A New View: From the Front Seat

Feb. 23, 2007
As a company officer, you are going to be put in a position of "Having all the answers."

The shift was finally over and none too soon! The night tour was a busy one, and on more than one occasion, we responded from one incident to the next. These three nights had really been taxing, along with the normal mundane calls for service we also had several vacant house fires and two multiple alarm fires. This was not a common occurrence; however, Murphy does still show up from time to time.

Each incident brought some remorse with it, as this would be a tour different from any other. The fact is that it would be my last as a firefighter forcing doors, pulling ceilings, cutting roofs, searching rooms for hidden fire or trapped occupants. Our first night in to work I received a phone call from the fire chief informing me that I had been selected for promotion to lieutenant.

The view from the front seat is a lot different from the view in the jump seat. The jump seat lets you see where you have been, but the front seat lets you see where you are heading. Having never been in this position the view can be overwhelming. What will be expected from anyone being put into this position? How does one take that first step at becoming a boss?

Let's look at this all-important position, the company officer! As a company officer, you can expect to find yourself handling a variety of activities within the organization. More than likely you will be, at some point in time, the senior representative of the fire department at an incident. These incidents can range from a minor emergency medical situation to a more involved automobile accident with people pinned. Then again, you may find yourself assuming command at a fire as the first unit on scene. Whatever the situation, you are going to need to know a great deal more than you might think.

"Having All the Answers"

As a company officer, you are going to be put in a position of "Having all the answers." To assist you in this area, the first item on your list of things to do should be to get started with some professional development. This development can come in different forms from attending professional seminars and training courses to a more structured means, such as your local community college or state run fire academy.

The company officer's most important job will be the challenges of "safety." Safety cannot be an after thought. As a company office, you must put safety at the top of your list of things to be watching. The safety of your crew is first and foremost, followed by the safety of other firefighters and emergency workers such as the police and emergency medical personnel.

Your concern for safety, however, doesn't stop with the responders. There are others on the scenes that are your responsibility. You may have the power company on location assisting with securing the utilities, or perhaps the Red Cross assisting with the fire victims or the media covering the event. Last of all there is the public that are drawn to the incident. Safety is a big job and needs a great deal of attention.

Management Basics

Being a company officer means you have just become a part of management. To put it in a simple term it's getting work done through others. As simple as it sounds it's not that easy. Many books and articles have been and will continue to be written on this subject. All will include the basic activities of a manager as being: planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, and controlling.

Planning is the starting point where goals and objectives are established. Planning can be broken down into three basic areas: Short-term planning which looks at today, tomorrow, and the rest of this year. Mid-term planning, and the one that is used more often when looking at where a fire department wants to be in one to five years. The last area is long-term planning looking beyond five years.

Organizing will establish a formal structure through which tasks are arranged, defined, and coordinated. This organization keeps the department's functions in mind and will attempt to focus our energy on the goals and objectives, which were established in the planning stage.

Staffing is a vital component and needs to be highly recognized as such. All too often staffing is the first area that is hit during the budget process. One thing I've noticed in my career is that many of the needed staff positions are the first to get the axe during tough budget times. It's sad, however, to reach the stated goals and objectives for the department, trained staff personnel need to be maintained and should have a favorable working area in which to conduct their work. I have yet to see a fire department exist without its staff personnel.

Directing, or sometimes more commonly referred in the fire service as commanding, means someone is held responsible for getting things done. Decision-making, issuing both general and specific orders, instructing, and supervising the work performance all fall under this phase. If you are the lucky one heading up a project, you might be faced with these responsibilities. It will be your job to control the resources and use the talents of others to accomplish the goals set forth. This can be tricky at best and you will need to motivate, lead, and build your team if you are to be successful.

The coordination function is a key component in that it interrelates to the various parts of the project. One area is making sure the necessary resources are available which can include time, money, equipment, and personnel. Again, the coordination of time is very important, as it needs to be monitored as a checkpoint for keeping the project on schedule.

Time is the key element in the controlling phase. A quick look back at how the project has done as far as it relates to the timetable that was established will give us good insight on how the goals and objectives are being met. You may find yourself looking for ways to improve the process to increase production or assist in meeting the future goals. Take every opportunity to share in the accomplishments of the project as well as recognizing individual achievements. It is a known fact that people will work harder and give their all when they have been identified for outstanding service.

The First Step can be a Struggle

Taking that first step is not an easy one. You may feel knowledgeable in the above management principles; however, another component for success is being able to communicate. Many have struggled over the years with this area. The basic definition of communications is a process used for sharing and exchanging information between two or more people. Being able to communicate effectively is very important not only for you, but for your fire department as well since you are an ambassador for your department and as such, you will need to master communications.

Communications can be formal or informal. Formal communications are conducted in accordance with your department's standards, rules, or established practices. While, informal communications are more spontaneous in nature. Whichever, form of communications is being used we will need to have these basic elements present; a sender, a message, a medium for sending the message, a receiver, and some form of feedback.

