The Captain's College - Part 1

Aug. 13, 2007
Establishing your behavior base for captains is no different than establishing a playbook for a season in athletics.

This article is the first in a series of articles based on the "Captain's College" webcast presented on Firehouse TrainingLIVE.

In this first article, we will discuss the foundation of establishing a successful candidate for the position of company officer. No matter what the title, captain, lieutenant, or officer in charge, the position of supervisor is the backbone of all fire service delivery. For the purpose of this series, we will refer to these individuals as "captain".

When we first look at establishing a program to develop our personnel to be successful in the arena of supervision, we must look internally at the culture and

climate of our own organization. This will allow us a process to establish norms and values and determine the ethical and principle basis we wish to instill in our future leaders. Each one of our organizations has a unique culture, and that culture is generally well established and individual to the organization.

Often time, the culture is derived from long-standing norms and behaviors from past and present leadership. Yet, the climate of an organization is transitional from time to time and even shift to shift. Recognition of the differences is important to developing the first component of the Captains College.

Establishing your behavior base for captains is no different than establishing a playbook for a season in athletics. In fact, it's much the same. All successful football teams establish a list of plays and practice those plays over and over until they execute them with perfection. The success of execution is getting all members of the team to execute their individual routes perfectly. The same can be said for our captains. First, we establish a playbook or development courses to provide them with clear implicit direction from the formal leaders of the organization on how they expect them to operate on a daily basis and what the goals and objectives of their position will be. Included would be benchmarks for attaining those goals and objectives and a toolbox of useful knowledge for being successful.

This does not preclude the organization or individual captain from using an audible along the way. Like all successful coaches and teams, evaluation of the plays or the direction the team is an ongoing process. Therefore, if we find the goals or objectives are not being met by utilization of the established plays, we evaluate (size-up) and change direction (audible), basically moving to plan "B".

So let's break it down to the nuts and bolts of establishing what we refer to as Module 1.

How we determine leadership is not the fluffy management theory X or Y or Z that is prolific throughout fire service management circles. We are talking tough about the nuts and bolts of Leadership. Colin Powell once wrote, "Leadership means sometimes pissing people off". I am not advocating "pissing people off" as a daily goal, but the facts are simple. You cannot manage firefighters. Let me repeat that, you cannot manage firefighters. You can manage your daily schedule, you can manage your fire prevention activities, you can manage an emergency incident, but you cannot manage individual firefighters with any deal of success for long periods of time.

Firefighters must be lead. They not only must be lead, they demand to be led by competent and compassionate leaders who have two primary goals.

First, recognize the families of each and every firefighter under his/her command have loaned those individuals to the captain for a period of 24 or 48 hours. They expect one thing in return. They expect that captain to send their loved one home at the end of the shift in the same condition they loaned them to him/her to begin with. That being said, it is imperative we clearly define the leadership role we expect our captains to perform in the firehouse and on the fireground.

If we look to our firehouse leadership, our captains are to be the role model for all personnel. Obviously, we discussed culture, and this will play into the expectation. Yet, it is critical that our captains are fully aware of their new role and responsibility. They are clearly responsible for all that goes on in the firehouse, on the apparatus, and most importantly in the public eye.

I recently asked a group of younger captains if they felt they were accountable or responsible for the driving behavior of the engineer. I was completely shocked at the response. Over half said they could not be held accountable or should not be held responsible for the driving behavior of the engineer. Guess what? They are flat out wrong. They are the only one responsible for the driving behavior of their (keyword: their) engineer.

This lack of taking responsibility is exactly what needs to be eliminated within the fire service, and the starting point for establishing their role as a leader is before you hand them the badge. They must be clearly made aware of their level accountability and the authority which they have assumed.

Remember, you can delegate authority, but you can't delegate responsibility. If they are unwilling to make the tough stands in the firehouse, then you can bet they won't make the tough decisions in the field and that will result in injury and death.

The late and great Lane Kemper ,of Los Angeles Fire Department, would say, "Train as though your life depends upon it, because it does."

No better words could define the primary mission of leadership. Preparing yourself and your personnel is an ongoing daily function.

The only way we will be fully prepared to limit our exposure to risk is through progressive stress-based training programs. You may not have caught a little verbiage in that last statement. The keyword was stress-based training programs. It seems that much of our fire service culture has moved away from placing people under our command in stressful training environments making them perform to a stated expectation with through and competent results. For lack of a better term, we have "dummied down" our training programs and fail to develop our personnel to a point in which they can perform with complete confidence and competence when the preverbal "crap hits the fan".

How does that relate to our captains? Easy, it is essential our captains continue to develop themselves and their personnel in all aspects of their jobs. Most importantly, in the functions of fireground operations that reduce the threat of injury and death of ourselves and civilians.

Far too many captains, fail to provide their personnel with hands-on training that defines whether our personnel can function in a stress-filled situations. Typically the failure is a result of not wanting to push their people for fear of being the bad guy. I have often said, "Better to push them in training, than carry them in death".

So, as we define the roles and responsibilities of our captains in the development program, we must clearly establish and define the expected behaviors they will exhibit within the organization.

As I mentioned, each and every organization needs to define those primary roles and responsibilities based upon the vision, mission and value statements. Included, should be the core ethics values. If those are not clearly defined, they should be before the establishment of the Captain's College.


Ed Hadfield, a Contributing Editor, has worked his way through the ranks of the fire service over the last 20 years from firefighter to battalion chief. He was a captain for the ISO Class 1 Huntington Beach, CA, Fire Department. He is the Lead Instructor for Firetown Training Specialist and was awarded the 2004 California Training Officer of the Year.

Ed is recognized for his tremendous accomplishments in the area of Truck Company Operations, Firefighter Safety and Survival, Rapid Intervention Tactics & Strategy, Command and Strategy at the scene of fireground emergencies and his overall leadership in the fire service.

Ed is contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine and The Orange County Firefighter. He is a adjunct /instructor to numerous fire science programs, and lead instructor for Firehouse Expo, FDIC West, and numerous fire service conferences nationwide. He holds an Associates Degree from Santa Ana College in Fire Administration, a Bachelors Degree in Organizational Leadership for Azusa Pacific University and a Chief Officers Certification from the California State Fire Marshal. He is currently pursuing his Masters Degree in Leadership Studies.

You can contact Ed through his training website: Firetown Training Specialist.

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