The Young Volunteer Fire Officer

Some may say that having young volunteer fire officers is a disadvantage; some say that it is an advantage. Whatever the opinion, it is imperative for a young fire officer to understand how to handle the trials and tribulations associated with the position.
You need to fully understand your strengths and weaknesses before you ride in this seat. (Bill Carey photo)

Your Guidebook to Survival

By Steven Sulcov

As a young person growing up, what are the hard things that you faced? The SATs? Getting your driver’s license? Making that first phone call to someone who you had a crush on? All these things come with emotional struggles that could be crippling without the proper preparation. Why is it any different for a young volunteer firefighter aspiring to be a fire officer? There are issues such as stress, emotions, unfamiliar ground, and many others that can deter the young volunteer firefighter from becoming a fire officer.

In today’s fire service, it is apparent through personal experience, attending training, and being involved in the service that the face of leadership is going from gruff mustaches to baby faced young blood. Why is this happening? Are we having high turnover rates? Are senior members not as intrigued about being an officer anymore? Do they have the “I’ve been there, done that, don’t need to do it again” attitude? The possibilities are endless. Whatever the answer is, this is not specific to any one fire department and likely is affecting volunteer fire departments throughout the nation.

Some may say that having young volunteer fire officers is a disadvantage; some say that it is an advantage. Whatever the opinion, it is imperative for a young fire officer to understand how to handle the trials and tribulations associated with the position. Right-minded fire officers can identify their own strengths and weaknesses. Being able to capitalize on both is imperative.

The Well-Rounded Fire Company

What drives a well-rounded fire company? Why is it important to have a well-rounded fire company? We all know the strengths and weaknesses of the members on our company. With that information, what do we do to ensure that we use them to the best of their ability? For example, two members of my fire department are subject matter experts when it comes to high-angle rope rescue. One of the members is assigned to a UASI Task Force Rescue Company that specializes in rope work, and the other comes from a department that has a regional high-angle rescue team that is very active in the region.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have members within the department who are not the most proficient ladder climber and ones who aren’t the most effective at making the stretch. Can they do the job? Sure! However, is that where we want to capitalize on our abilities during our on-scene operation? Not likely. As a fire officer, it is our responsibility to identify and capitalize on it!

Additionally, a well-put-together company will have a host of professionals within it. When I was very young in the fire service, a senior member said to me, “Learn the whole trade, but become very passionate about something.” For me, that “something” is building construction and fire behavior. Being able to read buildings from the outside, identifying room locations based on construction, determining fire spread from construction, and reading and thinking of the next move for the fire are areas in which I have prided myself on becoming great at!

So why is this relevant? Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the company will help you as a leader to determine where the company needs additional work and where the company excels. Those members who may not be too proficient at ropes and knots may need to work with rope technicians to hone their skills. Those who aren’t great at making the stretch may drive your drill curriculum to include more sessions on fire attack. Additionally, you can bet that when we have a high-angle rescue, I am going to step aside from the operational aspect of the emergency and let those who have done it, and continuously do it, run the operation.

Why is this important for the young volunteer fire officer to know and understand? You don’t want to be the person who decides a portion of an operation which is completely backward from the ability of the company and is only based on perceived need and not practicality and ability. Decision making can be stressful. If you have a personal process you use to make decisions based on the abilities of your well-rounded company, you have something to stand by.

The Struggle Is Real … Very Real

There is nothing like going to your first fire! We all remember our first fire, don’t we? How about your first fire as an officer? How about your first decision as a fire officer at a fire? How about your first conflict with a person as an officer? How about not being “one of the gang” anymore? These are just a few of the struggles you are going to face as a young volunteer fire officer.

When I was 22 years old, I became a fire officer on January 1. On January 2, I arrived first due with a ladder company to a structural fire just two blocks from the firehouse. Being so close, I knew that we were going to be on our own for a couple of minutes. Coming out of the firehouse, I could see the column and requested a working fire be transmitted. I said to myself, “OK, I asked for more help, Step 1.” All I kept thinking about driving the short two-block trip over to Fifth Street was, “Don’t freeze, don’t freeze, you’ve been to fires before.”

