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.

I have worked at my local fire academy for close to 22 years, and from the moment one walks through the door on their first night, it is a humbling experience. Humbling, because once you leave your personal comfort zone, you find that there isn’t a shortage of well-trained, competent firefighters in your demographics. You honestly believe that you are on your game as a firefighter, and then you find out how much you still have to learn. Some instructors stay the duration, some stay until other responsibilities get in the way, and some stay far too long. Unfortunately, some do not stay long enough.

My tenure in the fire academy, hopefully along with my capabilities, allows me the privilege to serve as a Lead Instructor for the recruit classes that enter our hallways each semester. However, every semester, I make it clear that I will stand aside and follow the leadership of The Chief during Boot School. The Chief has been with us for over 20 years, and a lot more frequently since he retired from his position as a Deputy Chief of a very busy fire department in Central New Jersey. His disposition and demeanor on an emergency was second to none; in fact, in all the years I have worked with him, both in a training capacity and during an emergency, I cannot think of a single time where he was without grasp of his surroundings. Those who served under him followed his lead without question, for his way worked, every time. His delivery as an instructor, coupled with his calm demeanor on the fireground, made him a natural leader, even for his peer instructors. There were no shortcuts, no doubts, no second-guesses; any doubts about his orders eroded once he demonstrated it. He would never ask anyone to do anything that he wouldn’t do. If you were at the academy looking for him, you would find him early in the morning, about an hour before class started, sitting in the cafeteria, “holding court” with a bunch of recruits feverishly taking notes as he spoke of skills and techniques of our job with a hot cup of coffee in his hand. Moreover, he would listen to their questions, concerns and fears about their new journey, only to remind them of the rewards that await them from doing this job. So for the last few years, the decision to follow The Chief’s lead was an easy one for all of us to make.

This past semester, I served as the Lead Instructor for the Recruit Class. The Chief was unavailable to take the reins; a significant issue required his full and immediate attention. I took the reins begrudgingly, as all of us would prefer to see The Chief bark out orders and set companies into motion on the fireground, no matter what the task. We all followed his lead, even when he wasn’t there to lead it himself.

About six weeks into the recruit class, the training grounds were full of activity; smoke filled cellars with PASS devices sounding for “simulated” firefighter/mannequins down, with students following hoselines to get themselves to safety, while emergency ladder slides from second floor areas were being conducted with instructors keeping a watchful eye on the progress. Instructors were manning belay lines for sliding students, hose lines were covering recruits finding their egress, and radio reports for “victim removals” were being transmitted to the Lead Instructor as the “fireground” was alive with activity. Around mid-point through the session, a familiar car pulled up, and parked on the A/D corner of the training grounds. Two people sat in the front of the car and watched our progress. I stared at the vehicle for a few minutes; then the Chief rolled down the passenger window.

Everything stopped…

Students watched as every instructor made their way to the passenger door, wanting to greet the chief, just to say hi and greet his wife. In a true example of The Brotherhood, each and every one of us reminded The Chief and his wife that the “family” is here, and we stand ready to do what is needed. We all would stand ready, for that is the true meaning of “The Brotherhood” that we enter when we “boot up” for the first time. This “Brotherhood” needs to be re-visited and re-energized, for next to our own families, we owe our second “family” members the same respect that we would want in our own time of need.