The Job of a Fire Officer: What the Books Don’t Teach About Managing and Leading

Indianapolis Fire Department officers at the scene of a fire
Photo courtesy the Indianapolis Fire Department.

Preparing for a promotion is a situation that you should not take lightly. You must prepare not only for the promotion itself but for the responsibilities the higher position will entail. Once promoted, you will have to make decisions that impact the crews, the public, and the department. You must lead by example and encourage others to be the best that they can be. The process of setting this example must start way before the promotion. It starts when you are a firefighter doing the job as directed, following orders, seeking education, and finding a mentor for guidance through the process.

I am a battalion chief (BC) for a medium-sized city in the Midwest. As a firefighter, I worked hard to be the one doing the most work at every emergency scene. I always participated in training at every opportunity. I worked on a truck company under a very knowledgeable captain who inspired me to be the very best firefighter I could be. He showed me through his leadership and knowledge how to set myself apart from the others by working hard. I went to every class I could and became certified in all areas of technical rescue. I loved being a part of the technical operations and going above the minimum standards. Over the years, I attended classes for certifications, degrees, and personal development.

My city is a civil service city. For promotions, a written test is given over five to six books, and firefighters are promoted in the order they score on the test plus bonus points for seniority.

I have always been good at school and learning new concepts. I studied these books; came in number one on the test; and, in 2015, was promoted to captain.

I worked for a year on an engine company and was then transferred to a truck company. After a year on the truck company, I once again took a written test for promotion, scored number one, and was promoted to BC.

Although I scored first on these tests, I still had a lot to learn. Once I was promoted, there was no officer school or training academy. I was a firefighter one day and a captain the next. “Good luck, we know you will do fine” was the speech given to me. Luckily, I had prepared myself by attending classes on my own and gained the respect of the members by working hard. I relied heavily on my senior members to help me with the transition. They could have easily let me free fall; however, since I had already established a relationship with them prior to promoting, they helped me with the transition.

This point is key: Do not let your ego take control. Humility is a trait that must be practiced; be humble. Even though I was now in charge, I knew many had more experience than me. Be wise enough to use the knowledge of others around you. No one of us is as smart as all of us. Do not be the officer who does not listen to experienced firefighters and makes a poor decision just to spite them. This officer will not succeed because respect has been lost.

Be a strong leader who uses all available knowledge to your advantage. Tap into all resources possible. Ask for opinions, weigh all options, then implement a plan to accomplish the task.

Commanding Incidents

Since promoting into a leadership position, I have been involved in many situations that were not taught in the fire academy. You must form a solid knowledge base on which to make decisions. This knowledge must span all aspects of fire and rescue. As a BC, I rely on senior captains and firefighters for their experience. I still go to every class I can to further my education. I share this knowledge with my shift through training. We prepare for emergencies by developing incident action plans (IAPs) for foreseeable major events. We also develop preplans for buildings in our response districts. Being familiar with buildings before an emergency only improves our response and our safety.

As responders, we must be able to handle whatever is thrown at us. We must use our education, knowledge, and past experiences to find a solution for the present incident.

One such incident was a vehicle that drove over an interstate bridge into a creek 100 feet below. Inside the vehicle was a family of four. There was no access to the vehicle from below because of high and fast rushing water.

We used our truck companies, paramedics, rope, and water teams. Rescuers rappelled down the steep embankment to find the vehicle in the rushing creek. Two children were found, an adult female was pulled from the car, and an adult man had to be extricated from the car in the creek. These victims were loaded into stokes baskets and lifted out using our aerial as a high point anchor. This operation took a very coordinated approach from multiple disciplines to accomplish.

Another encounter that the books did not address was a fire in a steel foundry. I was captain of the first-arriving ladder truck and found heavy black smoke coming from a mega structure steel foundry. Our normal approach involves going to the front gate and waiting for security to escort us to the emergency scene. This time, security was not at their post. After a few minutes of waiting, we saw an industrial fire brigade truck blow past us and proceed around the north corner of the complex. We decided to follow. On arrival, I walked to the front right seat of the truck and asked what was going on. Personnel explained a caster failed and dumped its load of molten steel. We essentially had a three-story structure fire inside a monstrous steel building. The molten steel was poured on the third floor, which consisted of machinery and utilities; a second story contained offices, break rooms, and corridors; the first floor was covered with molten steel and had electrical lines hanging from the ceiling after being melted.

