The Company Officer: Cultivating Reliable Team Members

BY ARMAND F. GUZZI JR.

The company officer is the key player in preparing company members for combat. The most effective way to create a company that is at the “razor’s edge” is to train often. This is by no means an easy task, and there are many bumps in the road ahead for the energetic company officer (CO).

Our journey toward creating a razor-sharp organization begins with accepting the fact that our profession is a dangerous one and that the most effective way to reduce the threats our people face is to prepare them properly (photo 1). This article explores some ways the CO can create a more effective fire company, which will make the CO’s job easier. It will create an environment in which the CO can rely on his people and the company that is envied by other department members.

(1) You don’t have six months to prepare for the big game. There is no time to lose. Your training must begin at the next shift and must continue every day. Company-level training should be varied to prepare your people for a multitude of possibilities. In the above scenario, a tanker is heavily involved in fire. Can your company execute the basics of a foam operation? (Photos by Timothy P. Griffin.)

WHY TRAIN AT ALL?

Never forget, you are only as good as your people! Your troops will make you shine if you prepare them properly, and this preparation is one of the most critical functions a CO performs.

As a CO, accept the fact that you will have to work a little bit harder than when you were a firefighter. To train your people on every single shift means that you will have to spend time and effort planning lessons and doing research. You may even have to devote some of your off-duty time to these endeavors. Some may consider this idea as heresy. However, such a devotion to duty will only strengthen your organization. Consider also that a company’s errors and successes reflect on the CO. Therefore, the good CO has to be consumed with the “job,” always looking to better prepare his people for what may come.

“TALKER” vs. “WALKER”?

Every department has them—firefighters, company officers, and chief officers who “talk the talk”—they “support” safety and organizational effectiveness and doing what has to be done to protect the members. However, the proof is in the pudding! It’s one thing to talk a good game; it’s a whole other thing to “walk the walk.”

It’s very easy to show up for work and be one of the “boys” and sit on the couch all day or read the paper or contemplate with your people what’s for lunch and dinner. It’s a whole different world when you create a razor-sharp organization. It’s not easy. You will not make a bunch of friends initially, but the end result will be the pride your people will feel when they are looked on with admiration.

Do you “talk the talk”? If so, do you also “walk the walk”? You have studied for a year and a half to pass a promotional exam. You went through the entire process and now here you are. The city gives you almost a million dollars worth of equipment and entrusts you with a handful of lives. It’s time to get to work and start turning your people into great assets that can make you look good and protect you from making serious errors in judgment. What? Well, follow me here for a moment. No one is perfect; we all make mistakes (impossible, some of you say). Therefore, one reason you should train your people to the peak of efficiency may sound a bit selfish, but it goes like this.

If you train your crew every shift, if you learn together as a group after every incident, and if you teach your people to think and apply recognized principles, then you will have the brains of a handful of additional members, which will provide you with enormous flexibility and resources that you will especially appreciate on those days when you aren’t at the top of your game! There is no way to remember everything we read, study, or experience, so having your crew thinking all the time gives you an excellent insurance policy for those days you may miss something!

The best reason for training every day and bringing your company to peak effectiveness is that it gives your people a fighting chance to go home to their families. Think about that statement for a moment. Your people are the most valuable resource you have, and their safety should be everything to you. You must make sure they get home to their families at the end of the shift. Granted, injuries and deaths do happen in the fire service, but a CO can prevent many of these injuries and deaths by instilling the proper mindset in company members and by running a quality training program.

WHERE TO BEGIN

The CO should begin with the objective of improving the company’s ability through daily learning. The easiest way to do this is to develop a pattern and stick to it. When you work, your people will know that regardless of rain, sunshine, or snow, you’ll be doing something. Members may complain and bad-mouth such a pattern initially, especially if the company was accustomed to a slower and more leisurely pace. In addition, you may be greeted with additional hostility if the other shifts don’t train as hard or as much. Ignore it. You have no choice but to work hard and develop the best possible resource. You and your people will be safer for it.

Begin building the pattern on your next shift. Start to develop the foundation if it’s not there already. Let your people know that from this point on, you train every shift, including Sundays and holidays. You may train harder on some shifts and engage in lighter classroom or tabletop activities on others; an hour-long tabletop exercise on Sunday morning isn’t going to kill anybody.

Include in your training pattern also checking personal and company equipment prior to the start of your training. A pattern you might create would go like this: equipment check first thing, breakfast, and then training. You might question having an equipment check before breakfast, but what if you have a fire at 0820 hours with occupants trapped and the booster tank is empty because the previous shift had an outside rubbish fire and didn’t fill it? Create a pattern designed to achieve excellence.

Always take into account that you are still in service. There will be days where your training will be interrupted by responses. Keep this in mind when you make your preparations. Think about how you could break your training session down into “bite-sized” segments. This way, it would be easier to pick up where you left off and maintain some type of continuity.

PREPARATION FOR COMPANY TRAINING

The next step is to research prior to the start of the shift. A good training presentation starts with adequate preparation. If you don’t prepare thoroughly, you’re setting yourself up for a sub-par training session, getting a member hurt, or bringing embarrassment on yourself.