In addition, communications are either oral or written. Of these two, oral is the most frequently used and easiest. Face-to-face communications is the most direct way to communicate and allows you immediate feedback. Additionally, a direct form of communicating gives the sender the opportunity to observe any gestures that the receiver may be sending such as a nod of understanding or a look of incomprehension. The receiver, on the other hand, has the ability to ask for clarification on any part of the communications he or she does not understand. Remember, listening is also a key to communications. I remember my grandfather telling me at a very young age that, "You have two ears, so you should be listening twice as much as you talk."

Fire Prevention for the Company Officer

Some other areas that you will have to be well versed in will be fire prevention, fire investigation, and building construction. Fire prevention is all too often looked at as a function handled out of the fire marshal's office. I would hope that as a newly promoted company officer you would include fire prevention as a critical part of your job. Fire companies have the best opportunity to reach the public on a daily bases. Every response affords us the chance to get inside a home or business. Once the emergency has been dealt with and environment is more casual, we should be check for working smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors along with asking some questions about fire safety and prevention with the occupants. You might leave some brochures with additional information. Always be prepared for questions. Having a thorough understanding of your department's fire prevention activities is important. Fire prevention is not just a scheduled appointment to conduct a building inspection.

Most states require the fire chief determine the cause of each fire in his or her jurisdiction. One reason for this is to find any obvious patterns of accidental human behavior or equipment failure. Another reason fires should be investigated is to determine whether they were intentional (arson). As the company officer, you are going to have a good deal of information to share with the fire investigators once they arrive.

It is important that you start processing as much information as possible upon arrival. Things to look for are the amount of fire and smoke showing as well as its location. Is the property occupied or vacant? Take notice if anyone is exiting the building and try to obtain additional information as to the number of occupants still within the structure. Once your operations start on suppressing the fire take note of the condition of the door, was it locked or unlocked, had it been forced open prior to firefighting operations, or did the fire department force it? Is there anything unusual about the fire behavior, color of the flame or smoke, difficulty with extinguishing? These are all very important observations that the fire investigator is going to want to know.

Remember, don't be carried away with the overhauling operations before the fire investigator has had an opportunity to look things over and perhaps take a few photos. Too often, our firefighters and company officers have had the tendency start an aggressive overhauling operation before the investigators have had a chance to do any documentation. There is a fine line between searching for hidden fire and overhauling.

How well do you know the construction and layout of buildings in your district? Become familiar with the five types of construction, Fire-resistive, Non-combustible, Ordinary, Heavy Timber, and Wood-frame. Lightweight construction is becoming the norm these days; therefore, keep on top of any new construction going up in and around your districts. When you notice a major renovation or new construction site, stop in, and ask questions of the builder. Get as much information as possible and share it with the rest of your department. Study fire behavior and the affects that different fuel loads will have. A good majority of incidents require the fire personnel to enter a structure of some sort. Most fire departments are responding to more EMS-related calls than they are fire incidents. Take the time to look around inside these homes and businesses while you're there. Look at the layout of the rooms, interior stairs, utility areas, and type of interior furnishings. You might be on duty the next time this address comes in, only this time as a fire.

Training with Your Company

You might be asking yourself, what about the fun part of being a company officer. Well, I would like to think we have reached that point; however, this is still very serious information. How well prepared is your company? Planning and training are key to a successful operation and this falls right back onto the company officer. One could say, "we are only as good as our weakest link." Where is that link in your company? Might I suggest that you study your crew and ask them where they feel they may need some improvement? You have just reached the starting point. When you really think about it, your job, as the company officer is train your next successor. Don't think that you have to conduct the entire training, have your firefighters put together some of the lessons and training. This builds moral and pulls the company closer togethe At the fire academy in New York City there is a flyer hanging on the wall the reads "Never Let My Ghost Come Back to Say My Training Let Me Down." How true is this statement! Build on the knowledge of others as well.

Many departments have specialty teams in hazardous materials, confined space, or technical rescue. Set-up informational training with these companies and become familiar with how they operate. You will not be expected to perform their specialty tasks; however, having some knowledge is better than not having any at all. Additionally, when the time is right, volunteer your company for additional jobs or assignments.

This is only the first step at becoming a company officer; it's a tall staircase to climb, are you ready?

Russell Merrick, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, has over 30 years in the fire service and has been with the Rochester Fire Department since 1986. He has served as a firefighter, lieutenant and is currently a Captain that was ecently assigned to Special Operations Command. Captain Merrick is also an adjunct instructor with Monroe Community College and instructs students in Fire Protection Technology, Public Safety Incident Management, and Command Post Operations. Additionally, he been a Professional Information Program presenter at the Firehouse Expo, a presenter for the New York State Professional Firefighter's Annual Seminar Series, and a presenter for the New York State Association of Fire Chief's.

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