Tips for Newly Promoted Company Officers

By Bill Gustin

One of the most challenging and stressful times in a firefighter’s career is the transition from firefighter to a newly promoted company officer. I consider myself very fortunate to have had mentors to guide me through this phase. One was my Dad, a lieutenant and 33-year veteran of the Chicago (IL) Fire Department; the other was the lieutenant I worked for before I was promoted. I spent almost a year on the lieutenant’s list before I was promoted. Looking back, I’m glad that I did because in that time, I learned so much from that man who made me a better fire officer.

I was promoted to lieutenant in 1983 and to captain in 1986; I have been teaching newly promoted company officers since 1987. I developed my officer development curriculum and am constantly revising it by asking respected veteran fire officers two questions: “Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently when you were a newly promoted company officer?” and “If you were teaching a class of newly promoted officers, what advice would you give them?”

Each year, the fire service loses years of experience when veteran officers retire. Most are replaced by relatively young, inexperienced officers. Since 1987, it has been my passion to capture and preserve that experience and to pass it on to new officers. Following are some tips that can help reduce the stress when transitioning from firefighter to company officer.

Leadership in the Firehouse

This may sound harsh, but if you were a marginal firefighter, you’re most likely going to be, at best, a marginal fire officer. It is very difficult to reinvent yourself as a competent and respected fire officer if you do not have the credibility of being a good firefighter.

Most newly promoted company officers are placed on a relief roster and take the place of a company’s regular officer for one shift if he is sick or a few shifts while he is on vacation. This can place the new officer in a vulnerable position of being in charge of people he has never worked with and in an unfamiliar response district. Here are some tips for avoiding some of the problems that can arise during a temporary assignment:

  • Call the company’s regular officer the shift before and ask what he wants accomplished during his absence (hose testing, hydrant maintenance, building inspections, or training a probationary member, for example). If the regular officer doesn’t have anything for you to do, this will be your opportunity to become familiar with his district (discussed later).
  • Don’t get dragged into an ongoing problem; for example, if the company members have an issue with their regular officer, the firehouse, or the apparatus, ask them why they haven’t taken the issue up with their regular officer and let them know that you will do so when he returns to duty.
  • Thoroughly inspect the apparatus and its inventory. At shift change, an officer who was relieving me accused me of losing a lock box key, which had been missing for months. Members were just waiting for the right guy (me) to blame.
  • Always assume that their loyalty, even if there are ongoing problems, will be with their regular officer. He will hear about what you say and do.
  • When something is not broken, don’t try to fix it. When you take the place of a respected, veteran officer, ask yourself if it is necessary to deviate from his management style or his way of operating. If everyone is doing their job and following regulations, changing the way that the regular officer runs his company can be construed/interpreted by his crew that you think he is wrong and you are a better officer than he is.

Try to solve problems and settle disputes at the company level before going to your chief or taking it to a higher level.

Empower firefighters, and be humble by reaching out for their help; most of them will rise to the level of your expectations. When I was assigned to a company in a district with which I was unfamiliar, I would ask company members, most of whom were older and more experienced than I, many questions about their district. For example, I “bounced” into a company in a district that had very few hydrants and whose members were very proficient in drafting from swimming pools, canals, and agricultural wells with specialized equipment on their apparatus; I was not familiar with any of this. I arranged for some out-of-service time for training so the company members could teach me their drafting evolutions.

At first, they resented that the “probie lieutenant” was making them drill, but those feelings changed when they could see that I was genuinely interested in learning from them. Each member stepped up to teach me aspects of drafting operations, and I could tell that they were proud of their company’s ability to get water.

Ask a company that you’re not familiar with to take you to the scene of one of their previous fires. Ask members if there were lessons learned. Ask them for a familiarization tour to learn about buildings and facilities that are unique to their district.

I was promoted to lieutenant out of a company in an older district in the county where all the homes were constructed with dimensional lumber. Consequently, I had no personal experience with the fire performance of “lightweight” engineered wood structural members such as I-joists and parallel-chord floor trusses. When I was transferred to a newer suburban area of the county, I asked the companies in that area to take me to some construction sites and share their experiences with that type of construction. Show company members that you are sincerely interested in learning from them, that you respect their knowledge and experience, and you’ll have a more attentive crew.

