The Newly Promoted Officer: Maintaining Command Presence

By Justin Thoroughman

It’s 0400 hours, and the tones drop. You rush out to the rig, don your turnouts, and mount up. The call went out as a motor vehicle accident with an entrapment. Everyone is hoping it’s a quick door pop and you’re done. As you arrive on scene, you encounter one of the worst wrecks you’ve seen during your career. Everyone rushes out. You quickly make patient contact as the back-step firefighter begins setting up the hydraulic tools. As you look to your lieutenant, you see his eyes glaze over.

This emergency scene is falling apart quickly. Everyone is freelancing, and the officer has no control over his crew. It’s a scene with which we are all too familiar. The officer is new and easily overwhelmed. It’s human nature; the crew knows what needs to be done, so they do it. Most of the time, they’re right and no one is injured, but all it takes is one mistake and a line-of-duty death report follows.

Without a solid command presence, every firefighter will try to run the scene. Each firefighter will analyze what is wrong and what they think needs to be done. It essentially becomes a movie with no script. It is extremely dangerous and is unacceptable.

For the newly promoted officer, it can be the most challenging part of commanding a scene. The adrenaline is pumping; he is trying to quickly recall everything he was taught in officer school. As he begins to size up the scene, he sees his crew begin operations. It is like he was just hit with a stun gun. He is trying to figure out the best course of action, but his resources have already been depleted. He then begins to analyze whether or not the plan of action his crew is pursuing is the best plan. Nobody wants to stop someone doing a job only to tell him to continue doing what he was doing. Even worse would be for an officer to have the person change what he is doing to something wrong. If the officer ever loses command presence, he will not regain it, and he could lose the respect of his crew along the way.

The best way to defeat this problem is to never let it happen. Begin the call with you in command, and make sure everyone knows it. I have found the following tactics to be beneficial for maintaining command presence.

1. No one exits the rig until you say they should.

You need to establish this ground rule as soon as you begin commanding a company. The first time you introduce yourself, let your personnel know your rules. Enforce this on every call as well, including emergency medical services calls. The more the members do it, the more quickly it will become habit. By not allowing anyone to exit the rig until you say so, you will eliminate freelancing. You will be able to completely size up the situation and develop a game plan without distraction.

2. Create a labor pool.

If you’re commanding an emergency scene, you not only have to worry about your crew but other crews as well. By setting up a staging area, you eliminate people’ arriving on scene and going straight to work. All you have to do is alert all incoming companies to report to staging when they arrive on scene. When responders are tasked out, ensure they know to return to staging when their objective is completed. This will also help maintain accountability.

3. Only crew leaders talk on the radio.

This rule is established to curtail a frustrating situation. It becomes difficult to keep track of what is going on when everyone is talking on the radio. You end up having three people on the same crew giving their views of what their status is. The first time you ask a hose team its status, the senior man says they’re knocking it down. The next time, he doesn’t hear the radio and the rookie describes it as if the world is coming to an end. By having only crew leaders talk on the radio, you maintain accurate reports and don’t have to worry about receiving multiple calls for resources. If two people on the same crew ask for a chain saw, the crew could end up with two even though it needs only one. These types of events can unnecessarily deplete your resources at staging.

4. Use another officer or a senior member as a scribe.

This is one of the most helpful tips I can give you. Being a new officer, you are still learning and will not always have the answers, but the battalion chief should. If you have experienced officers or firefighters on scene, have one of them become your scribe. Not only will you have someone to track resources and times, but you also will have a wealth of knowledge available to you. If you don’t know what route to take on a scene, ask this person.

5. Pass command as soon as you start to slip.

If at any time you feel as if you’re losing control of the scene, pass command to someone higher up. There’s no shame in it. It’s better to have to face defeat than to face the bagpipes. Too many officers let their pride get in the way of commanding a scene. They would rather crash and burn than give up command.

These are tips, not the fix-all solution to everything. You need to be constantly evaluating how you are running scenes and making sure you are leading your crews to your highest potential. Maintaining command presence is just one way to ensure everyone goes home.

Justin Thoroughman is an engineer for the Karns Fire Department in Knoxville, Tennessee. He began his career in Dayton, Ohio, in 2008, and has worked on ladders, engines, hazmats, and rescues.

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