By Louis A. Comenale III
Scenario: You have just been promoted to the rank of company officer. You studied and scored well on the promotional exam, and now the day has come for the responsibilities of the right front seat. Ideally, you are relocated to a different part of the fire department—where you might not know anyone—giving you a fresh start and a chance to find your own way as a company officer and leader. However, most departments across the country do not have the luxury to send you to a different division or battalion. In many smaller departments, you are lucky to get a transfer to a different firehouse, group, or platoon. In some cases, a member gets promoted and stays in the same firehouse and group or platoon from which he was promoted (not that it is the right or wrong thing to do). Then, one day, he is sitting in the jump seat with his equals. The next day, he is in the right front seat … in charge.
Being in this situation, do you change? Do you “stay the same”? The answer to both questions is yes. Staying the same shows your company that you weren’t portraying a façade before you were promoted; it shows you were genuine. Your values helped you get to the position you are in. You don’t want to lose all the leadership “capital” you gained in the process of getting promoted. Every decision or action you took as a firefighter either earned or lost you leadership capital. If you and your values change to the point where those decisions and actions are looked on as just a means to get promoted, you potentially will lose your influence as a leader.
It is essential to garner respect among the members you lead as well as the officers under which you serve. At the same time, you must change your mindset. If you were friends before you were promoted, you can still be friends. However, there is a different level of respect that you now must earn. A leadership rule that is 100-percent accurate regarding being promoted among peers is, “I am your friend and your boss but if you make me choose, I have to be your boss.” You are the boss, the officer, and the leader, and you cannot sit idle or turn a blind eye when your member—and even a friend—violates department policy or participates in something that doesn’t sit well in your all-knowing “gut.”
Officer Best Practices
A good practice as an officer is to keep a journal or log. I keep a record of whom I work with for the shift as well as anything pertinent that happens in the firehouse or on a call. It can also serve as your personal record of any conversations, good or bad, you have with your supervisor or subordinate. If you have a conversation—formal or informal—with one of your members, log it in writing and then electronically with an e-mail, reiterating the conversation. This covers you as an officer if you suffer any accusations or if you need to take disciplinary measures.
Once you are assigned to a company, set your expectations. A senior officer in another department advised me on how to deal with a probationary firefighter being assigned to my company. He recommended that I sit the probie down and ask him what he expected of me as an officer and us as a company. In return, I would lay out my expectations of him.
You can also use this exercise when you are a newly promoted officer. Ask the company members what they expect of you and then tell them what you expect of them. Base these expectations on your and your company’s values. Post them in the firehouse as a reminder. Setting expectations is a great way to hold everyone accountable.
Regarding orders, which do you give and which do you not give? Does being the company officer make you all-knowing? Trust the firefighters around you by using the old adage, “Firefighters can either make or break the officer.” However, this can be difficult for a newly promoted officer. Time and time again, newly promoted officers feel the need to bark orders to make things happen. This is not an effective way to lead. Giving orders for every task in the firehouse and on the fireground leads to an ineffective company. Instead of creating a thinking firefighter who knows his job, you end up with a firefighter waiting to take orders. Waiting for an officer to give an order can potentially cost the lives of civilians. Give orders that pertain to safety or department standard operating procedures (SOPs) and general or administrative orders. Handle all unsafe acts immediately. As an officer, strive to reach the point when you rarely need orders. This happens with time and can be accelerated when your company trains regularly.
Rules and Training
In my early career as an officer, I was told that to be successful, do the following: (1) Make sure your members get paid, (2) make sure your members are fed, and (3) make sure your members go home. These three rules sound pretty easy to follow, but if you follow only these three rules, you are doing yourself and your members a disservice. The number-one priority walking in that firehouse is the operational readiness of the crew and rig; everything else is secondary.
Part of the operational readiness of your company is making sure the members are well trained to respond to the emergencies for which they will be dispatched. You can accomplish training in different ways, in a formal or an informal setting. As the company officer, you most likely will be the formal instructor, but you also need to foster informal training among your members. This type of training entails trusting and respecting your members so that they can lead training. So, record and base all training on your department’s SOPs. Record on a skill or drill sheet the time, date, attendance, topics, and who led the drill. I am fortunate that we follow a “Best Practices” document for conducting and recording drills in New York State.
One valuable lesson I learned early as a company officer was that if it was not recorded, it never happened—another great use for your log. As an officer, groom your members so they can eventually take over your position. Having all of your members take lead in a drill is a great way to give them ownership in the company as well as more of a leadership role.
Championing your members outside of training classes is paramount as well. When your members take training classes, have them lead a drill on skills or lessons learned at that training. This does a multitude of things—among them, it makes sure the department is getting a return on the monetary expenditure of sending a member to training, and it puts your members in an instructor’s role, which now adds multiple value to that class.
You are not too important to clean, but cleaning is not your job. The members you are entrusted to lead must understand that mopping floors and wiping down countertops is not part of your responsibilities. This is not to say that if time permits and your work is done, you can’t pick up a mop or broom and join in cleaning the firehouse. Trust, respect, and an understanding among your members will help gain the understanding that you are not “ducking” house duties. The trust, respect, and understanding might have to come from a conversation, if needed, and you must explain that if your work as an officer is not done, it affects the company, not just you as an officer. On the other hand, washing the rig and tools is part of your responsibility and should be performed by all members to ensure the operational readiness of the company.
Always Be Learning
Never stop learning. Read fire service books, journals, magazines, military history books, and novels. Read anything published (and not on social media) for the fire service that is well vetted, even if it might contradict your tactics and strategies. I enjoy military history, especially that of the United States, including that which has the formula for creating leaders; memoirs and biographies of and about these leaders is a great way to strengthen your leadership values.
Also, learn through your aforementioned journal or log. As an officer, I had a separate “drill journal.” If I conducted a drill, I would record the drill topic as well as what was good, what was bad, what needed changing, or what should stay the same for the next drill. This log is a great way to reflect on periodically; it can remind you what you have done well and what could use improvement. This will help you make changes where needed or strengthen what you do well. Being the company officer is not about you; it is about your members and the department you serve.
Louis A. Comenale III is the lieutenant/municipal training officer for the Gates Fire District in Rochester, New York, where he has served for 13 years, the last four years as a lieutenant. He is a third-generation firefighter. He is a New York State fire instructor and a nationally certified fire instructor II. Comenale has an associate degree in fire protection technology.