I started my career in the fire service over 25 years ago, dealing with stubborn fires in durable structures; today’s responders are facing potentially explosive fire behavior while contained in what are referred to as “disposable buildings.” The introduction of lightweight materials, engineered structural components, and increased flammable sheathing has significantly reduced the time we have to mount an offensive attack within newer compartment fires. Understanding construction methods and material shortfalls are vital for the officer. The initial size-up must take these factors into consideration when choosing a mode of attack upon arrival, based upon the appropriate level of risk the situation is dictating.
The officer must also serve as a leader to the members of the company as well. While there are essential characteristics for emergency scene skills, officers should possess other leadership traits as well:
Strong Tactical Focus: Fire officers who serve as Incident Commanders need to have a thorough blend of tactical competency and “street smarts”; assigning companies to specific tasks based upon the situation at hand comes from a strong knowledge base and detailed comprehension of the response area (photo 2).
Discipline: Officers must set the example; doing the right thing the first time, every time, sets a level of acceptable behavior within the company, while allowing enough ability to be flexible when need be.
Inspiration: An officer should inspire their company members to strive to do their best. Being able to motivate the company members will enhance their skills during an emergency, increasing the level of service they provide.
Know Your Troops: Each member brings a variety of skills to the team; a good officer should identify each member’s strong points and allow them to apply them to the incident.
Be Involved: The officer should be visual, and have their hands in every aspect of the company’s daily assignments. Getting involved in equipment checks, maintenance and repairs, inspections and station operations helps to solidify the Esprit de corps, or the morale of the company.
Accept feedback: A wise Chief Officer once told me that we are given two ears and one mouth for a reason. Being a good listener is vital for an officer; decisions during emergencies require as much information as possible to arrive at the correct decision. Listening skills requires full attention to the details before beginning to develop a response to the information.
Be Decisive: At times fire officers can suffer from “Paralysis by Analysis,” taking so much time to make any decision, while time on the emergency scene is critical. It is wise to practice “Tactical Patience”; taking a breath, so to speak, to get all the size-up information right to make the right call the first time (photo 3). But, make the call so the companies can get to work. Being able to make sound decisions and show assertion while doing so will increase confidence in the members of the company.
Walk the Walk: Credibility comes from the decisions that the officer makes. Wearing their personal protective equipment (PPE), stepping off the apparatus with a tool in their hand, operating with everyone’s safety in mind, and “getting dirty” with hands-on training are just some of the things the officer can do to show the troops that they are in good hands.
The Consummate Example
Rank as an officer is a title that can be, at times, given far too often before it is earned. Many times we get promoted or appointed, and we start a new “pseudo-career” as an officer within the one we began when we entered the fire service. It is not enough to just have the title; while it may have been given, it still must be honed and polished throughout one’s career. Throughout my career, I have earned many titles, and I am proud to have each of them. I have been called lieutenant, loo, Instructor Daley, Master Instructor Daley, Mister Daley, Sir and Daddy (that one’s my favorite), but each of these titles are switched like disposable name tags at a speed-dating event, depending on which hat I am wearing that day. There are very few people who come into our lives that hold a title permanently, no matter what the audience; they are called mentors. I have a few; it is important to be able to draw experience by example from multiple resources. There exists many great examples of this in the service; these people have earned the respect and admiration of their peers, and the rank is bestowed upon them, not out of procedure, but out of respect.
I would like to tell you about The Chief.