The Company Officer Influence on Firefighter Career Development

The phrase chewing the fat has been around for a long time. It’s often attributed to military sailors who, during prolonged periods of down time, would converse while chewing on salt-hardened fat to pass the time. In most fire stations throughout the country, the longstanding tradition of chewing the fat continues today. Although the substance of the “fat” itself might be a little bit different, firefighters are notorious for gossiping, telling tales, conjuring up stories about the off-going shift, etc., while sitting around the kitchen table.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down and chew the fat with two icons of the American fire service: Fire Chief (Ret.) Charlie Dickinson of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire (PBF) and former Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator, and Fire Chief (Ret.) Russ Sanders of the Louisville (Ky.) Fire Department (LFD), who is currently serving as Central Region Director of the NFPA. With nearly 90 years of public service between them, these two chiefs have spent many years in fire stations and have a plethora of stories (and some tall tales) to share.

While Chief Dickinson moved into his chief’s positon as an “outsider” to the PBF, Chief Sanders’ career took a different route; he rose from firefighter to chief in the LFD. Although I’d never been formerly introduced to Chief Sanders, I had followed his career for many years. In fact, as a young college student in 1989, I applied to be a firefighter with the city of Louisville. Much to my dissatisfaction, I was passed over–but that would be a topic for us to discuss at a different time.

As we talked, Chief Sanders shared a story about Capt. John Ridge, his first company officer. Capt. Ridge was an old-schooler (my words). He didn’t sit around and watch TV with the crew, and he didn’t assist his crew in cleaning the station or washing the rig after a call to create the common “perception” that he was one of them. He did what a company officer was supposed to do–he ran the company.

While the crews were completing their daily chores and performing their apparatus/equipment checks, Capt. Ridge was studying, developing and planning the company training that would take place later in the day. He was securing abandoned structures in the district so that he could conduct drills throughout the shift to ensure his crew was flawless in their execution. Chief Sanders described an image of Capt. Ridge sitting at his desk surrounded by the latest fire service periodicals. He believed in and understood the importance of training, and he made every effort to ensure his crewmembers had the opportunity to learn.

It was not uncommon to hear Quad Company #4 checking on the air for training at all hours of the night. In fact, Capt. Ridge and the crew of Quad #4 built such a reputation throughout the department that they were nicknamed Ridge’s Raiders.

It was not until he was detailed to another company for the day that then-Firefighter Sanders realized the valuable role Capt. Ridge had played in developing his career. As he walked into the station, Sanders noticed a disheveled man sleeping on the couch. Assuming it was a member of the crew, he kicked the couch and asked, “Where’s the captain?” The startled man, wearing weathered attire that vaguely represented a uniform, said, “I’m the captain. What can I do for you?”

Having been “brought up” under Capt. Ridge and having served as one of his distinguished Raiders, Sanders was shocked to see a crewmember, much the less the captain, asleep on the couch during the day.

As Chief Sanders spoke of this experience, he noted how different his career might have been had he initially been assigned to someone other than Capt. Ridge. He questioned the career path he would’ve taken. There was a high probability that he would’ve been a mirror image of the captain sleeping on the couch in the middle of the day (or something worse). For him to eventually rise to the rank of fire chief would have been unimaginable.

As we look throughout our organization with the most critical of eyes–or more importantly, as we look in the mirror–do we see an image of professionalism and competency equal to that of Capt. Ridge and his Raiders–or do we see something closer to the captain asleep on the couch?

As officers, we have a unique opportunity to influence the goals and aspirations of the men and women we lead. The next time you observe a substandard or mediocre performance by a crew or an individual firefighter, look no further than the officer they chose to follow. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

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