10 Commandments of an Effective Company Officer

Aug. 1, 2016
Guidelines for being the best company officer you can be

Let me start out by saying that there is no such thing as a perfect company officer. I was fortunate enough to serve as a company officer for almost six years, and have been a chief officer for the more than nine years. As a company officer, I was far from perfect. While I think I was a competent company officer during my tenure, I look back and realize that I could have been a much better company officer in so many ways. As the saying goes, “If I had only known then what I know now.”

To be clear, when I say company officer, I mean the person at any type of fire department (career, volunteer, combination department, military, industrial, etc.) who is serving as the “designated adult” on a daily basis and supervising a company (engine, truck, rescue, etc.). Whether you are a current or future company officer, I’d like to share my 10 Commandments for being the best company officer you can be, now or in the future.

Commandment #1: Do your job

If there was room for only one commandment, it would be this one: Do your job. If everyone just did their job, everything would be covered, right? Easier said than done, I know! What does “do your job” actually mean?

  • Lead by example: As a company officer, you’re always being watched, even when you least expect it. If you want respect and credibility, earn it through your actions, not just your words.
  • Maintain a positive attitude: Even when things are going wrong, or you feel that everyone (the city, the citizens, the fire chief, etc.) is against you, maintain a positive attitude. Most fire departments, and ultimately fire service personnel, are dealing with a variety of challenges. As a company officer, you typically have no control over any of it, except for how you and your crew handle the situations. Nothing good will come out of complaining, moaning and groaning, and ultimately getting your crew riled up.
  • Have a vision: All leaders should have a vision. Your vision should support and be an extension of your fire chief’s vision.
  • Be a student of the fire service: I’m not saying you have to live, sleep, eat and breathe the fire service, but at least have some passion for what you’re doing, and be a student of the fire service. Capitalize on your strengths and, more importantly, identify your weaknesses and do something about them.
  • Make decisions: The average company officer won’t make life-or-death decisions every day, but they will be faced with decisions that can doom their career or level of credibility and/or respect, not to mention put their personnel in harm’s way in some form or fashion. Let rationality and common sense be the predominant factor when making a decision.
  • Be a part of the solution: Be the company officer who can identify problems, solving them at their level when possible and, as appropriate, bringing them up the chain of command in a manner that does not appear to be dumping them on your battalion chief’s lap. If you’re going to bring your chief a problem, try to also bring them two to three solutions for them to choose from, as well as your suggested course of action, if appropriate.
  • Don’t be a slot-filler: This is someone who comes to work just to say they work in the fire service. They do the bare minimum and collect a paycheck. If everyone in the fire service just did a little bit extra each day in a positive way, it is amazing the positive things we could accomplish for the betterment of our personnel, our department, our community, our fire service as a whole, and ourselves.
  • Have a daily roll call: I think there is a benefit to having a roll call at the start of the shift where the off-going crew can share with the on-going crew any necessary pass-on information to ensure all are on the same page. That way, each and every person knows when he or she are free to leave because their relief has arrived and is ready to take a response.

Commandment #2: Establish and maintain effective working relationships

Don’t be a thorn in the side of your chiefs, your fellow company officers, and just about anyone else you can think of and expect to get anywhere in life, let alone your career.

I’ve known some company officers who always speak inappropriately to their chiefs, challenging or questioning them on almost everything that is said or not said, done or not done, filing grievances for things they think are unfair, etc. It’s one thing to go to bat for your troops; a good company officer will do that when appropriate, and for the right reasons. But, when you’re going to bat for everything, including the petty things or even when your personnel are just plain wrong, you look like the one who cried wolf all the time.

Pick your battles. I’m not saying be a pushover or suck up to the chiefs. I’m saying you need to learn how to play nicely in the sandbox with others. When there’s a company officer who can’t play nicely with others, their crew usually gets thrown under the bus—guilty by association.

Relationships can make the difference. Get to know those around you—your personnel, your boss, your peers, other crews, other agencies, etc. Learn their strengths, their weaknesses, their likes, and their dislikes. Doing so will help you build and maintain relationships that will not only assist you in your career but assist your personnel as well.

Commandment #3: Be the training officer of your crew

In my experience, too many firefighters, company officers and even chief officers expect their Training Division staff to ensure that their training is scheduled and completed. I look at the role of the Training Division to schedule the necessary or highest priority classes (many of which are training mandates) every year, and the role of the station personnel (including company officers and BCs) is to ensure that those necessary or high-priority classes are completed and documented as such.

