The 21st-Century Company Officer

Firefighters advancing up a stairwell

The company officer position has influence on the safety, efficiency, morale, and direction of the entire fire department that reaches well beyond the vision of the individual officer. As a group, a fire department’s officer cadre is positioned to impact all aspects of department culture and operations rapidly and continuously. Anyone in a leadership role should identify this potential and leverage it to benefit the mission of the department, the welfare of the members, and the safety of the citizens served.

Mission-Critical Roles

Perhaps the company officer’s best-known mission is that of a liaison between the strategic and tactical components during incident operations. Given an objective through the command structure, the officer must often select and oversee the appropriate tactic. Therefore, he must employ expert knowledge of potential alternatives and outcomes to select the best means of achieving the objective. In the 21st-century fire service, these tactical options may involve hazardous materials, emergency medicine, terrorist or hostile events, and natural disasters as well as fires.

(1) Company officers must continually enhance their abilities to remain effective during incident operations and routine activities. (Photo by author.)

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Many roles critical to the success of the fire service mission also involve activities that are conducted off the incident scene. These functions, which encompass the vast majority of an officer’s time and effort, contain elements that are not necessarily new to 21st-century officers. However, the expanded role of modern officers in firefighter wellness, public education, and training has added to the traditional roles of mentoring, institutional knowledge, and company administration.

The 21st-century officer should exemplify the direction of the department in word and deed. The officer should also be aware of emerging safety and health issues in the fire service, especially those that directly impact members of his company. He should act as a “champion” of these causes within the organization to address these matters with the firefighters and on their behalf through the chain of command.

The modern company officer also serves as the primary instructor for the members under his command. His hours of contact with members each week and knowledge of their individual strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles provide a tremendous advantage in developing company-level programs to challenge and teach members with varying degrees of experience. A major portion of this training will likely derive from the officer’s institutional knowledge of his fire department and its district. Not only is the officer expected to pass on lessons learned, but he should also act as a mentor to help advance senior firefighters to transition to the officer level.

As the officer works to fulfill these expectations, he is relied on to be serious, knowledgeable, studious, and calm while conducting routine duties and supervising firefighters at incident scenes. The citizens we serve look to all members, especially supervisors, to define the fire department’s image as the all-hazards public safety organization required in the 21st century.

The Path of Preparation

With the role of the company officer becoming more complex and demanding in the modern fire service, what processes do many fire departments typically use to prepare firefighters to transition into the first-level supervisor position? Do widely used methods produce officers who are well prepared to begin leading a fire company immediately on assignment?

Many fire service organizations require some combination of years in the department coupled with one or more evaluation tools to be promoted to the officer ranks. They typically include a written test, an assessment center, and an interview. Although these evaluation tools may aid in measuring certain attributes in a field of candidates, they do nothing to enhance the skills of that field. The processes often employed to prepare candidates for company officer tend to follow the same methods and materials developed a generation ago. By and large, we have updated much of our recruit training to reflect the needs of modern students and the availability of new learning platforms. The time has come to provide more relevant programs for officer development.

Expertise in raising ladders and stretching hose is just the beginning of a portion of the officer’s function. The company officer must be comfortable with the “Why” and “What if,” having already mastered the “How.” Additionally, the company officer is increasingly relied on to address a challenging list of public expectations and human resource matters as well as an evolving incident response matrix. Armed only with training and experience in incident response, the new officer is often inadequately prepared for the full scope of his duties in the modern fire service environment.

The path of preparation for the modern fire service officer should now include a variety of materials, educational opportunities, and approaches that will provide for the professional growth of the individual; this, in turn, will support the growth of the organization. Although much of the time spent as a firefighter reinforces the policies, activities, and culture within his organization, an important facet of an officer’s preparation and continuing evolution is understanding what the fire service has to offer outside an individual’s own fire department.

Although very limited programs in a small number of departments have placed members from one organization with a department from across the country or world, the ability to offer this experience is too limited to benefit an appreciable number of officers. However, we can expose members to departments outside of their own in several ways.

Much of a firefighter’s training revolves around employing tactics based on the department’s equipment and policies. A company officer must know not only why the strategy was chosen but also what tactic is most appropriate to achieve the objective. We can broaden the company officer’s scope of knowledge considerably by making available training resources outside the department and encouraging professional development. These fire service resources may include county or state fire academies, where a broader instructor cadre is available and resources are more abundant than in an individual jurisdiction. Also encourage other educational opportunities for officers such as conferences, seminars, and workshops conducted by industry and government organizations. Some of these offerings may discuss emerging technologies, scientific research, and human resources materials with which officers must be familiar.

