Photo by Tony Greco.
By Thomas A. Merrill
Congratulations! You have just been elected or appointed to an officer’s position in your volunteer firehouse. This incredible accomplishment is one that should make you feel proud. As a matter of fact, being an officer is such a big deal that it should be considered and announced as a promotion, just like it is in the career fire service. A promoted officer should be honored to assume his new role, whether it is on the firematic or administrative side. However, as I discussed in my previous article, there is no “on/off switch” that you can suddenly flip to instantaneously gain the support and confidence of the membership.
It’s important to realize that the skills and traits that might have served you well and helped you get promoted are not the same skills and traits that will make you a successful officer, nor will they necessarily help sustain you as an officer. Those needed skills and traits do not come with this election or appointment, either. As an officer, your strengths are exposed to a much larger group, and so are your weaknesses.
There are several things you can do to help you settle comfortably into office and, at the same time, enhance your reputation as a competent and dedicated officer who takes his new role seriously.
When promoted to the officer ranks, remember, you are being watched and judged at all times. Everything you do and say is observed, critiqued, and even criticized. Accept it; it comes with the territory. Heck, you probably did the same thing when you were a firefighter. So, don’t concern yourself with that; simply do more and say less. Start doing the work required of you, which includes developing a positive officer reputation.
Recognize that, by taking on the officer role, you are making a strong commitment to your department as well as your fellow members. You commit to working hard to take care of your department by ensuring your areas of responsibility are met in a consistent manner. Bills are paid, minutes and correspondence are up to date, and equipment is in working order. The members are taken care of because necessary supplies are stocked up, members are properly trained, and their personal equipment needs are fulfilled.
To be sure, this commitment does not mean you throw your life away. It’s imperative to maintain a healthy balance of family and personal life with your job, which can be very difficult in the volunteer fire service. It requires focusing on good time management skills and understanding the importance of taking advantage of the time you have to commit to your officer responsibilities.
Strive to gain respect, and do not worry about trying to be popular. We all know it’s important to maintain positive relationships in the volunteer fire service, and popularity does play a role in those dreaded volunteer fire service elections. However, if you focus on working hard and consistently, are responsible in your obligations, and you treat people with respect, you need not worry about being popular.
Remember, as an officer, it’s always about “them” and never about “you.” You should strive to be selfless instead of self-serving. Far too often, officers seek the perks of office but are not willing to pay the price of being in the office. The new officer loves the shiny helmet, riding in the front seat, or travelling to out-of-state training conferences, but he does not relish getting up three times in the middle of the night, recording meeting minutes month after month, or performing weekly equipment checks. However, understand that this is all part of the job and comes with the title. It’s called responsibility, and successful officers take responsibility for the jobs expected of them.
Some of these jobs come with the office. Secretaries are expected to record the minutes and write correspondence. Treasurers pay the bills. Lieutenants might be expected to maintain apparatus and certainly are expected to respond to emergency calls.
Other jobs are delegated to officers. The chief may assign a lieutenant responsibility for the foam inventory. The president may put a member of the board of directors in charge of the soda supply. Not all the jobs required of officers are glorious or glamorous, either, but they are all critical to the smooth running operation and overall success for the department. Whatever is assigned to you, take the attitude that no job is beneath you. Take pride in all that you do. Whether it’s being in charge of your newest rig, your department budget, or stocking the coffee, be the best you can be at it.
When I was very young officer, one of my first assignments was our hazardous materials supplies. I had little interest in doing this, and I must admit I knew very little about hazmat. I could have easily done the bare minimum and paid little attention to it. I could have simply held out for another year of seniority and hoped that the following year, with a bit more seniority in the ranks, I could convince the chief to move me on to something else that I viewed as more exciting, but that’s not why members elected me; they elected me to take care of whatever the chief delegated to me. They trusted me to do my job.
So, I accepted the assignment and immersed myself in it. I educated myself, and then emptied out, cleaned, and reorganized the hazmat kits. By doing this, I not only learned what was carried in each kit, but it caused me to ask questions if I didn’t understand what something was. It caused me to ditch my ego and ask senior members or previous officers questions and look to them for answers. Before long I was even teaching drills on hazmat! Our members saw that I took my job seriously and could be counted on to take care of my areas of responsibility. By doing that, I was also taking care of them because, one day, the supplies might need to be stocked up, organized, and ready to go. Members were now also trained and better prepared to do their job.
This happened again recently with my relatively new role as a fire commissioner. I was assigned responsibility for “fixed assets.” “What are fixed assets?” I asked myself. Well, I had to ask questions and learn what was expected of me with this new assignment. Again, I immersed myself in this new area of responsibility and, before long, not only understood what it was all about but continuously updated our inventory list and kept everything up to date.
Some call this the “ownership mentality,” which is an important trait of the successful and well-respected officer. You own your assignments. You take responsibility for your assignments. You don’t ignore your assignments.
The successful and respected officer understands that ownership means consistency, and most jobs need to be done consistently. You can’t just do them once and be done. Think of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) checks, rig equipment checks, meeting minutes, and paying department bills. Even delegated jobs such as running the annual fire prevention tours must be done year in and year out. It’s not uncommon to see a new officer start off like gangbusters and put time and effort into his new role only to see it taper off within a short time frame. Or, he begins to take shortcuts and not do what’s expected or required of him because he grew bored with the consistent effort needed for the job. Highly respected author, speaker, and retired Deputy Chief Frank Viscuso has stated so accurately, “Committed people follow through on what they say they are going to do long after the mood in when they said it has passed.” In addition to how you conduct yourself in the firehouse and your performance on the fireground, nothing speaks louder for an officer’s reputation than efficiently doing the jobs for which he is responsible in a consistent and timely manner.
By taking care of your jobs consistently, you are being visible around the firehouse, which is extremely important for officers. This does not mean you live there. As I stated earlier, your paid job and family come first. However, chances are, if you take care of your jobs, you there enough being seen doing your work. And, even if you are not seen physically, the signs are all over that you were there because the jobs are done. Supplies are stocked. The bills are paid. The SCBA you wear at the fire call is in good working order. The minutes are completed and filed. The coffee supply is stocked! Get the idea?
Again, congratulations! You are well on the way to being a respected officer. However, there is still much more to do! I’ll continue this discussion in the next article.
THOMAS A. MERRILL is a 35-year fire department veteran and a former chief of the Snyder Fire Department in Amherst, New York. He is a fire commissioner for the Snyder Fire District. He served 26 years as a department officer including 15 years in the chief officer ranks. Merrill recently completed five years as chief of department. He has conducted various fire service presentations throughout the Western New York area as well as at FDIC. He also is a fire dispatcher for the Amherst (NY) Fire Alarm Office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.