Fire Officers: What Would You Do When No One is Watching?

Firefighters must insist on competent, effective leaders in our fire departments to serve as officers. It isn't enough to just be lucky, these days you have to excel at commanding operations on the fireground.

As a fire officer, you are a direct front line representative for your respective department. You greet the public at many different instances, from the wide-eyed child that wants to grow up and be a firefighter, to the couple who stare at the charred remains of their lives work, looking for answers to where to begin from here. There is a significant balance needed to be able to handle these incidents and keep the balance between the brass and the crew members, along with keeping a keen focus on our customer service delivery. We are the problem solvers, the reassuring voice, the unyielding sign of confidence and determination while ordering troops into a raging inferno, while the spectators stand agape with wonder.

Recently, a fellow fire service professional was telling me about an issue that arose at a meeting of the rank and file in his department. It seems as though this department has firefighters who act in an officer capacity when the company officer is not on shift, for whatever reason. A member raised a point; he stated that everyone in the department should be able to serve as an acting officer. His reasoning was that “…everyone was the same…” and he continued on to discuss the financial perks that come with riding the front seat, and he deserved some consideration in that matter, regardless of this member’s training and capabilities. Actually, many officers who I relay this story to become highly insulted, as these comments can only serve to lessen the efforts of those assigned these responsibilities took to ensure the safety and efficiency of their respective companies.

Let me make my position crystal clear…There is a significant difference when making the transition from firefighter to company officer. A look at the headlines recently reminds us just how dangerous, and fatal, our jobs can be at any call, at any given moment. We in the service must insist on competent, effective leaders in our departments to serve as officers; it isn’t enough to just be lucky, these days you have to excel at commanding operations on the fireground.

Admittedly, I am not surprised by the comments of this person. There are constant examples of “leadership turned entitlement” in our profession, and it is making our fireground operations much more hazardous. Want proof? Just read through some of the recent line-of-duty death (LODD) reports at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) website, and you will see some of these consistent themes in each one:

  • Lack of a sound understanding of fire behavior, and extreme fireground dynamics;
  • Lack of a proper size-up (risk vs. gain) early into the operation;
  • Lack of understanding of extreme fire effects on lightweight construction;
  • Lack of existing standard operating procedures (SOPs);
  • Lack of use of an Incident Command System;
  • Lack of sufficient training;

And the list goes on and on. Who has the responsibility to control each of these issues? The Officer. Do these responsibilities sound like something to bestow upon someone who feels like its “their turn” to be the boss for the day?


Officer/Leadership Characteristics

First and foremost, the company officer must have a sound background in every aspect of response that is provided by the department. While many departments provide a wide variety of services, such as EMS, Hazmat and Technical Rescue capabilities, there are two areas of knowledge that stand out above most other topics: Fire Behavior and Building Construction (photo 1). The foundation of our job is suppression, so it is imperative that fire behavior is second nature to the officer. As fire loads and heat release rates have increased exponentially over the years, our basic training in boot school regarding fire behavior is only scraping the surface. Many websites provide great training and proven factual information in regards to fire behavior. Continuing education in this area includes study in Fuel Loading, Air Tracking and Compartment Characteristics. Each area is equally important, and there are great training opportunities and study materials available for the aspiring officer.

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