The Fire Service Food Chain: The Company Officer Level

Previous articles in this series have discussed the theory of the castle and moat and communication from above, and how middle managers engage company officers with the edicts from upper management. This installment will examine several components of effective leadership at the company officer level.

To be an effective team player, company officers need direction and guidance from the middle and top of the organization. Unfortunately, many fire departments operate in a vacuum when it comes to communicating the vision of the fire chief to the company officers. The company officer is a critical link in the leadership of the fire service food chain because that is where the public (read: taxpayer or customer) is served. Devoid of any direction from above, company officers must lead their personnel in the best way they know how.

The importance of leadership at the company officer level cannot be overstated; the company officer leads and oversees all personnel at the service-delivery level. The company officer must effectively communicate and apply the vision, mission and values (VMV) as communicated by the chief of the department to all personnel at the company level. In doing so, company officers would do well to keep the following three concepts in mind:

  1. What do you stand for?
  2. Communicating the vision
  3. Delivering the service

What Do You Stand For?

Company officers need to be well prepared to apply the vision of the department through everyday operations. Thorough knowledge of all departmental policy and procedures, rules and regulations, administrative procedures and other accepted guidelines will be good guidance for company conduct, but it goes beyond this. Company officers must first understand themselves and develop an effective method of communicating with service-delivery personnel.

Company officers must first determine what values and principles they represent and in which they hold convictions. (These convictions must be consistent with management in order to avoid problems.) These convictions also need to be extremely firm, like a line drawn in the sand, to withstand challenges by personnel. This is important because personnel will test the company officer and make many attempts to see if the company officer will "cave" to challenges. When officers cave, or compromise their principles or values, their ability to lead will be eroded. Personnel will then know how to manipulate and/or push the right buttons and will essentially take control over from the company officer. In essence, "everybody would be in charge, but no one would be in control."

Effective company officers know the importance of standing their ground and being firm when applying the guiding principles of the company. It is for this reason that effective company officers must develop thick skin and have the ability to withstand criticism and carry on with their convictions. In the long run, mature and intelligent personnel will respect the company officers who have well-known convictions and stand their ground.

Effective company officers also take their convictions and show the way to their company personnel. They become the steadfast models in which other personnel can emulate. Personnel will appreciate and copy effective leadership when they see it modeled. Company officers will also do well to remember that their effectiveness as leaders or managers must be paramount to any friendships that may be enjoyed. A company officer's effectiveness is severely compromised if friendship is more important than fairness or "doing the right thing." Leadership development consultants Karen Dawson and Kelley Marko authored an article in which they stated, "Being able to maintain a healthy boundary between self and others is a key leadership skill. If we are too connected with others, we are likely to become emotionally hijacked by them." ("What Are You Willing To Change?" Leadership Compass, winter 2005/2006 issue, pages 26 and 27.) Fostering healthy boundaries is prudent as leaders and a general guide for all company officers is to be friendly, but not necessarily a subordinate's friend.

A company officer needs to apply good judgment when it comes to being flexible while also maintaining firmness. While it is good to remember where the line is drawn in the sand, there will be rare occasions where the line may dissolve and decisions need to be made that may be contrary to your convictions. There may be potential for precedence and you may be accused of caving, but you have to remember your principles. Principles are not rules, but merely guidelines for decision making. There are many paradoxes in leadership where decisions may appear to contradict each other, but sometimes that may be acceptable.

Company officers also need to communicate to all personnel the reason why everyone is employed at the fire department and what the focus of all their efforts should be. Sometimes, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that we exist to serve the public, take care of people's problems and keep them out of danger. They are the "one" reason! It is the paramount reason! Despite what some people think, we do not exist to come in and take extended naps, shirk station duties, or race down the road in expensive vehicles with lights and sirens blaring. That is not reality. The company officer is the "designated adult" who deals in reality.

Simultaneously, the company officer must provide personnel with a peek at the future while also inviting them to take a stake and share in the vision of the future. Much of this is communicated by chief officers, but effective fire departments have found ways to include all personnel in building the vision for the future. There are fire departments where the drawbridge stays lowered over the moat and both management and the service delivery people enjoy productive dialogue.