We pulled up to find a well-involved 2½-story residential wood-frame dwelling with heavy fire showing from the second-floor rear. I gave my size-up and proceeded to complete my 360 (one of the most important first-due fire officer tasks). There must have been what looked like 100 people on the front lawn, when it was more like 10. Was I having tunnel vision? Was I not able to distinguish between reality and fiction? I couldn’t find the homeowner. We pulled one person away from going back in. I saw a stair chair in the upper floor position, which told me there may be someone inside. I told the crew to begin a primary search ahead of the engine’s arrival. Mind you, it felt like it took the engine four hours to get there, when we were on our own for 3:24 minutes.

Two minutes after I instructed my crew into the fire building, the members issued a Mayday. This is something that will stay with me every day for the rest of my life. Now what? No rapid intervention team (RIT) established, no engine company, no chiefs … what now? Long story short, we got everyone out and accounted for and had to back up and punt in our operation. To me, this was one of the MOST STRESSFUL five minutes of my life. I had been a fire officer for two days, had two calls under my belt, and I almost lost a crew of four! Talk about the emotional struggle.

Now what? How do I handle what is about to come? The questions, the ridicule, the finger pointing, the second guessing … it’s all about to come down the pipe. I was nervous. I was nervous about what everyone else was going to think about me! Then it hit me. As the fire chief was having heated words with one of my members by the rig, I saw that the conversation was getting heated and, without thinking, I walked over there and removed my member from the situation. I sent those members into the building, I made the decision to advance before the engine. I was in charge! Notice the trend? So, I ensured that the chief came down on me and not my members. Stand up for yourself and stand up for your company. If your decisions are informed and educated, then respect yourself and appreciate and believe in yourself and your decisions. When asked if I would do the same thing again given the same information, you bet I would!

To combat the struggle of emotions, personalities, and ideas, remember a few things:

  • No two people are the same.
  • Your decision is a decision and not a suggestion … embrace it! Remember 33/33/33: 33% love you, 33% hate you, and 33% just don’t care.
  • Tensions run high at emergencies; talk when you get back to quarters. P.S., the public is watching.
  • Find a mentor to embrace. Many people have been in your shoes before. Find a support network.
  • If you’re not going to be a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem. When an issue is identified that directly involves you, work with others to determine what the problem is, identify changes that can be made, and capitalize!

Traits of a Good Fire Officer

We have all had good and bad leaders in the fire service. We have all had good and bad bosses at work. No matter where you go in the country, you will find good and bad fire officers. One of the steps to survival when it comes to being a quality fire officer is to identify those good and bad leaders and identify what you liked and disliked about each. This does not only have to be a review of former officers but a review of the senior members in your firehouse. Keep in mind that this step is not designed to criticize their every action. After all, they are human and, I PROMISE, you too will mess up!

There are hundreds of traits of good leaders, but we must identify ones that really stand out. These next few are ones that stand out to me personally. Throughout your journey, you will have to identify what traits mean the most to you.

Being a sensible decision maker: This person does not make changes for the sake of just making changes. In fact, most of us, including me, are intimidated by change, mainly because of what the other person thinks; however, there are people who like change, believe in change, and want to see and help change to be implemented. These leaders need to do their due diligence to see if a major change is necessary, financially feasible, or needed. You do not want to be the spaghetti officer. You do not want to be the officer who cooks spaghetti (aka comes up with ideas) and throws it on the wall to see if it sticks! I would agree that the fire service does need change, but the change needs to be thoughtful. Using the ideology of “The FDNY does it that way” may not be the most effective approach for us.

