Officer Development: Filling the New Officer’s Toolbox

BY BOB CARPENTER

Preparing the new officer should involve a lot more than his just passing a written test and successfully surviving an assessment center. Usually that chain of events is precisely what leads to the new job description. This is true of many departments, regardless of the size.

Several disturbing trends are occurring in the fire service. One is the widespread comment, “We just don’t get that many fires anymore.” Everyone says it, but is it true? It may seem so on the surface, but that appearance comes from a faulty reporting system in which the whole story may be inaccurately reported.


(1) The flashover awareness segment of the officer development program. (Photo by Elvin Gonzalez; all other photos by author.)
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Some reporting systems default to the “higher level of service.” If a structural fire results in a severe burn, for example, and advanced life support (ALS) treatment is given, then the fire officially becomes an EMS call (perhaps even a trauma alert), thereby skewing the stats. In these cases, by the time the “system” is through with the incident, the fire is almost inconsequential. All departments should investigate this to determine if it is occurring in their statistics gathering.

When I entered the fire service as a volunteer in 1978, I heard the statistical breakdown was 80 percent EMS to 20 percent fire and other emergency calls, with a one- to three-percent plus or minus accuracy. The numbers were the same in the combination department that I worked for and hold true in South Florida today. Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue ran roughly 90,000 calls in 1986 and more than 270,000 in 2007, a threefold increase in call volume. Although the call volume has increased over 21 years, my department has not added three times the units or personnel. The 80/20 split still exists, but that does not mean fewer fires.

Some communities have embraced very effective, aggressive fire prevention programs that no doubt have some impact on the severity of fire incidents. Increased requirements for automatic sprinklers certainly limit the number of fires that grow beyond the incipient stage. However, even the most effective fire prevention program is hard-pressed to keep pace with growth and population increases.


(2) Students review the use of hand tools for breaking high-impact glass (similar to that used in a vehicle windshield)
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Since there has been growth in service, it is true that we are putting more firefighters on the scene than in the past. I often joke that we show up in such force that we intimidate the fire into extinguishment. Of course, that is not true, but the sheer number of personnel on the scene does substantially reduce the task/person ratio. Advances in hose and nozzle technology as well as in personal protective equipment result in more rapid extinguishment and the appearance of ease on all but the most intense fires. This is in contrast to what we know about the fuel loads and the Btu production of modern synthetics used in the goods contained in a structure and in the structure itself.


(3) for removing security bars.
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In a previous article, (“Drills: From Blank Page to Successful Exercise,” Fire Engineering, April 2008), Michael Posner and I wrote that it is an accepted premise that the company officer be the first-line trainer in the fire service. This is true whether formally or informally stated. That article addressed the pitfalls that many officers encounter when assigned to conduct a drill. With an organized approach, one can be well on the way to a successful training exercise. However, what if the new officer hasn’t been in the field for awhile or gets through the process by studying hard and taking all of those “How to Pass a Promotional Exam” or “Passing the Assessment Center Made Easy” seminars? How then, is he supposed to fulfill the responsibility of first-line trainer?

OFFICER DEVELOPMENT SCHOOL

This is where the department really needs to step up and “fill the toolbox”—i.e., prepare the new lieutenant for his most vital role. In today’s fire departments, so much training time and focus is on paramedic CEUs, technical rescue, hazmat, dive rescue, and any number of specialties. As a result, we often take for granted the bread-and-butter fireground skills, the absence of which can and does lead to line-of-duty deaths (LODDs). Far too often, I hear firefighters say that the last time they raised a ground ladder, performed at a high-rise scenario, or practiced window rescue was in the fire academy. How are they then supposed to train the probies? The answer is they cannot and they will not. The real mystery here is why are we not experiencing more LODDs? Are we becoming victims of our success? The fire went out. No one was killed. We must have done it right.


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Most departments have some type of officer candidate school. Ideally, this officer training occurs before the promotion, but that is not always the case in many departments. The officer development programs typically focus heavily on administrative duties. There is much to-do about report writing, grievances, employee evaluations, and discipline. Examining the curricula of most of these classes, it would seem that the only thing that the officer has to do is file all of the necessary reports, and his job is done.


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My department formerly had a two-week program that ended with a one-day incident command drill, which generally involved some type of a full-scale, multicompany scenario. For the most part, only one participant received any incident command practice. With 25 to 30 participants, it served largely just to illustrate the areas of unpolished skills and did not provide enough time to correct deficiencies. Sound familiar? In the past, when more hands-on fireground training was suggested, the response was, “They’re lieutenants now; they should know this stuff.” True. In an ideal world, that would be the case. However, if we know that it is not the case, shame on us if we fail, that’s right, fail to address it.


