Officer Preparation: The Candidate and the Department

It’s not a job just for the candidate

Is your department doing its best to prepare firefighters to ride the right seat? (pixabay)

By Paul Watlington

A common question asked during company officer promotional assessments is, “What have you done to prepare yourself for this position?” So, what is the answer? What have you done? Fire service leaders even ask themselves what the department is doing to prepare officers for their roles and responsibilities. Many ponder on how great our company officers would be if we spent as much time and energy preparing them as we do our recruit firefighters. In most departments, recruit firefighters go through a hiring process, an academy, a probationary period, and then an assessment to evaluate their progress before they are deemed true firefighters. What level of preparation is being completed before our officers are deemed officers?

Face the fact that the fire service is collectively young, and we have young officers. As the Gen Xs are retiring, the Gen Ys and Gen Zs are coming into a very busy and sometimes contrasting service. Some of our young officers simply don’t have the on-scene experience as many of our previous veteran officers did. If we do not supplement this experience, there will be no adequate resources there to prepare their successors. Administrative and tactical leadership and decision making will suffer. We must exhaust all options to prepare our aspiring officers for the job and make sure that they are provided with the resources to be successful before and after the promotion.

We spend countless hours reading and studying to get ready for the big day, but we sometimes see that this preparation was a crash course for the promotional assessment and not long-term preparation for the job. It doesn’t take long to find this out when you are serving in your new position. In the defense of many, career development time is scarce around some firehouses because of call volume, day-to-day routines, mandatory training, and even lack of leadership. Regardless of the reason, it is imperative that candidates and the department spend more time preparing for the new job responsibilities and not just the promotion.

The Candidate’s Role

The memo is out: A captain or chief is retiring. Anticipation sets in now for the memo announcing promotional processes through the ranks. The outcome is based off what happens next or what preparation has already taken place. There are the many hours studying on-scene tactics, sitting in mock panel assessments with your crew, working through personnel issues, and using the incident command system with scene simulators. You sacrifice time spent with the crew in the firehouse because you are now tucked away in a dorm reading and trying to guess what the scenarios will be but, in many cases, the preparation started too late.

There are so many distractions to career development. There are the daily firehouse routines, required training, and obviously higher call volumes than the year before. Then there are our personal lives. We have kids playing sports, second jobs, vacations, and family time. Prioritizing is difficult when everything seems to be the main priority. The first step is to make the decision of whether you are willing to do what it takes and make the sacrifices necessary to prepare for the company officer position. Much of your preparation will occur subconsciously throughout your career, but the conscious preparation needs to start as soon as you decide that you want to take the next step.

You will respond to emergencies regardless, but when you aspire to be an officer, you find that you are paying more attention to the decision-making process of your officer. All of us have operated on scene and had no idea why we were doing something that we were told to do. We just simply followed orders. I remember almost every one of my first-due fires when I started my career. I paid attention to the fundamentals acquired in the academy. I performed my job as professionally as I could, but I remember the day I decided I wanted to be an officer. I looked at every incident from that day forward from the perspective of my officer. I learned something from each incident. I remember the fires that we vented on arrival and those we didn’t. I can recall them all from the water can to the master stream fires. I remember the vehicle accidents and other medical calls. I remember how my officer set the tone for the day with his positive attitude and how he was clear on all his expectations to make the crew as productive as possible. I evaluated different leadership styles and figured out what worked best for those that I looked up to. All this information went into a bank in my head to pull from. I did what my officer told me to do, sometimes not knowing why, so I asked questions. These questions sparked many conversations around the kitchen table and in the office about why certain decisions were made, and I wrote it all down.

Many aspiring officers are instructors. Being open minded and a student in the class you instruct is valuable. One of the greatest feelings while instructing is learning from your students. I learn something new every time I teach a class. It may be from my class preparation time or from the students themselves. Being open minded as an officer and taking in ideas from others in your department will prove to be beneficial. When preparing to be an officer, listen to everyone–not just your supervisor. Some of the greatest advice or information that you receive may come from lower ranking personnel. Experience does not always match up to rank. There are leaders all around you at every rank who have something to offer. Use it all to your advantage.

Departments have policies and procedures for a reason. These procedures are set forth as a basic foundation for decision making. In most cases, they are broad and leave room for tactical and administrative decisions to be made in the best interest of all involved. Studying these policies and procedures is important so that your operations are in line with the services you provide. I have heard it said that if your department has a one-inch binder of standard operating procedures, then it does not trust personnel to make good decisions. This is obviously not the case. We need something to vet our decision making. No court of law cares about what you think is right but rather if the basis for decision making is validated and documented.

As you study policy, become more of an advocate for it. It would not be in writing if it were not proven to work, and most are even approved by attorneys. Many departments have committees that are actively involved in evaluating policy. As the service and society change, policies sometimes change. Seek to join these committees and get involved. Most importantly, stay up to date with current policies and procedures and use them as your road map.

When I coached travel baseball, I would tell my players and their parents that they would not become great baseball players by coming to practice twice a week. I expressed the importance of working at home. This applies to the fire service as well when it comes to your off time. Yes, you can come in, get on the rig, and do your job to the bare minimum. In most cases, no one will say a word to you about a lack of performance. But to advance and become a better leader in your department, you must put in the off-duty work as well. Many municipalities offer leadership and management training within the local government. Attending these sessions falls back on whether you are willing to make the off-duty sacrifices that may be necessary. Outside schools are held every day across the country. When signing up for these outside classes, relate the potential acquired knowledge to your success as it relates to your department.