Fire service administrators must also reinforce the value of higher education to provide sustainable supervision for our increasingly complex incidents and work environments. You can achieve this level of education at the National Fire Academy in the “Managing Officer” program. Also, encourage company officers to attend local collegiate programs to study fire science, emergency management, and public administration. The level of commitment required for officers to succeed in these endeavors must be matched by their organizations. Chiefs must acknowledge the value of officers who are well-versed in the fields of human resources and public administration at the company level and who will have the foundation to advance into higher levels of the department over time.

The Financial Aspects

The support structure necessary for company officers to obtain formal education outside of their agencies requires financial as well as cultural commitment from fire department administrators.

Fire companies require leaders who have current knowledge of administrative functions and have the ability to research information, form conclusions, and document findings and recommendations. They can gain this type of expertise through courses of study taken outside of the fire service, providing lessons that officers can use within their companies and when they are promoted to a higher rank.

The cornerstone of company officer development lies in the support of peers and mentors throughout the individual’s progression. Similar to starting in the fire service as a probie, the new officer can benefit greatly from those who have experience in the officer role.

Mentoring

The mentoring process for the company officer position should begin before the firefighter is promoted and tasked with an officer’s responsibilities. In addition to the education and training, the soon-to-be promoted firefighter’s current supervisor should give him opportunities to exercise “command presence” during incidents and while conducting administrative duties. This type of supervised decision making is vital to build confidence and adapt to the “buddy-to-boss” transition required of company officers. The aspiring officer may work with his supervisor on scheduling, report writing, and assigning duties within the company. Wherever possible, the officer may also take a “back seat” and allow his protégé to sit in the officer’s riding position, operate the radio and computer, and size up and make initial decisions and reports during an incident response. Mentoring under some degree of pressure at an incident scene will be most valuable in preparing the new officer for the challenges that lie ahead. The ability to make decisions with the verification of a seasoned officer nearby will preserve incident safety, boost the officer candidate’s confidence, and confirm his decision-making ability.

The process of mentoring within the company should lead to a more formal system as new officers near their date of promotion. Realizing the importance of a well-prepared officer, fire departments should invest in the continued safety and efficiency of operations by allowing the member being promoted several full shifts with the assistance of a veteran officer. Use this period to evaluate the readiness of the member as well as to officially review the policies and practices of the department. On completion of this period, the veteran officer may meet with and review the member prior to the actual promotion to confirm the presence of the attributes required of a company officer as well as provide some thoughtful insight as to how the new officer may continue to develop his skills in the new position.

After this process, fire department administrators must understand that the continued cultivation of skills and guidance are necessary to maintain and develop every officer within the ranks. A peer-mentoring and career-development element is crucial to achieve long-term success.

My department has had tremendous success mentoring our probies. This support network will strengthen as it becomes more structured to aid in cultivating our officer cadre. Using our well-proven model of mentor-based support and adding the formality of structure will help us establish specific goals, measure progress, and determine where guidance may create a more successful outcome.

Numerous options are available for creating a formal mentoring program. The organizational elements will depend on the resources and goals of the jurisdiction where the program takes place. One model for officership mentoring pairs junior and senior officers, which may begin prior to or at the time of promotion, where the senior officer will provide guidance and evaluate progress. In this relationship, the junior officer may also engage the senior officer in new projects as well as rejuvenate him though the challenge of mentorship. This matchup also allows for disseminating years of institutional knowledge. If possible, the officer being shadowed by the newly promoted member may provide an opportunity for a successful match; in many organizations, an officer can act as a mentor to one individual as well as another higher-ranking member simultaneously.

During an initial meeting, this pair should work through a structured format of goal setting. These goals may be specific to an assignment or a department, but they will typically include short-, mid-, and long-range goals as well as areas of strength and weakness in a variety of competencies. The mentoring program may be tailored to the needs of any organization or individual. It may extend through six months, one year, or longer, as there is a tangible benefit to this type of continued guidance, evaluation, and support.

The modern fire service needs well-prepared company officers to handle its dynamic and complex incident response environment and administrative duties. Organizations must address their preparatory efforts in a multitiered approach to training, education, experience, and guidance. In addition, an element of support must be available to assist officers as they navigate the daily challenges of company supervision.

The means to manage a successful officer preparation and transition program is well within the ability of most fire departments. A department’s members and administrators must realize the value of the process and commit to the participation and support necessary to realize its goals.


DAVID DeSTEFANO is a 30-year veteran of and a battalion chief with the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he works as a shift commander in the Operations Division. He previously was the chief of training and safety, a captain, a lieutenant, a firefighter in Ladder Company 1, and a lieutenant in Engine Company 3. DeStefano is an instructor/coordinator with the Rhode Island Fire Academy and lectures on fire service topics throughout southern New England. He was a presenter at FDIC International 2017 and 2018.

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