Staying humble: Nobody wants to work with or for someone who beats his chest and ensures that everyone knows he is the officer. Trust me, if you are the officer and are good at it, people will be able to identify that, including the public. One of the things that I like to do as an officer is to introduce myself to the callers and explain to them what we will be doing and support them every step of the way. When the call is over, explain to them what has happened and what their next courses of action to take are. Of course, this cannot be done at every emergency. Remember, the members in the department know that you were promoted. Don’t tell them why, show them!

Embracing your firefighters and their worth: When projects get assigned, identify who would be the best person to work on the project. Sometimes it isn’t you! Do you have an IT person in the company, a salesperson, or a borough employee? Are you trying to build a department app or run statistics on your company? All these people can have a significant impact on the outcome of a project because of what they do every day for a living. Identify who those up-and-coming leaders are through projects, embrace their desire, and help them to learn.

Taking charge: It is in the job title and job description that you need to take charge. In most volunteer organizations, you have been elected (ASKED) by the membership to take charge. Is leadership something that you are born with or something that is learned? When the going gets tough you need to act; you need to lead. When fire is coming out a couple of windows is not the time to sit back and watch. You are not just an officer in the firehouse but everywhere you go! We need to ensure that we have a department that allows up-and-coming officers to be prepared for the position. If you get into the position and are not ready, maybe it’s time for you to get back into the back seat!

Nobody wants to look up to someone who cannot make up their mind, whose mind is all over the place, someone who is inconsistent! Not knowing what to expect from the fire officer may be the demise of the company and its ability to perform. When the members never know what the outcome will be when emergencies happen, it can result in hardship. If you make it clear to your company that nobody is to be in the street when returning to quarters and backing in, then the expectation has been set! Every time someone is in the street, it needs to be addressed. If you want your ladder company chauffeur to angle out every time and set up for aerial operations, he will know what you expect. If you change your mind every time, he will never know! Trust me, your crew is looking for ways to knock you down, especially as a young officer. Don’t give them that opportunity; stay the course every time.

Who to Look to?

Nobody can do this job on their own. We all need help. From the brand-new fire officer to the chief of department, we must all have a support network. Be it mentorship programs, friends who have been here before, or just someone you connect with, you must have that guiding light when things go astray.

As a fire officer, especially a young one, you must keep a relationship with fellow officers and chief officers. Let’s face it, everyone is looking at you, and you better believe that they are looking at you even harder. You represent their organization; you fail, and the whole organization fails. Let us also agree that you are young, so they are cautious about your decision making and your position in the organization. Make sure that you build a relationship with them that allows you to report back to them when necessary. Sometimes you must come to them with some less than positive news or something that you may not be so proud of. Even so, make sure that you also bring them positive news! When the company does something above and beyond or you’re impressed by one of their skills or projects they’ve been working on, praise them!

Keep in mind, that many, MANY people have been here before you. They have seen things that you have not, done things that you have not, and completed many things that you have yet to complete. These people are known as the senior firefighters and may be one of the most important aspects to your company. Sit down with them and explain to them (before doing so with the rest of the company) what you expect from them and, more importantly, what they can expect from you. After all, the senior member in the firehouse is ultimately another officer in the crew.

Ultimately, yes, you are the officer, and senior members may need to obey orders from you, but without their support you WILL NOT succeed. It has been said numerous times before that the informal leaders are the most influential in an organization. Additionally, once the senior members knows what kind of officer they can expect you to be, they may be helpful in getting buy in from the rest of the company to help meet your expectations of the company. Talk to your crew about what kind of officer you plan to be … it helps!

You should also be able to turn to yourself in times of struggle. I know this sounds weird, but you need to be able to stand up for your actions and your companies’ actions. Firefighters want to work with officers who don’t forget where they came from. Take pride in the time you spent on the backstep. Remember that at one time you needed the officer to have your back and now you will need be the officer having the members’ backs. DON’T EVER FORGET WHERE YOU CAME FROM.

