Company Officers: Know Your People: April

Company Officers: Know Your People

Today’s company officer must be well-versed not only in firefighting tactics but also in management theory, supervision and leadership. All too often, however, an individual may transition from firefighter to fire officer overnight—one day the person is being led; the next day, they’re the leader. Complicating this situation, the individual often has little or no training in how to deal with various types of human behavior.

Becoming a company officer is a big step that takes hard work, preparation, years of training and some good mentors to get you going in the right direction. Unfortunately, if you’re not prepared when the promotion finally comes, you could be in for a hard road. With this in mind, following is some useful information that company officers—or aspiring company officers—should consider.

Firefighter Safety
The #1 priority at any incident scene is firefighter safety. The company officer is responsible for leading and directing the personnel under their command, and they must continuously size up the situation. If the situation requires immediate action to maintain firefighter safety, the company officer must do whatever is needed to protect the crew. Just like the captain on a sinking ship, the company officer should be the last one to leave, and they must ensure that all personnel are safe and accounted for before they leave the emergency scene.

The officer’s responsibility for their personnel’s well-being also includes ensuring their safety at the fire station, during technical and physical training, at inspections and at community events. As Chief Dennis Compton of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) puts it, you are the disciplined soldier. Most supervisors find that preventive disciplinary procedures are superior to corrective procedures. Regarding safety procedures, Compton says, “Rather than spending a lot of time simply discussing what to do with people who don’t follow safety procedures ... it [is] beneficial and productive to discuss ways to prevent people from operating outside of our expectations in the first place.”(1)

Earning Respect
Firefighters have little or no respect for an ineffective officer who is afraid to enforce orders for fear of not being liked or accepted. An officer who shirks leadership or training duties is not fully committed to supervising firefighters properly on the emergency scene, where their lives could be at risk.

Every firefighter observes the company officer for positive traits to imitate, learn and recall when needed. Negative traits are remembered, too, but as behaviors to watch out for and avoid. Whether you’ve had officers you admired and wanted to emulate or officers you despised and wanted to forget, you can learn important lessons from both. Although it’s easy to remember the good officers with whom you would willingly face dangerous situations, it’s even more important to remember the ineffective officers whom you’ve encountered. Further, no firefighter who becomes a good officer can take all of the credit; most of that goes to their previous officers who hopefully set a good example to the men and women under them.

Company Officer Priorities
Company officers need to remember these seven priorities:

  • Personal safety (yourself and family)
  • Firefighter safety (your crew and other members of the department): Risk a lot to save a lot; risk a little to save little; and risk nothing for that which is already lost.
  • Community life safety
  • Incident stabilization (i.e., successfully managing the incident)
  • Property conservation (minimizing property damage)
  • Community concerns
  • Fire station, apparatus and equipment maintenance

When these priorities are addressed in a consistent manner, your role as an officer will be easier. If your crew knows your priorities, it’s easier for them to do their jobs safely and with less supervision. If you make your safety and the safety of your crew the top priorities, your crew knows that you will not intentionally put them in harm’s way.

As a company officer, you need to honor and respect those firefighters who have gone before you, some of whom have given their lives in the line of duty. Commit yourself to contributing to the betterment of the fire service and your department. Your contributions to education, training and safety will improve the profession. This improved professionalism will ultimately save lives and property while reducing our risks.

Remember, just because you have been promoted to company officer, it does not mean that you have the respect of your crew(s). Respect is something that’s earned over time. Showing your crew(s) that you care about them, the equipment, the apparatus and the station is the first big step. As a company officer, respect your crew(s) and their abilities, motivate them, train with them, prepare them for the next steps that they will face in their careers and, most importantly, show them through your actions that you are a competent company officer. Actions speak louder than words!

Leadership: Don’t Run a Dog Company
As an officer, you now have a direct impact on what goes on with the crews that work for and with you. And it matters where you get your information and advice. You need to confide in those peers and officers whom you trust, those who have proven their leadership abilities. Seek out good mentors, and be one to your crew as well as others with whom you come in contact.