I assigned my crews to follow the fire brigade members, as they were the subject matter experts in this scenario. My crews were instructed to establish a water supply, hook into a standpipe system, grab hotel packs, and head to the second and third floors. The experts stressed to use fog nozzles, as a solid stream would react violently with the molten steel.

As I walked into the structure, there was fire everywhere. The employees stated they could not shut down the processes because of catastrophic consequences. While we were firefighting, molten steel was still being processed and dumped around us. We had an uneasy feeling. We relied on the knowledge and expertise of the foundry workers to guide our efforts. The outcome was a success. The fire was eventually extinguished, and there were no deaths or injuries.

In these situations, take in the entire scene, process the information, and form an IAP to mitigate the problem. Know the real situation you are facing. Use the vantage point of others on scene to gain valuable information. Find the person with the knowledge of the building—this can be the building owner or manager. From my experiences, the “go-to” people in most situations are usually the custodians and maintenance workers. They know not only the building but the processes of controlling electrical, HVAC, gas, suppression systems, elevators, and any other systems you may encounter.

Being in command involves so much more than running an emergency scene. After my promotion to BC, my biggest worry or concern was making a wrong decision on an emergency scene that would lead to a firefighter injury—or worse. So far, this has turned out to be the easiest part of my new job. Fire scenes work like clockwork in my department. We have well-established standard operating procedures (SOPs) that we train on consistently. We also regularly have structure fires in which our skills are tested. We participate in after-action reviews to discuss deficiencies and make improvement plans.

Being incident commander (IC) is like being a conductor of an orchestra. The crews know their jobs and go right to work. I just need to fine-tune the plan when instances arise. With that being said, don’t get complacent! Your crews are only as proficient as you make them. If you are unhappy with the station or shift you are assigned to, it is no one’s fault but your own. You create the atmosphere and attitudes for personnel.

Managing Personalities

The hard part about being a BC is everything else! There are so many “gray” areas in dealing with day-to-day operations. You will have to deal with personnel issues and provide support. This can be accomplished through employee assistance programs, peer support, critical incident stress debriefings, postincident analysis, and critiques. You have to be familiar with accident investigation, procedures for urine tests, and procedures to put an employee on administrative leave. You have to be proficient at scheduling, documenting, the National Fire Incident Reporting System, grants, and supplies and have a thorough understanding of SOPs, policies, rules and regulations, and the union or bargaining contract.

I was only a BC for a couple of months when I encountered my first challenge. Our department training captain put out new evaluation forms for our newly hired cadets. The forms are filled out daily to record the cadets’ progress. The training captain explained to the department that he wanted these filled out in their entirety. There is a check box list and a space provided for an explanation of the mark received. It is the responsibility of the station captain or, in his absence, an acting captain to fill out the evaluation form. One of my senior “blue shirts” who often rides as an acting captain handed me a cadet evaluation with check boxes marked but with no written explanation. I handed the form back to him and asked him to fill it out completely as requested by our training captain. I stated I wanted written comments on all lines, not just check marks, to explain in detail the performance of the cadets. He took the form, filled it out, and returned it to me. That night, I read over the form as required before sending it to the training captain. I could not believe what I read. In the explanation fields he wrote:

“I am not a professional evaluator.”

“I am not an instructor of any type.”

“In my opinion, I am not qualified to evaluate skills, only perform them.”

“I believe this is a question better left to someone who has more knowledge, skills, and abilities than I have.”

When questioned, the firefighter stated he no longer wanted to function as an acting captain. This firefighter has a history of having a short temper. While golfing, he is known to break and throw his clubs after poor swings or putts. He is, however a strong, smart, aggressive firefighter. As a new BC, I had to deal with this issue to show the shift I would not tolerate this type of behavior.

My writeup follows (quoting Rules and Regulations and Job Descriptions for our department):

Rules and Regulations:

Commanding officers shall maintain order, discipline, proficiency, and efficiency at all times over the people for whom they are responsible.

All members shall maintain sufficient competency and proficiency to properly perform their duties and assume the responsibilities of their position as stated in their Job Description. Unsatisfactory performance may be shown by lack of knowledge of their duties as stated in their Job Description; unwillingness or inability to perform assigned tasks; or failure to conform to work standards established for their rank.

Position Description: Company Officer/Captain—Suppression:

Description of Work: Evaluates employee performance and provides appropriate feedback and follow-up.

In the firefighter/paramedic’s own words, he is not qualified to perform the duties as an acting captain on the fire department. I am hereby suspending the firefighter/paramedic’s ability to act as the role of captain. I am also recommending remediation to be performed through the training division of the department. This will serve as written counseling.

