This has never happened to you, has it? You come to work and the oxygen tank is empty or the engine’s water tank is empty because the previous shift had a drill or a vehicle fire and forgot to refill the water tank? Never?

The other captain would also take the time to review all of the responses that had occurred in our absence. He would say, “Engine, 1 went to an EMS call at 28555 Stevens Creek Boulevard,” and expect us to point in the direction of the address. He would also then ask what side of the street it was on. He asked other questions related to the location-if it was an apartment complex or a shopping center, or about other target hazards: “Where are the hydrants? Is the building sprinklered? Where is the fire department connection located? How many stories is the building? What length of ladders would reach the roof?” All of these questions forced the entire crew (including me as the newly assigned captain to the station) to learn our area quickly to ensure we weren’t embarrassed in front of each other.

When it comes to documenting the training you and your crew performed, be accurate. I recently had a firefighter who I have known for a long time tell me point-blank, “You know my captain is just pencil-whipping the training.” I was happy that he felt so comfortable to say something to me, and I was also surprised (not shocked) to hear him saying that to me. When his captain’s face flashed in my head, it didn’t surprise me as much as disappoint me. The firefighter went on to say how busy they were and how it was just unrealistic to get all of the training being pushed on him and everyone else done each month. We had a little discussion on that. I tried not to get emotional and show my frustration. After the firefighter kept saying how much he liked his captain (not because of the pencil-whipping but because of some other things), I said something to the effect of the following: “I guess your captain doesn’t give a hoot about you, your family, or your crew.” The firefighter looked at me with a perplexed look and said, “I don’t understand what you mean by that.” I said, “If your captain gave a hoot about you, he would be actually and physically training you every day, training you until you hated his guts, training you all days of the week and all hours of the day until you were exhausted.”

On occasion I’ll hear someone say that we send out too much training information and that it becomes information overload. I can live with that. At the end of the day, if you hate me for sending out too much training material, so be it. I can at least go to sleep knowing I did the best I could for my personnel as opposed to not giving out enough training material and then having something bad happen (a firefighter injury or fatality or an emergency incident become much worse or go wrong because of our lack of preparation and training, for example). When personnel complain about information overload, I remind them that I completely get it and that if they think they have to deal with information overload, they should check my inbox on any given day. I totally get it and realize I need to continuously do a better job at organization and processing the information. I want to be the best I can be because our personnel demand me to be.

Whether you are a company officer or you aspire to be one, it is critical to understand as much as you can about the rank or position as soon as possible. If you have yet to become a company officer, you are in an excellent position to do your homework and preparation to ensure you are ready to not just be a safe beginner but also hit the ground running.

If you are already a company officer, as they say, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t strive to be the best you can be and challenge yourself to kick it up a notch.

Remember, your job as the company officer is not to be everyone’s buddy or best friend. Be the designated adult everyone expects you to be and you will be able to honestly say at the end of each day that you’ve done the job you were expected to do!

STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI, a 20-plus-year veteran of the fire service, is the deputy chief of training for the Santa Clara County Fire Department in Los Gatos, California, where he has worked since 1995. He is an instructor for the Chabot College (Hayward, CA) Fire Technology Program. He is a state-certified chief officer and master instructor and has Commission on Professional Credentialing chief fire officer designation. He has a master’s degree in emergency services administration and has completed the Executive Fire Officer Program. He is the author of one promotional preparation and two entry-level firefighter preparation books that were published in the fall of 2013.

Steve Prziborowski will present “2014 Company Officers: Are You Up for the Challenge?” on Friday, April 11, 8:30 a.m.-10:15 a.m., at FDIC 2014 in Indianapolis.

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