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Gaining Credibility by Teaching Fellow Firefighters

Upon entering the ranks of the fire officer corps, people generally begin to understand that the job of being a leader and earning the respect of the firefighters and other officers is a daunting task. Many times, the newly minted officers are overwhelmed at the work it takes to be a good officer, and are shocked that the credibility that comes from the position isn’t automatic. What many young firefighters see are officers who are good at what they do, have the respect of many throughout the ranks of the department and seemingly do the job without much trouble. They almost make it look easy.

Many of these firefighters find out, as I did, that being a really good officer requires a lot behind-the-scenes work and preparation. New officers sometimes wonder where the confidence to give orders and the knowledge to teach their firefighters comes from. I can assure you that it isn’t stored in the bugles on the helmet; it comes from officers attending classes, doing outside reading, asking questions and picking senior people’s brains on training scenarios. Then those officers turn around and teach to the other firefighters what they have learned. I learned from an outgoing officer that sharing what you have helps build credibility, and keeps your firefighters safe, which is the most important part of all of this.

It was from that point forward that I have dedicated myself to making sure that every day I gain one piece of information that would make me a smarter firefighter and a better leader. The volume of information to educate firefighters on the Internet is staggering; there is no reason for someone to not be able to learn something if they are willing/have the time to sit down and scroll through an article, or pick up a magazine. Now I understand that we have life revolving around us, and that there may not be time every day or every other day for us to do this; but even just reading headlines from the various websites or emails that we can visit or receive is enough to educate us, if not peak our interest so we make a point to come back later.

As we progress through the ranks, we should pass on everything we can to others. The worst thing that happens is we keep all the new information to ourselves and a firefighter gets hurt or killed because we didn’t want to share. The development of credibility for an officer comes from sharing newly acquired information. If an officer keeps all they know and have learned to themselves, no one will be able to appreciate their knowledge, therefore there will be a lack of trust and credibility from firefighters and more senior officers. By sharing what you know and building that credibility, you can take pride in knowing that you have played a role in firefighter development and helped create a better future officers corps and a better fire department.

There should be no greater pride for an officer, than to see a young firefighter develop into an officer and ascend the ranks because of our help in fostering their knowledge of firefighting. In my department, all officers are encouraged to lead/teach drills. I try to teach drills at least four times a year. This, in my mind, has helped me build credibility in my department as a good officer, and someone who cares for the junior officers, and for the firefighters I lead. I have found that as you teach and make yourself available for questions and positive critiques, people are more willing to listen to you, and along with that, credibility begins to build. As long as the information is factual, correct, and your method of presentation is acceptable to the majority, you will create a positive air about your drills and increase attendance.

My background is in education, primarily secondary social studies. Having this background has helped me evolve my teaching skills to make my drills more engaging. Not to say that officers need a background in education, but it certainly helped me. Many instructors are able to teach to firefighters and be engaging without trying. For the rest of us, however, there are few things that can be ironed out and changed to become more effective when we teach our drills or classes.

As new officers (and as we become more experienced), we should prepare to have a teaching style that promotes educating and engaging our firefighters, not dictating and preaching to them. In my history of teaching, when teaching/preaching to students/firefighters (lecturing down to them), the response and retention is less likely on the first and second time. When the teaching style is more sharing and discussion (lecturing engagingly), the retention rate the first time around is higher. This isn’t to say that there aren’t times when an instructor needs to dictate a lesson to students, but many times engaging learning is more constructive than preaching.

A negative connotation for a new officer is to come across as a preacher, or someone who will only provide information on their terms, and not receive feedback from some of the best sources of information, our experienced members. It’s better to bring everyone together, present the material and use it more as a group learning situation as opposed to you being the only one to share information. Generational gaps can exist in fire departments, and if you open the floor to discussion and questions, your topic has now taken on a life that experienced and newer members alike can all contribute to the topic.

The ability to issue orders on the fireground to firefighters, and have the confidence and ability to do it, comes over time. Firefighters first must understand what you know, and have faith you are acting in their best interest. They must also have confidence in their officers that they are continuing to learn and are doing everything in their power to keep their firefighters safe. Building credibility through educating your firefighters is a task that, when done properly, can be easy and greatly beneficial.

Credibility begins on the training grounds, and officers should embrace every moment they can to help improve their firefighters understanding of how to fight ever-changing fires and how to stay safe.

SEAN WILKINSON is a captain and drill instructor with the Snyder Fire Department in Amherst, NY. He is a police dispatcher for the Town of Amherst Police and is the manager of an Urgent Care Center. He has a Bachelors of Arts in History from the University at Buffalo, and is currently completing the requirements for his Masters in Secondary Education at the University at Buffalo.