I met with him and his union representative to go over my decision. This firefighter and his representation were not happy with my judgment. They explained that his reaction was a spur-of-the-moment reaction and he still wanted to be acting captain. By not letting him ride as acting captain, I was taking away a pay differential. They also stated there has never been any training provided to fill the role of acting captain—or captain, for that matter. They asked if I would reconsider my decision. I told them I would consider their position and get back to them with an answer within two shifts.

While contemplating the situation, I had to agree with them that no training has ever been given on how to be an officer in our department. I had requested in the past to go to fire officer class on several occasions, only to be denied for financial reasons. As disappointed as I was with this individual, he had a valid point. So, how could I fix this situation while still showing strong leadership qualities? What if I taught the shift Fire Officer I?

I went to our local community college and asked the department chair of Fire and Emergency Services if I could teach this level of a class at our station. He explained since I was a state-certified instructor, I could teach and issue certificates of completion under the authority having jurisdiction—the fire chief. This is the same way we offer our technical rescue certifications in our department.

I received the Fire Officer I program materials from the college as well as materials from another local college. I used the objectives and lesson plans to form one comprehensive document. I then wrote objectives specific to my class that met National Fire Protection Association 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications. I approached the chief and asked for his permission to conduct the training. With his approval, I took on the challenge.

I developed a tentative schedule, with class being offered on shift. I stressed the schedule was fluid. Because of the nature of our job, a class may have to be canceled or rescheduled for an emergency such as a structure fire. I explained there was minimum number of hours required. Each individual class lasted two to three hours per session.

I explained everyone on shift was required to attend; however, only those who completed all assignments and passed the tests would receive a certificate. I also explained that there would be makeup assignments in the form of discussion questions that had to be answered for those on Kelly Day, vacation, sick, and so on for each class session missed.

The class also included six APA-formatted papers. These papers had to be written as homework, and overtime would not be paid to write papers or for any part of this class. I was not sure how the shift would react to this class or if anyone would do the homework.

I conducted class and assigned the required work. I was pleasantly surprised how many members took the class seriously. Many thanked me for putting this class on. Many had stated they had always wanted to take this course but did not have the time or money to do it. The class wrote lesson plans and presented them to the shift, performed employee counseling, gave unpopular orders, conducted preplans, developed a budget for a community needs program, and wrote six papers.

The response was tremendous. The papers I received were outstanding. I learned more by reading their assignments than I did teaching the material. Out of 44 shift members at the time, five already had Fire Officer I certification, seven chose not to participate, and five did not complete all the requirements. At the conclusion of class, I handed out 27 certificates of completion. I was proud that the shift took this education so seriously. I feel this class will yield positive results for the department. Our firefighters are the difference, and it is through them that we make positive changes in our work culture. I plan to offer more classes to my shift. The administration is now considering how to give this training to the rest of the department.

I feel this situation started out contentious on both sides. However, after taking a minute to think, I was able to find a solution that made the department better as a whole. I had to deal with several other issues that did not have such a favorable outcome. My first two years as BC were eye-opening experiences. I thought being a fire officer was commanding emergency scenes. I had a huge awakening to the real job of managing and leading.

Follow your disciplinary procedure and give either a verbal or written reprimand, suspension, demotion, or termination. The union will file a grievance and the process will play out per the provisions provided in the contract. Today, however, there is an added difficulty. Troubled employees claim they are mentally stressed and need counseling or medical help. Now, instead of a straightforward disciplinary issue, it may involve a medical condition and be in the hands of doctors and counselors.

Discipline is not given as it was in the past, because you cannot punish someone for having a “condition.” I absolutely believe in acute stress developed on the job and from home, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and firefighter suicide rates. We, as a profession, need to address these issues and make our organizations better. PTSD is a real medical condition, and an officer must always have the good of the department and each individual member in mind. One reprimand could be the breaking point when accumulated underlying issues boil over. This is when we must encourage coworkers to look out for one another and monitor their peers. We must see that help is sought in these instances.

Some will use this very real national crisis to their advantage. They will play off real problems that others are facing and use it as a crutch to avoid discipline in their own situation. This is a very fine line to walk as an officer. We must take seriously all instances of PTSD to protect our coworkers yet still provide discipline to keep order in the department. Be careful not to judge the person but only the actions that deviated from established norms. Take the time to thoroughly investigate why such deviation transpired and act accordingly. Always follow the recommendation of a doctor’s note. When questions arise, push it up the chain to the next level. If you are the one sitting at the top, involve the legal department and human resources for guidance.

