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The First Five Minutes for the Officer

The first five minutes of your shift do not belong to you, the officer; They belong to your firefighters.

It has been widely reported that the first five minutes determines how the next five hours will be spent on the fireground. This generalization places a great deal of importance on the first due officer to size-up the scene appropriately. They need to make a determination about the needs, resources and strategies. Decisions are made regarding tactics and assigning tasks.

It is not unreasonable to think that these initial actions will directly influence the eventual outcome of the event. Safety and efficiency of extinguishment are directly proportional to the proper procedures being implemented right from the start.

The pressure placed upon the first actions forces us to prepare for them as early as recruit school. We tackle the lessons of first line placement, direct versus indirect attack and ventilation. We also practice search and rescue while we crawl to the seat of the fire.

As our career path progresses, we are forced to open our eyes. Putting water on the fire is only a small component of a larger picture. We need to see the scene as a place where those under our charge can be hurt or killed. That is sobering. Firefighters can die on the fireground even if they do everything right. As officers, we must not be so focused as to get tunnel vision and see things at the task level.

Sequence and coordination are words that appear on our radar screens. Risk benefit analysis is the proper term for our scale that weighs the benefit of a risky aggressive fire attack against the safer defensive approach.

Transmissions of additional alarms and managing the resources will challenge even seasoned veterans at times. If rescues must be affected, there is an emotional component that must be controlled.

The scene unfolds and presents us with ever changing conditions. We must anticipate this and adjust as necessary. Bring in ambulances, activate a rapid intervention team or withdraw personnel from the building. Reevaluate and constantly size-up the scene.

These are 'musts' as the incident commander. Since the first due officer functions in this role for at least a little while, they need to be sharp. All sorts of programs help hone these skills. Command and control with role playing, tactical training and the lessons learned from reviewing National Institute of Occupation Standards and Health (NIOSH) line of duty death reports all add to our bag of tricks.

The reason these skills need to be so ingrained and applied in the first five minutes is because the remainder of the operation will be determined by the action of the first due companies. Time is of the essence and critical decisions have to be made with a clear vision of the conclusion of the incident. Actions have consequences, both positive and negative.

A place that our training is lacking is in the firehouse. We can rattle off streets and hydrant locations and the friction loss equations for hoselines and gallons per minute we can flow with different nozzles. This information does not prepare officers with the interpersonal skills necessary to properly execute the job of supervisor.

Training inevitably revolves around fire and EMS based skills. Courses on management deal with organization and proper record keeping. Leadership courses offer a better solution and assistance with team building techniques.

Leadership is the essential function for all officers. One look into the nature of the job reveals the need of one person being responsible for making decisions and maintaining accountability. This is just as important when not on a call.

To that end, a good leader has to understand the importance of the first five minutes. This refers to the first five minutes of the day. You have the ability to influence the next five hours.

The first five minutes of your shift do not belong to you. They belong to your firefighters. Smiling and glad-handing will promote a calm and pleasant demeanor. The people that you work with will absolutely take the hint. Your attitude will be the barometer. Their attitude will be a reflection of yours.

Is this to say that you have to be having a great day every time you come to work? Not hardly. The difference is that you can not allow your bad day to influence the day your co-workers are going to have.

If you come to work grumpy, displaying a long face and the personality of a rabid pitbull, do you think the people you work with will take notice? Of course. They will take that clue and this attitude most likely will perpetuate and more importantly resonate with them. They absorb the negativity. This will absolutely impact their performance.

On the other hand, if you are sincere and show caring and compassion to the team, they will return the favor. They can even bolster your mood. This synergy is an amazing gift. Positive energy will flow like an electric current between all parties. They deserve to see you giving them your best effort. After all, we look for that very thing from them all day.

Relating this idea to the fireground is easy. We know how to use strategy, tactics and tasks already. As the first arriving officer to a fire, we employ these (simplified) principles:

  • Strategy: Put the fire out.
  • Tactic: Engine 1, stretch a line to the fire.
  • Task: Firefighter Jones applies water until extinguished.

As the first arriving officer to the firehouse, we also employ these:

  • Strategy: Promote a positive attitude and work environment.
  • Tactic: Greet all members.
  • Task: Smile and say "Good Morning" to every teammate.

If you are having a great day, this will be readily apparent. Your aim will be to encourage the same feelings in others. If you are not feeling great, then by putting down your emotional baggage, you refrain from causing a negative chain reaction. Strike an optimistic tone and you will shape the attitude for the next few hours.

The cumulative effect of positive attitude can not be underestimated. The level of customer service will be better. Stress levels will remain lower, reducing stress hormones and the possibility of deleterious health effects. The workplace will be more enjoyable. Productivity will increase and worker satisfaction will rise. All of these things make your job easier and more pleasant.

Jameson R. Ayotte is a Fire Lieutenant/Paramedic with the Amesbury, MA Fire Department. He began his career in EMS in 1994 and entered the fire service in 2002. Lieutenant Ayotte has been a company officer since 2005 and is the Shift Commander of Group 1. He is a member of the Amesbury Fire Honor Guard.

Lieutenant Ayotte holds a B.S. in Exercise Physiology and an M.S. in Physical Therapy from UMass-Lowell. He is a certified Fire Officer I, Fire Officer II and Fire Instructor I. He also instructs Anatomy & Physiology and Medical Terminology. He lives in Amesbury with his wife Melanie and their two sons. He can be reached at