Many departments may not have a sufficient budget to allow for an abundance of outside training. Take advantage of any opportunity that you can to add to that knowledge bank. Conferences and symposiums are great resources for fire service knowledge from leadership to chain saw operations. I had no idea how beneficial the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) International was until I attended. I defragmented my brain and made room for an immeasurable amount of great information from fire service leaders all across the country. There is always more out there that can benefit you in your journey to success. It is not a slap in your department’s face to seek outside training.

Think back to learning from students while teaching a class. Instructors teach what they know. It is very common for a student to teach an instructor a new idea or method that can then be used in future instruction. Outside schools serve as the student in this comparison. A department’s level of training is limited to the abilities and knowledge of those within who are instructing. Reaching outside for more information will only strengthen your level of knowledge to pass on to others in your department. Get out to these outside opportunities and bring that information back to your department. Alter it to accommodate your department’s needs and resources.

The Department’s Role

There is no better feeling as an officer than to walk by a dorm or classroom and see one of your firefighters studying. Personal preparation is obviously vital and a sign of commitment, but the department has a moral obligation to prepare the officers who serve within it. Many departments are experiencing higher call volumes than years past but notice a decline in fires. Think about what our process is for decision making. Some of us get off of the rig and immediately think back to a similar incident or grab an idea out of that bank of experience that worked well. We make decisions and no questions are asked. We have to supplement this experience somehow to develop our new officers because they are not getting as much on-scene experience.

Critique the incidents you respond to, whether over a cup of coffee or in a formal classroom session. This can serve as significant source of training and preparation for an aspiring officer. It is important to touch on the things that went wrong as well as the things that went right. There is something different about each call that we respond to, so creativity sometimes comes into play. Something new may have been done on the scene that proved to be beneficial and something could have been done that proved to be potentially devastating.

Controlled live burns are a tremendous asset to the development of any firefighter. Most of them are coordinated to offer tactical training including fire attack, ventilation, and rescue. Making these training burns scenario-based from start to finish proves to be beneficial. Instead of meeting in the front yard for a briefing and then going to work, set it up as a response. This could give the officer the experience of the entire incident from the response to command termination. This will also provide the opportunity for the aspiring officer to be evaluated on response communication, size-up, 360-degree walk-arounds, tactical decision making, and division of labor. In some cases, command presence is evaluated if they serve in that role. Not all departments, especially urban departments, have this opportunity.

During a recent Fire Engineering Hump Day Hangout, members discussed the importance of reaching out to inspection departments and gathering information on buildings or homes scheduled for demolition. Members also discussed that we do not necessarily need the presence of fire to coordinate effective training. These buildings and homes provide members the opportunity to get away from their training facilities and operate in the structures that they are responding to. These opportunities can also be scenario-based and be an asset to aspiring officers.

Mentorships and ride-along programs can give those aspiring officers similar opportunities to get this experience. We have to spend time in classrooms, on simulators, and in discussion of the fireground to build on our cognitive skills, but it is hard to beat hands-on scenario-based training.  Go out to the training facilities and develop scenarios, but don’t give the crew any hints on what the scenario is. Citizens do not have the luxury of giving us a heads up on what is going on before they call 911, so we cannot train as if they do.

A battalion chief in my department titled his drill selection “The Hat Trick.” This chief developed a number of drills for his battalion and wrote those drills down on a piece of paper. He folded them up and put them all in a hat. Once the crews got to the staging area of the drill, one member would draw a drill from the hat, and that is what they would respond to. Once the drill was completed, the operation was critiqued and positive changes were made to be evaluated on the next training session.

Modern Class A and Class B training facilities provide the opportunity for a wide variety of drills. Take advantage of these opportunities for scenario-based training when preparing officers from the response to termination of command.

Fire departments do what they can to assist with preparation of new officers while juggling so many other responsibilities. Some provide or require officer academies each year that cover a range of things from human resources aspects to managing resources at large-scale incidents. This is a great addition to the preparation period because much of this information is not covered on a daily basis.

We have all heard that the fireground is the easy part–the in-house responsibilities are the toughest. This seems to be true when it comes to developing new leaders. In some departments, you go from checking off the rig as an engineer one day to riding in the hot seat the next without any ride-up time. The responsibility change is a tremendous one. Many fireground decisions either work or they don’t, but the common thought is that it is not that easy in the nonemergency life of an officer. Leadership and management must be included in the preparation of an officer. Other tasks and responsibilities such as prioritizing the tasks that are handed down, handling personnel issues, evaluation of personnel, developing training, and managing the operation of a firehouse can tend to be the most stressful parts of the job. Officer academies are implemented to give aspiring officers the opportunity to be exposed to these responsibilities and learn how to work through them.

Most likely, before you began your career in the fire service, someone like a teacher, mentor, or guardian led you in the right direction with life, school, or relationships. Those individuals helped lead you, instilled values, and assisted you with decision-making skills. Once they were comfortable, they turned you loose to face the real world. The aspiring officer has to be willing to step up, and the department has to serve as the guardian or mentor. We must lead and mentor our officers and provide them with what they need to be successful. They will then be prepared to do the same for their successors. This preparation cannot fall to the wayside by the candidate or the department. If it does, we will see the decline in trust, respect, and confidence in our officers. It takes a department to raise a recruit, but it also takes a department to develop an officer.

Paul Watlington is the battalion chief of training for the Burlington (NC) Fire Department. He develops, coordinates, and oversees in-service and recruit training as well as career development. He is a 20-year veteran of the fire service, with 16 of those years served with Burlington. He has an associate degree in fire protection technology and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in emergency management from Western Carolina University. He has numerous certifications from the National Fire Academy and the North Carolina Office of the State Fire Marshal. He is proud to serve the fire service as an instructor and speaker as well as a member of the Yanceyville Volunteer Fire Department.

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