Begin your research by choosing a topic. If your department doesn’t have a program or lesson plans in place, you will have to create your own. Some sources for training ideas include the following:

  • Fire Engineering‘s Web site (fireengineering.com). Look for the Training section. In the drop-down menu, you will see “drills”; within this section are hundreds of quick one-page outlines for different training activities.
  • Sources such as firefighterclosecalls.com also offer a variety of drill ideas under the Training and Safety link.
  • For a more thorough training outline and lesson plan, consult “Drill of the Month” on the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute Web site (www.mfri.org/dom/dom.htm).
  • There are other similar links that offer potentially thousands of short one-page drill ideas.

    Concentrate on the basics first, and build on them as the months go by. You can use the same lesson plan again; the skills in which you must be proficient are perishable, and you will lose your touch if you don’t train on them periodically.

    Preparation also includes reviewing articles in the various monthly publications. In addition, there are numerous sources that critique various incidents; after-action reviews and critiques are worth their weight in gold. Use these assets also to form the building blocks of your company training. Depending on how sharp your company is, you might photocopy an article, have each member read it, and then critique or review the article. See how the topic applies to your department. Can a tool or technique work for you? If so, can you go out and try it? Read an after-action review or critique of a fireground injury or death. Determine if it can happen in your department. If so, what can you do now to prevent it?

    Given the availability of textbooks, training outlines, Web sites, and after-action reviews and critiques, there’s no reason a competent CO can’t come up with good material for an effective training presentation.

    The next step for the CO is to research the topic in greater depth. Make sure that what you’re covering is backed up by a recognized source. We live in a time of great litigation, so you have to be able to back up what you are teaching.

    The good CO would have a personal library of all the major textbooks and would routinely check the Web for the latest happenings in the fire service. This never-ending research protects you from litigation as well. For example, if you cover a topic and your outline identifies several nationally recognized sources that discuss the proper way to conduct an operation, you are creating a training environment based on nationally recognized sources.

    Don’t forget the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, to which you can subscribe online. These standards also enable you to identify minimum recommendations. Including these standards and the specific applicable sections in your lesson plans identifies a minimum recognized standard.

    OUTLINES AND LESSON PLANS

    You should have an outline and a lesson plan for each training activity you plan. Save this documentation for future reference. It doesn’t have to be in great depth; outline the basics. My outline for daily training activities is two pages maximum. It includes the following sections:

  • Date.
  • Name and title of instructor or supervisor.
  • Subject.
  • Objective.
  • Location of training.
  • Equipment used.
  • Standards and regulations referenced.
  • Description of training conducted.
  • Summary and remarks.
  • Personnel in attendance.
  • Additional details of the lesson (on page 2).

    Create your lesson plan or training outline with a computer-generated program such as Microsoft Excel® if you haven’t another format already available.

    The CO should also have basic training in how to conduct firefighter training, such as that for Level 1 Instructor in NFPA 1041, Standard for Fire Service Instructor Professional Qualifications. Many firefighters have been injured and killed in training because of poorly trained educators. Level 1 Instructor credentials provide the fire officer with a basic foundation that will help to prevent injuries and deaths on the training ground, but don’t stop with the certification and credentials; keep reading and learning every day.

    The CO must know when conditions may present hazards for those training. For example, training with self-contained breathing apparatus and full personal protective equipment in a vacant building when it’s 100°F and the humidity is at 80 percent is only asking for trouble.

    Basically, company training can be divided into two broad categories: drill ground activities and classroom presentations. Practical activities are a must for the typical engine, ladder, and rescue companies, but so is the need for academic awareness. For example, it’s important to understand how to operate and flow an attack hoseline, but it’s equally as important to understand the theory of water application and fire attack methods.

    Knowing the theory behind our practical activities allows our firefighters to understand why we do certain things (photo 2). This creates an environment where members can analyze the fireground. If you teach your people theory and practice, you’ll create additional sets of eyes and ears to assist you on the fireground. Company members’ extra eyes looking for hazards and their minds constantly thinking and analyzing can make your job easier and safer. You are only as good as your people, so make sure you do everything you can to ensure they are at the top of their game.

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    (2) The fireground is filled with dangers and looming hazards. As a company officer, you cannot see every single thing all the time. If you can train your people to a high level of proficiency, they become an extension of you. They become extra sets of eyes and ears on which you can rely. Their ability to think and see dangers creates an atmosphere where their safety (and yours) is dramatically enhanced. In the above situation, for example, where the structural integrity has been compromised, having extra eyes looking for potential collapse threats and reporting back to the company officer makes for a very effective company. To have such a resource means the company officer must train his people in hands-on activities as well as academic topics.

    Everything we do from the moment we walk through the firehouse door has a potential of liability, but not training your people because of that fear may create an even greater liability to the CO (photo 3). To limit the chance of liability, read and study every day, train to a high standard, document your actions, critique every call you go to, develop your people into great resources who can think and act properly, and earn the applicable professional certifications and college degrees. The end result will be a company that it well respected, has pride in its abilities, and can accomplish a great deal in a safer fashion.

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    (3) There is a liability with everything we do from the moment we walk in the firehouse door. You can limit the chance that some problems will occur by making sure your people are trained properly and to a high standard. This means constant training every day on the equipment to which you’re assigned. When fires do happen, your companies will act and perform as they have been trained. Remember the adage, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” In short, be safe in your training, but train hard because it may be the reason you and your people go home to your families.

    ARMAND F. GUZZI JR. has been a member of the fire service since 1987. He is a career lieutenant with the Long Branch (NJ) Fire Department and is the deputy director of the Monmouth County (NJ) Fire Academy, where he has taught for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in management and undergraduate degrees in fire science, education, and business administration.

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