Company officers do well to show personnel that leadership is discipline. Effective company officers should spend time in developing disciples who understand the department vision and mission and then direct all energy toward that end. Paradoxically, that discipline provides the springboard for new growth and new ideas. An underlying discipline also leads to an organizational synergy that can sustain a fire department and offer new directions. Challenges can be handled head on because of personnel who understand and apply the department vision.

When the department vision is effectively communicated, it can be observed that personnel buy-in and commit to the cause. Steven Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, has written that "without involvement there is no commitment," so engaging personnel in this fashion creates a desired and committed workforce. (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic, A Fireside Book, published by Simon and Schuster, 1989.) It also should be a company officer's goal to create ownership in all personnel. An environment should be fostered where personnel feel it is their fire station, their fire truck and their neighborhood. When personnel can say it is "theirs," then they have ownership, they have commitment and they share the vision of the fire department. This is all crucial because it also leads to personal accountability and responsibility. The company officer is an important cog in all of this.

Delivering the Service

The whole aim of everything the company officer does is to deliver the best service possible to the people (with respect to the parameters provided by management and the vision of the department). Company officers must motivate, counsel, coach and cajole personnel with all of their best interpersonal and communication skills in order to deliver the service through their personnel. Usually, it is not difficult to get personnel to give their best and through their training, experience and equipment meet the public's needs.

Occasionally, however, problems present themselves and they need to be resolved swiftly. Company officers may be challenged by their own personnel on their methods of running their company. The challenge may be large, but be aware that it must not become personal and that it may require all of your inner strength to handle it effectively.

There are several reasons why company officers may be challenged by subordinates:

  • Past relationships
  • Old grudges or unresolved differences
  • Religious beliefs
  • Cultural differences
  • Generational differences
  • Immaturity or lack of social skills

If challenges are significant, management may become involved. If this happens, it is crucial that the company officer and the management team are on the same page. If there has been effective communication from the top down and the bottom up, then most likely the vision has been shared and the department stands as one. The company officer should share in the resolution phase and be wholly supported by management. That should effectively quell the challenge.

Surviving a challenge at the company officer level may demand much energy to be expended, but the end focus should be to bring all personnel back to the ability to provide effective service delivery. When this is unsuccessful, a religious experience is on the horizon.

How do you know if your leadership on the company level is effective? Perhaps the most telling sign of your effectiveness is to ascertain what your personnel do when you are not present. This can be done by reading the company logbook, reviewing other official records, or by conversing with reliable company members or the next person in charge. Other questions you should ask yourself are: Do they show ownership in everything they do? Do they know the "one" reason they are there? Are they focused when they deliver service? If the answer is an honest and unequivocal "yes" to all of the above questions, then you have exercised the behaviors of an effective company officer and have effectively communicated the proper behavior to your company. Rest assured that you did your job - you served the public well.

Parker J. Palmer, a nationally acclaimed author, lecturer and educator, once stated, "Leadership is hard work for which one is regularly criticized and rarely rewarded." (Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, published by Jossy-Bass Inc., 2000.) Leadership can be simultaneously demanding and daunting, but lead we must, and it all starts at the top of the fire service food chain. Chief officers can judge the effectiveness of their own leadership and communication of their vision, mission and values by the results of the service delivery of fire companies and company officers. Effective fire departments should have a seamless understanding of their vision from top to bottom. It is all a function of leadership.

Principles for Station Life

  1. Strive for excellence. Everything we do should be with an eye toward quality and excellence. The public expects no less than this. Excellence does not mean perfection, but it does mean trying our best and striving to constantly improve. A climate of excellence should be fostered, which means we do not settle for "good enough" nor do we shirk our responsibilities. We do not lower the bar, but look for ways to raise the bar. This principle or philosophy, when applied to everything we do, pays huge dividends.
  2. Personal accountability and responsibility. If everyone pulls their weight, the system works efficiently and no one is over-burdened. If you cannot complete a task, report it immediately to the company officer. This applies to station duties as well as emergencies. Also, if you use something, put it back. If you dirty something, clean it. If you deplete something, fill it back up. If you break something, report it immediately to the station officer. Simple stuff, isn't it?

