Supervision and leadership are two of the most common subjects of discussion among firefighters and officers at conferences and around the firehouse kitchen table. Supervision and leadership are also two of the most important skills that a "boss" in the modern American fire service can posses. There are volumes of material and lessons that make up these skill sets, but there is one activity in particular that lets the boss see how things are going with the troops: making the rounds.
Making the rounds means stopping by for a visit at the firehouse during the evening shift. It means getting out of the office and driving by the training site where two companies are practicing with some new equipment. It means dropping in occasionally for a more formal type of visit such as a roll call or inspection. It is all of these activities and many others that the most effective, productive, respected and professional officers in fire departments across the country practice.
Whether you are a battalion chief in the Bronx, a shift commander in Southern California or the captain in charge of a platoon in Texas, there are lots of reasons for you to get out and make the rounds. Let's take a look at this activity and see what benefits it produces for the boss, the troops and the department.
Just like any other activity that you want to make sure you get to, you must make it happen. You can't stay busy all day or night and hope that you have time for training. You can't respond to alarms, handle phone calls and try to get to a few other assorted items during your tour or shift and expect to find time to get out and visit your folks. You can't find the time; you must make the time. One of the easiest ways to make time for important activities is to make a list. Sounds pretty simple and it is. Make a list and place the most important items at the top. When you get to it, do it!
So, you pull up to one of your stations that houses both an engine and ladder company. As you are walking through the open front bay doors, you see several firefighters talking with some neighborhood kids and putting air into their bicycle tires. The company officer is a few feet away with two young firefighters and they are looking at a new chainsaw the company recently put into service. The senior firefighter is at the workbench working on another piece of equipment and everything looks great. As everyone notices you entering quarters, they shout a hello and make their way toward you. Before you know it, the officer is commenting to you about how easy it is to start and operate the new saw and he introduces you to the two new firefighters. You ask them all to step into the kitchen where you talk for a few minutes with them about a recent fire they operated at where several civilians were rescued. After a few more minutes of small talk, it is time to go so you will have time to make a few more stops
at other units. So how did this little visit go?
Let's start with the scene when you arrive. Everybody is busy and making good use of their time. We have some neighborhood interaction with the kids, which is a two-way street. We are displaying that firefighters are here to help and that folks from the neighborhood can come by the firehouse for assistance.
We have a lieutenant giving some quality time and training to the newest firefighters on the apparatus floor as they examine the saw. New firefighters need extra attention and this officer is not only giving them some time and attention, but some up-close training. Working with new folks in smaller groups often gives them the freedom to ask questions without worrying about what their peers might think about them.
The senior firefighter was doing his own thing, which is usually very positive and productive. Senior firefighters are often treated like and perform like sergeants. They don't actually hold any rank above the other firefighters in the company, but they have the most experience and insight into how the company is run. This particular senior firefighter was taking care of some repair work for the company officer and when finished, will probably guide the other firefighters through a drill or tool familiarization.
The company officer is happy that you stopped by while he was spending time with the new firefighters and giving them training and time to ask questions. Some of the most productive time spent in a firehouse is during training. Knowing that you can and do stop by inspires the officers to make the best use of their time. You too can now see who is training and who is watching "Judge Judy" in the afternoon, which will allow you to emphasize what is expected of company officers in your command.
The department benefits because everyone — the company officer, the senior firefighter, the young probies and you — get to visit, share information, talk about recent activities, plan for future events, train and prepare for the next run. This interaction between the ranks and generations within your battalion or companies is a learning experience that neither you nor they can live without.