When you look at the contributing factors to most line-of-duty deaths, you must acknowledge that some of them relate to the company officer’s leadership, or lack thereof. As FDNY Battalion Chief Don Hayden has said for years, “Don’t blame the crew; don’t get on them. It’s not their fault when it comes down to it. It’s the company officer, their leader. He or she is the one who has to shoulder the responsibility of taking care of and managing the crew.” According to Hayden, when you hear a company referred to as a “dog” company, don’t look at the crew, and look at the officer first. Most often, that’s where you’ll find the answer and root of the problem.(2)
So the safety of your crew often comes down to what type of a leader you are or what kind of an example you set. It all starts back at the firehouse, so focus a lot of attention on building those leadership skills that will work with your people.

Attitude: It’s Contagious
Work on keeping a good attitude; it’s contagious. Talk with your battalion chief and ask what they expect from you as a company officer, and then explain your expectations to your crews. Be reasonable and realistic. Again, lead by example. Remember, your crew is watching everything you do, so do the right thing. Be fair to all members, and don’t play favorites. But don’t do the right thing for the wrong reason. Although they may not be the most popular at the time, go with what’s right and honest. Integrity is where it all starts. Don’t compromise it for anyone! Remember, the crews are yours now. You really can control the gossip and rumor mill. Continue to market your department and the profession in the same way you did as a firefighter.

Learning from Others
Over the years, I’ve learned a great deal from seasoned company officers, the National Fire Academy training programs, the University of Maryland degree program, individual training and the officer accreditation program. Some of those lessons are listed below.

  • Don’t let the position go to your head.
  • Communicate with your crew. Respect contrasting points of views at the firehouse table.
  • Be a good listener, and keep everything in the strictest confidence and away from third parties or rumor mills.
  • Do not assume total control of the team. Empower your members with duties and responsibilities; make them feel like they are part of the team.
  • Know that friends are friends and business is business. When at a business, you are the supervisor and manager of the house. There is a separation anxiety when going from being a part of the peer group to a supervisor. To alleviate such anxiety, talk with veteran officers or your battalion chief.
  • Be accountable for your actions. Own up to your mistakes. Learn from them and move on.
  • Focus on total team safety. Always mandate that your team adhere to the rules, regulations, standard operating guidelines and directives.
  • Write incident reports as if you were testifying in court. Reports should always be clear, concise and in plain language whenever possible. Focus on the following questions: What happened and where? What did we do in response? What was needed to accomplish the objective? How was the incident resolved? What was the final outcome?
  • You are responsible to ensure your team’s development. You will evaluate subordinates under your charge (individuals and teams)—the strengths and the areas that need improvement. This is accomplished with training; counseling; mentoring; and training for promotion, early corrective action and maintaining an open line of communication.
  • When it’s necessary to counsel a subordinate, always discuss the issue on a one-on-one basis. Never yell. Never embarrass a subordinate in front of peers. As a reminder, keep in mind that we are developing our people, not tearing them down.(3)

Final Thoughts
There are many more tips in becoming a successful fire officer—too many to list. Becoming a successful company officer takes time, training and patience. When you decide to be a company officer and accept that position’s responsibilities, you accept a large weight on your shoulders. If you don’t demonstrate responsibility in yourself, you cannot expect to be responsible and account for the personnel under your supervision.
Training to be a company officer does not happen in a day or two; it should start the day you enter the fire service. To cope with today’s new challenges and tomorrow’s unknown ones, current and aspiring company officers must work harder than ever to keep up with changes in technology and changes in society that directly or indirectly impact the fire service.(4)

Finally, as a company officer, you must never forget that individuals are precisely that—individuals. They are unique. As such, a fire officer should follow one rule: “Know your people.”

1. Compton D, Managing Fire and Rescue Services Self-Study Guide. ICMA University: Washington D.C., 152, 2002.
2. Fire Department Company Officer (third ed.). IFSTA: Stillwater, Okla., 75, 1999.
3. Eckles RW, Carmichael RL Sprehet, BR: Essentials of Management for Front-line Supervisors. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 46, 1996.
4. Speaking of Fire. IFSTA, Fire Protection Publications, Oklahoma State University, 2(3), 7, fall 2002.


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