The Abrasive Bastard

This is one of my favorites. This comes from my mentor, Chief Jim Pharr. Jim used to tell me, “Brother, I’ve messed up before; I’ve messed up bad.” Jim’s ability to see his faults, compare, plan to correct, and execute is none like I have ever seen before. Jim has had the “pleasure” of working with all types of people in the fire service, and I am thankful that he has shared many of his experiences with me.

One day, after becoming a chief, I was away on vacation. Driving through the Appalachian Mountains from Kentucky to New Jersey, I couldn’t help but take time to think about all the struggles that I was having as a newly promoted fire chief. Especially as a volunteer, I was dealing with people having trouble in their own jobs and personal lives and now it was flowing over to the department. I needed some insight and guidance. I was distraught. I thought that I had been set up for failure. After all, nobody prepared me for anything other than going to fires. Going to fires is the easy part; nobody said I would have to deal with conflict, government, personalities, or eager and less-than-eager firefighters! So, I called Jim.

Jim answered the phone as he always does: “Hey, Brother!” and I responded to him, “Jim, you let me down! You didn’t tell me how much this position was going to suck!” His response? Laughter! The man was laughing at me! I was not prepared for that response. I was ready for one of those counseling sessions where Jim could relate to what I was going through and provide guidance. That wasn’t the case! He asked me what one of the issues was, and I told him that people were trying me every step I took. The senior members were commenting on EVERY single action I took. It was an emotional roller coaster.

Jim chuckled again and said: “When you go to the hardware store and purchase an ax, is that ax ready to chop down a tree? Is it ready to split firewood?” Mind you, being a kid from the city, I wasn’t ready to answer that question confidently. The answer is No. He said when you go to your fire truck and use an ax, is it ready to vent roofs, maybe cut wood, do more than a brand-new ax would do? Sure, it would. He asked me why I thought that was. I said because the ax hasn’t been prepared for all those tasks. Correct, the ax hasn’t been honed to complete those tasks; it still has more to go through before it can chop down a tree. He asked me how to hone that ax to prepare for wood cutting. I said I guess you’d have to file it! Exactly, you need to file that ax down and hone the edge to get the bevel right and ready for tree chopping. Like the axes in the fire truck have been honed, so do the brand-new ones!

I thought about this for a while. Was he saying that we were all like axes? Some new, some old, some have gone to work, some still need to be worked on? Of course, he was! And how do you hone an ax you use? A file … a Bastard File. It hit me like a ton of bricks! I was finally understanding where Jim was going with all this, and I share it with you.

Sometimes it takes an abrasive bastard to get you to where you need to be. Don’t look at it as everyone is always questioning and trying you, but understand that many have come before you, and sometimes they are just being abrasive bastards to form you into the fire officer you need to be! You will not come out of the gate with all the answers! You will never have all the answers. Those abrasive senior members are not trying to see you fail but working to help you to get to where you need to be!

In the end, I want you to remember that you have been afforded one of the greatest positions in the fire service. With that responsibility will come struggles–some emotional, personal, professional struggles. We must learn how to adapt to our struggles and conquer them. Building a well-rounded fire company and capitalizing on your members abilities are a gift that has been given to you. Use it! Understand how to cope with these struggles and overcome the naysayers. Identify what actions make for a good fire officer and don’t stray! Hold your morals and your ethics close and your company closer. Remember the greatest asset you have been given is and always will be people! Remember what you value as being a good fire officer. Think back to the relationships you have had with officers and bosses in the past. Make a list of what you liked and disliked and find what you feel are the best qualities you need to embrace. Understand where you can turn to for help. Who are the senior members, who are the mentors that you hold close?

Everyone should have that support network, because NONE of us can do this job alone! You are the boss; act like it!

Steven Sulcov is a captain with the Fair Lawn (NJ) Volunteer Fire Department formerly serving as chief of department. He has an MPA from Anna Maria College in fire and emergency services and a BS in fire and safety engineering technology from Eastern Kentucky University. He is a 14-year veteran of the fire service, has written for Fire Engineering, and is an FDIC International 2021 instructor.

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