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During the last 16 years of my 33 years with the FDNY, I served as a battalion chief in the 18th Battalion in the Bronx. Sixteen years is a long time to spend in any one rank or firehouse and doing so lets you develop and establish routines and procedures that you are comfortable with and that work.
As a battalion chief my concerns and responsibilities were many. I had several layers of people below me who I supervised and worked with and, of course, I had superiors of my own to answer to. The focus of this column is the expectations that I had relative to the companies, officers and firefighters under my command. Let’s take a look at what my “great expectations” were. Some of the issues I discuss here are not one dimensional. They may be both issues that the company officer and the company are responsible for. Some of these issues overlap into one of the other categories, but in general they all are related and complement one another.
Setting high standards
When I talk about companies, they not only include the six companies that were under my command in the 18th Battalion, but also the larger group of companies that I responded with on alarms. I learned from several of the chiefs who broke me in that setting high standards is a good idea and that companies will generally perform at the level at which they are expected to perform.
I don’t think I set particularly or extremely high standards, but I always wanted the job to be done rapidly and correctly. We all know that rapidly and correctly may not also be easy. Lots of the assignments at fires and emergencies are quite difficult and dangerous, yet the companies I worked with always came through. I’m not quite sure if the companies performed as they did for themselves, to satisfy me or simply because they too wanted to do it correctly, but I was most often thrilled with the performance of my units. My expectations of the companies were that they work as a team, give a 100% effort and maintain a professional demeanor at all times. I was never disappointed.
When I talk about the officers who commanded my companies, I am talking about a much smaller group of people. I say at almost every company officer program I present that “the company officer is the most important person in the fire department.” I don’t say this because they are the smartest or most capable people around, but because they are the most influential.
Company officers can make things happen. They can also prevent things from happening. My expectations for company officers were fairly rigid and demanding. If I am going to make demands of someone, it is going to be the company officer.
The officers I worked with as a battalion chief were beyond excellent. Just about every lieutenant and captain excelled in everything that was asked of them. This is not the situation in every fire department or even in every battalion, but it was the reality in my world. Whether it was a firehouse assignment, an administrative task or a fireground assignment, I expected and received quick, complete and correct performance from my officers. Of course, these same officers had a great relationship with their firefighters and that positive influence made the entire on-duty group a team that was hard to beat.
Lastly, I need to talk about the firefighters I worked with and the expectations I had for them. Most of the issues that relate to firefighters are fairly basic, yet they are vital to developing a great team. Again, I don’t think I asked for too much, but I did have standards that I enforced.
The most important element of “good” firefighters is that they are “into the job.” We had a saying in the FDNY: “Now that you’re on the job, get into the job.” Into the job means you just love being here. It means you’re upset if you miss a “job.” It means you know where every tool is on your rig and how it works. It means that you love checking and cleaning the tools (yes, that’s what I said). It means you study our procedures, not just for a promotional exam, but to know what to do at the next fire. In general, it means that being a member of a fire department is not just what you do, but who you are. Again, I was rarely disappointed. I worked with some of the hardest-working, most-motivated firefighters on the job and it showed.
I don’t know what your expectations are, but I do know that if you develop and promote those I discussed here, you can’t go wrong.