Don’t pretend to be the smartest and most capable person of your company. Recognize the veteran firefighters who chose not to become officers and, instead, focused on becoming “master firefighters” mastering their skills. They are technicians who have devoted their careers to becoming experts in functions such as apparatus operation, forcible entry, extrication, roof ventilation, and hose management. Learn and use your company members’ strengths, and do not micromanage people who can perform their tasks better than you can.

Your company will have no confidence in you as an officer if you have no confidence in yourself. Good officers find the proper balance between being confident and cocky.

Be a good, sincere listener. Nothing will alienate firefighters faster than an officer who gives them the impression that he is too busy, distracted, impatient, or important to listen to their concerns.

Fire departments, including mine, spend thousands of dollars on “diversity” and “cultural sensitivity” training. Since we all agree that we have members of different races, gender, sexual orientation, and politics, why don’t we for once concentrate on what we have in common? We all want to help people and go home safe at the end of our shift. As a relief lieutenant, keep the company focused on the job by talking about the job. While on medical calls, never pass up the opportunity to discuss aspects of the building you’re in with company members and how the crew would get a hoseline to an upper floor of that building. Discuss forcible entry issues, such as roll-down security gates, overhead doors, and burglar bars on windows and doors. There’s plenty to talk about to keep focused on the job.

Set an example. Your crew is watching you. For example, when my boss, a battalion chief, wants to talk to me, I immediately stop what I’m doing and briskly walk into his office. They see that how I respond to my boss is the way I want them to respond to me. Set the example by wearing your seat belt and full personal protective equipment (PPE). Be the first one on the rig when responding to an alarm. If you treat civilians with respect and compassion, chances are your crew will do the same.

Do not undermine your legitimacy as an officer by complaining about your department to those you supervise. If you need to vent, call your mentor or a fellow officer.

Realize and accept that you’re not going to change the culture or mentality of a fire company in one shift, but make it clear that there are some things that you insist on even if you’re only there for one day:

  • When responding to alarms, you expect everyone to get on the rig and get out of the station in a timely fashion.
  • You will not tolerate excessive speed when responding to alarms.
  • Everybody wears a seat belt.
  • There must always be a “backer” to guide the driver/engineer when he is backing the apparatus.
  • Everyone must wear the appropriate PPE.
  • Treat the public with respect, even when they don’t show respect to you.

Before you decide to initiate, participate, or tolerate a “good-natured” prank or hazing, ask yourself two questions: First, is there a possibility that it could offend someone? Second, will it affect the recipient’s ability to respond and do his job? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then it cannot happen on your watch. Remember, you’re not “one of the boys” anymore, and not everyone has the same sense of humor. Just because you were hazed when you were a “probie” doesn’t make it right or a legacy to be passed on to another generation of firefighters.

Do not participate in or tolerate hazing of probationary personnel. The time and energy used in devising practical jokes is better spent teaching new people how to do their jobs. Use your authority as an officer to be a teacher and a mentor, not a bully.

Similarly, we have learned from recent events that disparaging comments about a firefighter on the Internet can result in tragic consequences. Frequently remind your company members that posting inappropriate comments on the Internet can destroy their careers.

Consider that if a friend resents or disrespects your promotion and the authority and responsibility that go with it, he was probably not as good a friend as you thought he was.

Be the kind of boss you would want to work for; that means leave your ego at the door. Strive to have your folks follow and obey you not out of fear of discipline but out of fear of letting you down.

Unfortunately, that management style doesn’t work for everyone. Every department has individuals who tend to gravitate together because of their common lack of skill, self-discipline, and interest in doing their jobs. These “fire department employees” do not deserve to be called firefighters; the only motivation that keeps them in line is the threat of discipline.

In some fire departments, it is common to assign newly promoted officers to problem companies because no officer with any seniority wants the responsibility of managing a group of losers. Be very careful if you have the misfortune of being assigned to a problem company. While you’re doing your very best to be a good officer, your inept crew is watching everything you do and literally taking notes of any infraction you commit. This will give them the “ammunition” necessary to turn the tables on you/retaliate when they are disciplined.

Remember that the most common injury in the fire service is hurt feelings.You cannot make everyone happy, and not everyone will like you. It is much easier to be liked as a nice guy than to be respected as a competent fire officer.

Realize that firefighters will come up with ingenious excuses and rationalizations for reasons they do not have to take an apparatus to the shop for repairs. No one likes to switch into a spare rig, but don’t leave it for the oncoming shift. Similarly, anything affecting the safe operation of the apparatus must be addressed immediately.

