The Relieving Lieutenant

By Jim Mason

In the Chicago Fire Department, when a firefighter is promoted to lieutenant, he receives training at the Quinn Fire Academy in tactics, management, communications, inspections, instruction, etc. before being placed on platoon duty in the field as a relief company officer. It is here that the new relief officer learns that despite the formal training, there much he must learn on his own, not the least of which is what kind of officer he is going to be.

During an officer class, Richard Jahene, of the Illinois Fire Service Institute spoke about what it takes to be a leader. He turned the typical organizational pyramid of a fire department upside down and said that the firefighters should be at the top and the commissioner should be at the bottom because that is the place where he can best support the men and women that put out the fires, make the rescues, and care for the sick and dying. He said, “The farther you are away from the pipe, the more responsibility you bare to ensure that the pipe man succeeds”. In other words it is all about blue shirts.

As a company officer one of the best things you can do is communicate to the men. Explain what you want, and train with them so you are all on the same page. As a relieving company officer, organizing yourself daily is most important. Things on the fireground can change quickly, and they will keep getting worse if the reliever, who doesn’t have a history with the company, has not talked about the response with the company’s members. Remember that not all companies work the same way at similar fires. The final responsibility rests with you to make this tour of duty function correctly, and get everyone home at the end. Here are some things to consider as a new relieving company officer.

Get There Early
To get to the station, you will have to drive through the still district. Take a look around, and glean the information you’ll need during your tour from what you see. Look at the construction and types occupancies, and imagine what the floor plans are. What fire conditions could exist upon arrival at these buildings? How will their construction be affected by fire? What are the size-up considerations you need to recognize upon your arrival?

When you get to the fire station, look to see who is on your team. Are the regular driver and firefighters going to be there or are there going to be members from other fire companies detailed there for the tour? Detail men may not know the area as well as the regular members. Read the journal to find the last few fires the company had. Asking about what calls the company had lately may be a way of finding out more about the still alarm area. Check out the rig so you know what it carries. Again this will reflect what type of responses there are.

Always Have A Roll Call At The Beginning Of The Tour
Introduce yourself to anyone who you haven’t met. There is much more to talk about at roll call the first time you go to the company. During your first visit, ask what members do when they arrive on the scene of a fire. This will give you an idea of the types of fires the assigned members have had recently and what types of buildings the fire was in. This will almost always lead to a discussion about the fires the members fight in the still district. It may also help you to ask a few “what if” questions about the buildings you saw on the way to your shift.

Additionally, it is good to talk about what it takes it communicate inside the IDLH area. Some officers prefer to have their orders repeated back to them to make sure both parties understand the message. It is good to review emergency evacuation procedures in the morning. Make sure all members understand if they see something that doesn’t look right to communicate the problem to you, and, if you don’t respond, to tell everyone.

Drills
The drills you conduct with the firefighters will elevate your comfort level. Many of the areas in the department may have similar buildings, fire problems and street access. When looking for company drills as a reliever, look at how firefighters get injured most often to find the most important drills. Commercial occupancies are much more dangerous than typical one- or two-room residential structures and more difficult for a relieving officer to account for the men.

The Hackensack, New Jersey Car Dealership fire video is a good first drill. Most firefighters have already seen this film but it was years ago and it leads to a discussion of what happened and how we can avoid this again. There are many points to discuss.

The video also lends itself to a Rapid Intervention discussion. What would the company do if it arrived on the scene to find itself as the RIT company? What if your firefighters were inside a structure at the point of collapse? What are the procedures for trapped firefighters in the department? How can firefighters increase their chances of survival? How does a company size up for the RIT operation?

A drill that discusses size-up problems is always good. There are a few size-up points that are made every time at every fire, including construction, occupancy, floor plan, and fire conditions upon arrival. Of these, floor plan is likely to be the most important one for a relieving officer. Without a common understanding of the basic floor plan of the fire building it is more difficult to communicate on the fireground about duties that must be performed inside the. A simple drill for this is to have the company members go to the front of a building that would have a common floor plan for the district and talk about size up. Rapid Intervention size up drills are also good to review both for the truck and the engine members. A few scenarios with an imagined fire company on the scene that puts itself in harm’s way as units arrive is good “chalk talk”. For example, a collapse has occurred and the IC tells your on the radio that instead of the standard second engine response you are to make a rescue of firefighters upon arrival. What does the engine need to do for radios and equipment? What is the equipment needed? Practicing a rescue drag is also a good drill.

After you have been to a company a few times you can have firefighters tell fire stories and explain what they learned from them. Make a list on the chalkboard of a few simple size-up points for the story to follow, including: assignment of company (first or second engine or truck?); construction of the building; fire conditions upon arrival; initial orders from the officer or IC; and lessons learned.

These are just a few points to consider. There is a lot of learning after a promotion to company officer. Most of it will be taught by firefighters out in the field. Initially though, you might be a relieving company officer. If so, ensuring you’re organized and able to communicate with an unfamiliar crew is important to ensure that the pipe man succeeds.

Jim Mason is a relieving Lieutenant in the 6th district of the Chicago Fire Department (Illinois). He has an associate’s degree in fire science from Chicago Citywide Colleges. He has taught at the Quinn Fire Academy in Chicago.

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