(4-6) Using a chain saw, a participant accesses a window secured with a HUD-style boardup.
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Administrators must address this and not ignore it. It’s not just about filling out the wrong form. Mistakes in paperwork can be reviewed and then returned to the author for correction most of the time. But, there is no “do-over” on the fireground.

HANDS-ON OFFICER TRAINING

Recently, we addressed this concern by adding an additional two weeks of hands-on training. Participants widely accepted this, and the program has grown to a full 160-hour curriculum, which now includes 80 hours of hands-on skills and drills, including live-fire thermal imaging flashover awareness and a live-fire scenario.

In the first two rounds, the class of 24 is divided into three groups of eight and exposed to fireground skill stations that include the following:

  • Ground ladders and ladder packages.
  • Fire attack: Water supply, hose selection/stretches, and hose management.
  • Forcible entry: Hand tools, conventional methods, and power tools.
  • Search adjuncts: Team search, rope bags (when and when not to use them), thermal imaging cameras, and room orientation.
  • Multiple company scenarios: Concurrent fire attack and rescue operation, primary and secondary attack and search operations.

The groups are rotated through the skill areas. In each area, students receive a thorough review prior to participating in the scenario that focuses on that skill. The officers rotate through each crew assignment. Although some may feel that the perceived remediation in the basics is beneath them, the importance of relearning the basics cannot be overstated. The new officer needs to report to his new assignment fully prepared to demonstrate his competence in the various skills that he will supervise. The officer also must have the requisite basic knowledge to recognize incorrect procedures, which is the purpose of this program. More tools in the toolbox.


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After an intense four days of hands-on “cold drills,” the class concludes with a full day of live-fire scenarios with concurrent company operations under fire conditions. Companies arrive at a live-fire scenario performed in a fixed live-burn facility that complies with National Fire Protection Association 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions. The first- and second-arriving companies begin fire suppression and search/rescue/vent tasks. Subsequent-arriving companies stretch backup lines and continue searching the burn building. This is a scenario backup line and is in addition to the one already in place, as mandated by NFPA 1403. Checking for extension yields additional fire and an additional victim. The emphasis is on directing company actions based on incident priorities and a functioning command system.

After an adequate rehab period, roles are reversed for a second scenario. Attack crews become search crews, and search crews take the fire attack role. All members participate in primary and secondary attack and search with their function within the team changing. An instructor directly supervises each team, monitoring members for potentially unsafe decisions and coaching the crew. This yielded some very positive learning for all involved. The new officer in the various crew positions witnesses, vividly at times, just how vital each crew position is in attaining the objective. The new officer, who is actually leading the crew, experiences how full the plate can get in a compressed time frame.


(7-8) Room orientation and emergency egress drills.
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So, why should this work? Would the result be just as good with ongoing, fireground in-service training? The latter is certainly a step in the right direction. However, anyone who has made the transition from the jump seat to the front seat will probably agree that the perspective is markedly different in the officer’s view. Although the crew task remains the same, the role of the new officer as a crew member is changed.

These lessons are so important because we expect the new officer to train and drill with his new company. We expect the officer to be able to assess and remediate basic skills that are found deficient during daily company activities, from company drills to emergency scenes. How effective can anyone be in this task if he himself is unsure or unpracticed in these areas?

Although it can be humbling and sometimes embarrassing for the newly promoted officer, he discovers his personal weaknesses among others who may have similar shortcomings. Everyone in the program has his own limitations, which are in some ways similar to those of others in the program. There is an atmosphere of empathy, which minimizes performance anxiety. Everyone is there to fix his own problem and assist others with fixing theirs. The reason such methods work, in part, is because there is a common bond among those in the class without concern for judgmental outsiders. Bringing new officers together to work out their issues among peers with the same or similar weaknesses is far better than throwing them to the wolves and hoping they don’t get someone hurt while they figure this new position out.

•••

Priorities and progress need to be reexamined at the operations level as well as the administrative level. We cannot rest on our collective laurels and the appearance of proficiency because the fire has been extinguished. Every fire goes out eventually, even if you do everything wrong. It’s called being a victim of your own success. Programs such as this are a step in the right direction. I remember a bumper sticker I saw long ago. It read, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” This is a profound statement. Administrators should put it on their office walls in huge bold letters.

BOB CARPENTER, a 30-year veteran of the fire service, is a 22-year veteran of and a captain in Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue, where he serves as the North Operations training officer. He helped to develop and present the Officer Development Program (ODP) and is an ODP Drill Week lead instructor. He served as OIC of the Recruit Training Bureau.

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