Tell the truth. In many instances, it’s not the sin but the lie that covers up the sin that will get you in greater trouble. Don’t get caught in a lie; it can forever destroy your credibility. Similarly, say you have knowledge that a member, albeit a friend, has stolen something from a civilian or pilfered a controlled drug. It is your duty as an officer to report it. Withholding information about a serious infringement or an illegal act is lying and subject to disciplinary action, even if you had nothing to do with the act.

As firefighters, we check the condition of our apparatus and equipment at the beginning of each shift. As an officer, you must also check the mental and physical condition of your people. A firefighter troubled with a family problem can be a distracted firefighter and a hazard to himself and his company members.

When a probationary firefighter is assigned to your company, make it clear that it is the responsibility of every company member to train him. In many instances, new personnel can learn more from veteran firefighters than from a new company officer.

A performance evaluation should not be a gift or a surprise. When a member thanks you for writing a good evaluation, advise him that no thanks are necessary because you, as his officer, didn’t give him anything that he didn’t earn and deserve. Conversely, an “unsatisfactory” or “needs improvement” rating shouldn’t come as a shock. It is your job as a company officer to provide constant feedback on how a member is performing and what he can do to improve.

Leadership on the Street

Before leaving quarters on an alarm, make sure that you and your driver-engineer are in agreement on the address and route of response.

When responding to fires, know what companies are responding with you. Don’t rely on a second-due engine to lay you a supply line when it is 10 minutes away.

Know before you go! Take the time to perform a proper size-up before taking action. You must control a young, aggressive crew that is compelled to take immediate action before you take a few moments to determine what that action should be. Don’t be pressured by your crew when they ask you what they should do; don’t be afraid to say, “Stand fast; I don’t know yet.” Performing a proper size-up may delay taking action, but it is nothing compared to the time you will waste if you take the wrong action.

To paraphrase an experienced fire officer, “Action taken in haste without sufficient information can be worse than no action at all.” When positioning your apparatus, don’t let the police or civilians do your size-up. You may end up spotting your rig hundreds of feet away from where you should be. The consequences of improper apparatus positioning are compounded when forward laying a supply hoseline from a hydrant to the fire. Remember, it is always faster and safer to get off the rig and walk into a fire scene to determine where to position it than it is to back out of the wrong spot.

On the other hand, you don’t have all day to make a decision. You do not have the luxuries of unlimited time, no stress, and 20/20 hindsight that “armchair” critics will have to second-guess your decisions. It takes courage and mental toughness to make timely decisions when you are under pressure. An indecisive officer who is paralyzed with fear of making the wrong decision will lose the respect, confidence, and control of his crew. Indecision breeds freelancing; if you can’t make a decision, your company will take matters into their own hands, seizing your authority but not your responsibility.

Do not hesitate to call for an additional alarm or more resources. Don’t let the fear that you will be criticized for overreacting deter you from calling for help.

When arriving at a working fire, do not pressure the incident commander (IC) for an assignment; stand by and await orders.

A new officer who is too insecure to encourage and listen to crew members’ input is setting himself up for making a big, embarrassing mistake. A crew whose input is discouraged or disregarded by an officer who is compelled to make all decisions by himself will soon become demoralized. Eventually, that crew will watch their autocratic officer make a mistake and say nothing to stop him from making a fool of himself. Listen to your crew. You’re still the boss and you take full responsibility for your decisions. The chances of making the right decisions, however, may very well depend on the crew’s input.

Have a Plan B, and know when to implement it. Continuously judge the effectiveness of your tactics and if the risk involved is appropriate and justifiable. Advise the IC at the first indication that your company is experiencing a delay or an unforeseen difficulty in performing a task. Don’t allow your ego or a company member’s ego to let you keep doing something that isn’t working. For example, don’t ever expect a young firefighter willing to prove himself to stop his unsuccessful efforts to force a door. The building could burn down, and he will still be working on the door. It’s up to the company officer to know when to try a different tool or technique.

Similarly, don’t expect a young firefighter to tell you when he’s exhausted. A fatigued firefighter is a dangerous firefighter; constantly assess the condition of your crew.

Encourage probationary personnel to say something if they see something. Often, new personnel are timid about speaking up or assume that the officer and senior firefighters are aware of a hazardous condition, such as a down power line.

Know your company’s limitations. Not all firefighters or fire companies are created equal. When in charge of a weak company, you must have realistic expectations of its capabilities. When you are in charge of a strong company, don’t overestimate its capability. For example, don’t attempt to perform a hose evolution that needs six firefighters when you have only three; you’ll be setting yourself up for failure. Doors held open by your hoseline that failed to get water on the fire can allow a ventilation-controlled fire to intensify and smoke to spread into stairwells.