A fire officer has to perform the roles of IC, leader, counselor, disciplinarian, friend, problem solver, thinker, and teacher. In the role of BC, I find myself in the middle between administration and shift personnel. I am still a union member yet in charge of discipline on my shift. This is a very difficult position to be in. I must support the administration and the mission and goals. I have to deliver unpopular orders and still support management. I conduct investigations into problems, field citizen complaints, and administer employee evaluations. And now, I have to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, firefighter exposures, quarantine and isolation, lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), scared citizens, and the resulting growing acute stress on our responders—all the while fulfilling the roles of husband, father, son, and many others. During this pandemic, my view of my entire shift has changed. I have seen it before but never really seen it—the caring, compassion, brotherhood, extraordinary acts of selflessness, and heroism daily, not just on occasion. This gives me hope.

The following is an e-mail I sent to my shift:

This is our duty to the department and to each other:

We keep hearing these are “unprecedented” or “indifferent” times. We hear it from our governor and president every day on the radio, on television, and on social media. I agree with them; however, we still have a job to do. I want to personally thank everyone on third shift who comes to work every day to “do what we do.” We took an oath to protect and serve. When houses are on fire, we run in; we do not run out. We risk a lot to save a lot. These times are no different. Although I have never lived through a pandemic like this before, I will still do what I signed up to do: help others in their time of need and be here for third shift. We need to live the saying of “being our brother’s keeper.” We are public servants; we serve the public.

In our profession, we will be exposed to this virus. We will work with others who have been exposed to it. We will provide care for patients with the virus; we will be around others who provide care who have been exposed. This is why we protect ourselves by wearing our PPE, properly disinfecting our equipment/apparatus, and following our established guidelines. It is our job and duty to work through this pandemic. It is our duty to our station members, our shift, our department, and the citizens to come to work and provide a service. That is what honor, integrity, and selflessness mean. It is time to walk the walk. We are going to battle, and we need all hands on deck. Our crisis is just beginning. Thank you again for all of you who do the right thing when times get hard. We will face the unknown together, we will have each other’s backs, and we will move forward like we always do.

Our Mission:

The mission of the division of fire is to protect life and property of the community we serve from the adverse effects of fires, sudden medical emergencies, or exposure to man-made or natural disasters. We achieve this in the safest manner possible with pride and enthusiasm and through the quick response of dedicated, well-trained professions.

Since making BC, I have attended fire officer and leadership classes to help improve my decision making and preparedness. Although I try to anticipate every scenario, situations arise that no amount of training can prepare you for. These are the times when you must apply learned information, tap into the experience of your coworkers, and seek guidance from subject matter experts.

I feel pretty good now about running an emergency scene as an IC. I know I will find a solution to a problem and make the situation better. I will always be truthful of the situation at hand and the level of danger perceived and be honest and straightforward.

The area I feel uneasy in is dealing with the administrative issues and the many personalities and conflicts among the ranks. There is always someone trying to get away with something. Someone will always try to take advantage of the system. There are many with the “What’s in it for me?” mentality. These are the issues we must overcome as administrators. We must try to establish a cohesive working unit and bring out the best in our employees. This is what leaders do.

We have to remind them occasionally that they took an oath to protect and serve. They may need reminding that we are public servants; we serve the public. The mission of the fire department needs to be established and engrained in every employee. We must work together to provide a work environment where everyone feels welcome and safe.

Be a lifelong student. Be educated and encourage education on your shift. Provide training opportunities and hold your company officers accountable to train their crews daily. Keep abreast of emerging technologies, modern fire dynamics, flow path, building construction, and transitional attack. It is not enough to read the manual on basic firefighting. Our profession is changing too rapidly. Read firefighting magazines. Encourage your crews to keep current on fire service trends and happenings. When the hard decisions must be made, have a solid foundation to rely on. This is our duty as officers and leaders.

Adam Lauer is a battalion chief/paramedic/RN with 25 years in the fire service. He has associate degrees in emergency fire services, emergency medical services, and nursing. He is working on his bachelor’s degree in fire administration at Columbia Southern University. He has Fire Officer I, II, III, and IV; Fire Instructor; EMS Instructor; and 1403 Live Fire Instructor certifications. He is certified in rope, swift water, ice, confined space, trench, heavy vehicle and machinery, and structural collapse and is a hazmat technician.

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