When should the company officer ride backward?

When should the company officer ride backward?

From time to time when staffing permits, I like to take the chance and allow each of the firefighters I work with to ride up to the next position while I take a seat facing backward. Oftentimes, this takes place when I am off the rig or assigned to another unit. Why would I take the time to do this on a normal day when I am also on the truck? It is quite simple. There is no better way to effectively evaluate how the crew handles things that come about.

This is not an opportunity for me to belittle or degrade the abilities of the people I work with. It gives them a chance to make decisions and have a crutch to lean on if they aren’t quite sure of how to proceed. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but it leads to an interesting discussion.

Are there other opportunities for the company officer to take a back seat and allow someone else to take the lead – to hypothetically “ride backward”? Throughout my career, I have worked with many leaders, some better than others; but all offered something that I could take away.

I recently attended a conference and brought back some valuable advice I had heard many times before, “Empower your people”; this time, it took on a special meaning. It seems simple enough; but, is it? Company officers are tasked with the responsibility of resolving whatever incident scene, training scenario, personnel issue that may come our way, but does that mean we need to personally see to every single item? Obviously, personnel issues should not be delegated, but the other issues are perfect opportunities to empower your people.

I work with a great group of firefighters who have extensive skill sets for many things: carpentry, brick mason, electrician, mechanic, air-conditioning technician, and even one who goes spelunking (cave exploring) on occasion. I would be foolish not to use these interests when and if the need happens to arise. I have seen many company officers who believe that once they have received that golden bugle they are the resident expert on all things, and it seems to become worse with each subsequent bugle. This isn’t always the case, but I am sure that you can think of at least one person who may fit this mold.

When I see an opportunity to tap into the things that a firefighter finds intriguing, I am going to give the firefighter a chance to shine – to take charge with company training or take the lead on an incident scene. I will stand near should I have to take over, but I will give some leeway to allow for learning and growth.

I hope that I might get a few of the old hats to think a little bit about what used to excite them as new firefighters and how, if they had been given the chance, they would gladly have stepped up and taken center stage.

Jeremy Mathis

Lieutenant T-21

Covington (GA) Fire Department

The enemies of trust

Trust is a value that is in us, our teams, and our organizations. Creating and maintaining trust are paramount for leaders; yet, unfortunately, many do not see the need for paying attention to it. Leaders can mistakenly assume that their rank and the ability to say “Because I said so” binds people to their decision.

Trust is having confidence in yourself. As a leader, do you create training opportunities for others to gain more confidence in their skill set? Do you help motivate them to train when they or you don’t feel like it? Do you seek to close the gap of what they think they know with the reality of what they do know?

Leaders should help people find their strengths and identify their weaknesses. People who do not know their jobs and lack confidence will act hesitantly, offer excuses, and be content with the lowest acceptable level of performance permissible. These people are more rampant in our organizations than we would like to admit. They often stand in opposition to leadership, undermining efforts to create buy-in to our mission, and place their interests before others.

Leaders must have courage to persistently root out complacency in their organizations and teams. Complacency stands in the way of your knowing your job, yourself, and your capabilities. It is an enemy of trust.

Trust is the ability to rely on others. Individuality thrives in our society. Entitlement and bad attitudes can manifest themselves at any time in our organizations, regardless of members’ tenure. Lone-wolf thinking can produce disastrous results, especially when good advice from teammates goes unheeded.

Our mission is built on the construct of the fire service company – we before I. The company affords us the collective brain trust in which we can address any problem quickly, efficiently, and correctly. If leaders do not create training situations that necessitate the synergy and problem solving of teamwork, how would members learn their value? Also, if we don’t create these opportunities for teamwork, are we inadvertently condoning a culture in which the perception of self becomes more valuable than the group?

Healthy teams have leaders who consistently demonstrate ownership in their mistakes and humility in their knowledge. Toxic leaders refuse to hold themselves accountable and suppress the ideas of their teams because their insecurities won’t allow others to receive credit. Putting yourself first deteriorates company strength and the ability to perform our mission. Selfish thinking and a lack of humility are enemies of trust.

Trust is acting as good stewards of the public’s support of our mission. When we are dispatched for a call, we often arrive to find the front door left open while those inside wait for us. Family members usher us into their homes to treat their loved ones without even as much as asking our name, let alone if we are qualified. The public trust is the strongest leverage tool we possess to accomplish tasks others see as impossible. This formidable tool, however, is fragile and susceptible to damage, often by our own doing.

Perhaps it may be a social media we post that puts forth perceived shortcomings of the department, influencing the public’s perception of the department’s ability to do its job. Or it may be some illegal activity like cheating, lying, or stealing that puts us in a spotlight of negativity. Or, it might be choosing to promote risk aversion instead of training for risk mitigation.

We betray our mission when we allow “good enough” to take root in our organization instead of striving for excellence. It is well to keep in mind that we have not yet earned the public trust. The folks who preceded us did this with their good work, service, and sacrifices; they have afforded us the opportunity to continue to be good stewards of the public trust. We will all have moments in which we choose to do what is right over what is wrong and will continue to maintain this trust. We should not be surprised that risk exists in our profession, and we cannot tolerate a risk-adverse fire service to replace the one borne of selfless service.

Train to mitigate risk, and plan to operate where it exists. Treat risk with respect and regard, but do not abandon your duty to preserve the public trust every day based on this simple principle: THEM before us. Any action to the contrary is an enemy of trust.

A Call to Action

There is no secret to creating trust. People have lost and will lose trust in others for various reasons, even if they exist within the same group. Self-awareness and empathy are two powerful tools in a leader’s arsenal. Too often, leaders become complacent and expect that trust will continue to exist regardless of their performance or attitude. Check in with your team often, and look for areas that might be generating hard feelings. Don’t let your group flash over before you realize there is a problem.

It is time to take leadership back from those who merely seek the title and exercise it for the good of our people, not ourselves. Trust demands that leadership provide support, training, and encouragement to our people in the face of adversity and the naysayers.

Benjamin Martin

Lieutenant, Training Section

Henrico County (VA) Division of Fire


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