You cannot control your company if you can’t control yourself. Control your emotions: excitement, anger, and frustration. No one respects an officer who is a “screamer.” Never yell at your people unless it is to warn them-for example, if they are about to walk into a down power line.

If your engineer cannot get you water, calmly tell him to get back in the cab and repeat the steps to switch from road to pump.

Although it is difficult with short staffing, when it is possible, keep your hands off the tools; you will be much more effective as a supervisor if you are not physically engaged in performing a task. The transition from an aggressive firefighter to a supervisor can be difficult. As an officer, your job is no longer to operate a nozzle; it is to direct the firefighter on the nozzle. A very experienced and highly respected officer had this advice for newly promoted company officers: “The nozzle is no longer the tool you use to fight fire; your firefighters are.”

Think before you transmit on the radio. Ask yourself, “Is this message really necessary? What exactly am I going to say?” Don’t compose your message after you key the microphone. Practice transmitting while wearing your self-contained breathing apparatus; control your breathing and speak clearly.

Be the eyes and ears of the IC; report on conditions that he may not see from outside the fire building. Additionally, understand that there are two size-ups that must occur at every structure fire-what company officers observe inside the fire building and what the IC observes from the exterior. If the inside size-up and outside size-up are not in agreement, a red flag should go up because somebody’s got it wrong. It’s usually the companies operating inside the fire building because of their limited perspective-for example, they may not be aware that fire is spreading over their heads or below them.

When operating in adverse conditions, always remain aware of the location and distance to your escape and your crew’s SCBA air supply. Don’t operate deep inside a large building in adverse conditions and rely solely on your heads-up display or on your crew’s low-air alarm to tell you when to back out.

Try to find the shortest path possible to reach a fire in a large commercial building; it may not be the front entrance. The deeper you take your company into a large building, the greater the chances are of getting lost, getting disoriented, running out of air, or becoming trapped by collapse.

The deeper you advance into a fire building, the more your company needs a backup line; don’t hesitate to call for one. Any line more than 200 feet is a red flag.

Recognize when a fire building is a loser, and make sure your crew understands that the fire has the upper hand and that there is nothing members can do to keep it from being destroyed.

Your company’s safety depends on your situational awareness and knowledge of fire dynamics. Additionally, are you operating in what could suddenly become a flow path? For example, your company advances a hoseline through the front doorway of a townhouse with a 25-mile-per-hour wind blowing at the rear. What would happen if the rear sliding glass door fails?

Your company forces a front door of a large private dwelling and advances a hoseline to a ventilation-controlled/limited fire. Have you considered what will happen if the air that you allowed into the building reaches the fire in sufficient quantity for the fire to intensify before you can reach it with your hoseline? You had better call for a backup line to cover your escape route.

Before you ascend to the second floor, are you certain that there is no fire on the first floor? Additionally, have you considered that a fire on an upper floor or in the attic could have originated in the basement and extended vertically following the plumbing or is up in the stud bays of balloon-frame construction? Similarly, is fire extending vertically on the building’s exterior via combustible rear decks, balconies, or vinyl siding?

Leading young, inexperienced firefighters is an awesome responsibility. Young firefighters, eager to prove themselves, will follow you anywhere. That being said, say your company is first to arrive at a fire in a dollar store in the early morning hours. The show windows are warm to the touch and covered with soot and condensation. Do you force entry and go to the fire or remain outside, set up a defensive position, and wait for the fire to come to you? Fight fires in large unoccupied commercial buildings on your terms, not on the fire’s terms.

Lead by example. Keep yourself in good physical condition, and become a career-long student of the fire service. Knowledge is power; stay informed on changes in building construction and research in fire dynamics. Additionally, study National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports to learn from line-of-duty death fires that you were lucky you didn’t go to. It is natural for a newly promoted company officer to feel reluctant or intimidated to lead senior veteran firefighters, but those feelings will diminish with time, knowledge, and experience.

BILL GUSTIN is a 42-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with the Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue Department. He began his fire service career in the Chicago area and conducts firefighting training programs in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. He is a lead instructor in his department’s officer training program, is a marine firefighting instructor, and has conducted forcible entry training for local and federal law enforcement agencies. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and an advisory board member for FDIC. He was a keynote speaker for FDIC 2011.

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