    Personnel are expected to know their jobs and should work at upgrading their skills if through a personal audit find they are lacking. Try to learn something new each day and communicate to the station officer any training needs that can be scheduled. Finally, helping others with their messes, but at a certain point it becomes enabling. Notify the station officer if this becomes a problem.

  3. Ownership. We also want to foster a climate of ownership where each person has a sense of "owning" their position, their job duties, their equipment, their vehicle, their station. Looking at our jobs in this way changes a focus of "that is not my job" to "that is mine." Strive to sign your name to everything you do.
  4. Clean and clutter-free. We have worked hard to become a well-maintained fire station. Now, it should take minimal effort to keep the station clean. Our vehicles are well-maintained largely from hard work. Still, there is more to do. Our station pride will continue to grow through our common vision. Together we will continue to improve the station through on-going projects. Both internal and external customers notice our efforts.
  5. The public's best interest. Everything we should do should be directed at how we can best serve the public. As stewards of the public's property, this entails maintaining and cleaning the vehicles, the building and the property and operating all equipment safely and responsibly. We should also use supplies frugally and look for ways to save expenses. This includes shutting off lights, conserving heat/cooling and avoiding wasting paper as examples. We should also respond quickly and efficiently to emergencies. Get to the emergency with the least delay, but safely. Drive and maintain each vehicle like it was your own. Take ownership in everything you do.
  6. Communicate! Perhaps the most prevalent reason things fall apart is because of a lack of communication. Do not assume anything! Ask for clarification if something is not understood, both at emergencies and in the station. Inform or ask the station officer of most developments or needs within the station. The officer should serve as the clearinghouse for nearly all information because he or she is best aware of the big picture. The station officer is also responsible for everything and all personnel within the station.

    Also, strive to communicate effectively on an interpersonal level. Talk-show host Montel Williams once said, "Talk without being offensive and listen without being defensive." If there is a problem with someone, discuss it with that person and not behind his or her back. Be an adult and handle the problem effectively. Do not let little problems become big problems. Deal with it, keep it between the other person and yourself, and then move on. Be loyal to your team. Talk only good of each other. Remember, they may be carrying you out of the building tonight. Help each other win!

  7. Empower to the people. Past decision making usually involved the autocratic style where the leader or officer told subordinates what to do. Democracies involve the majority rule where everyone has a vote. Consensus decision making is ideal where everyone agrees to the direction or decision, but is difficult to enact because it can be inefficient. The style of decision making we strive for at our station is that everyone has input in the decisions the officers and the battalion chiefs make. No decisions are made in a vacuum. We also try to practice win/win where all people are satisfied with a decision. With that being stated we look for your input, your involvement, with everything that happens at the station. You have a voice and we want to hear it.
  8. Fun, fun, fun - balanced with focus. In light of everything discussed above, there is no reason we cannot have fun and do the things we want to do. Sure, we have work rules and regulations, policy and procedures, past practices and required tasks, but if we respect each other and treat each other in a dignified and mature way, we should have no problems. Much fun can be enjoyed while maintaining a focus on the principles discussed above.

JOHN G. DAHMS is a retired fire chief of the City of Brookfield, WI, Fire Department and a veteran firefighter of 30 years. He has a master's degree in management from Cardinal Stritch University and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP). RICHARD A. MUELLER is a battalion chief with the City of West Allis, WI, Fire Department and a fire service veteran of 30 years. He has a bachelor of science degree in fire service management from Southern Illinois University. DAVID F. PETERSON is a lieutenant with the City of Madison, WI, Fire Department and a fire service veteran of 29 years. He is completing a bachelor of science degree in fire service management from SIU and is enrolled in the EFOP. All three authors are veteran fire service instructors and are members of The Wisconsin FLAME Group LLC ("Fire Leadership And Management Excellence").