The role of the company officer as the training officer of their crew is to continuously challenge their crew each and every day, getting to know their strengths and weaknesses, and doing what it takes to get them out of their comfort zone so they can actually be the best they can be.

Training is not just a one- or two-hour uninterrupted class in the morning or afternoon. Excellent company officers learn how to be very creative in delivering the necessary training for their personnel. Training may have to be 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there, etc. And don’t be the only instructor. We are all subject-matter experts of something. Be the instructor for those areas and then find the experts in your crew or other crews to teach other topics.

Don’t forget to document, document, document! Remember, if it isn’t written down, it hasn’t occurred. Those 15- or 30-minute sessions here and there add up over the course of the year. Give yourself and your crew the credit they deserve for training so when your next ISO auditor or OSHA investigator visit occurs, or an elected official or citizen questions what the fire department is doing with all of their time, you can provide them with data to prove that we are in fact training.

Commandment #4: Establish expectations

Establishing personnel expectations and then holding your personnel accountable are two of the most important things you can do as a supervisor. And don’t forget to ask them what they expect of you, as it’s a two-way street.

Take the time to write out your expectations and even share them with others to get their feedback. Make sure your expectations are realistic, ethical, legal, obtainable and within the norms and expectations of your department and culture.

I think the best time to share expectations with your personnel is when you arrive at your new station and with your new crew, ideally on your first day or no later than your second or third shift with your new crew.

Ultimately, don’t accept mediocrity, incompetence or inappropriate behavior, and hold them accountable for your expectations.

Commandment #5: Be passionate and have compassion

Be passionate about the fire service, your personnel, your department and your community. Take care of those we are sworn to serve, and remember that the customer is not an inconvenience, even if they call us for the third time in the same shift, or at 3 a.m. for something that you may think is miniscule.

Don’t let your passion get the best of you; in other words, don’t let your emotions get in the way of rationality. When times are tough or the situations you are faced with are taxing you, maintain your composure and control, and remember that we are here to make someone’s day better—not worse.

While your roles and responsibilities will change as you go up the ranks, do what it takes to stay grounded and in touch with those at all of the levels below you to ensure you can still connect with each and every one of those you are fortunate to serve.

Commandment #6: Remember two priorities

There are two key priorities for any supervisor: 1) Provide a safe working environment, and 2) provide a harassment-free environment.

Our work environment is usually not the safest to begin with, which explains why we were called to the emergency scene in the first place. The key is to not make it worse than you found it. Many states fall under the laws and regulations of the OSHA, and all states fall under NFPA standards. What that means is that if you work in an OSHA state, and something goes wrong in the workplace where a firefighter gets killed or seriously injured, there is a good chance your department may get fined and/or cited by OSHA for failure to provide a safe working environment. Further, company officers should be aware of all NFPA standards that apply to the fire service and that may be used against them or their department should something go wrong. While there are no NFPA police to arrest you, you can’t tell me that NFPA violations won’t come up during the investigation or after-action report.          

Providing a harassment-free environment is just the right thing to do—period. Does that mean you can’t have fun as a crew? Does that mean our firehouse will be boring and bland because we can’t tell jokes or have fun around the station? No, but if you can’t tell a joke without offending someone, then don’t tell the joke. If you can’t have fun without harassing someone or doing something at someone else’s expense, find another form of fun. If you feel it is appropriate to haze the rookie firefighters, stop. In today’s world, most agencies have a zero tolerance for harassment. It’s time to stop the madness.

Commandment #7: Instead of being liked, strive for credibility and respect

It is human nature to want to be liked, right? But when supervisors strive to be liked, they sometimes compromise their values and allow their personnel to take advantage of them and/or their position. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to be liked, but hopefully you are liked for the right reasons. Be nice, but don’t let others take advantage of you. If you want credibility and respect, take the time to get to know your personnel, know their strengths and weaknesses, push them out of their comfort zone when appropriate, guide and lead them in the right direction and for the right reasons, be the one who says no when appropriate, and ultimately save them from themselves when needed.

Commandment 8: Have outstanding communication skills

As a company officer, you need to have outstanding communication skills—oral communication, written communication and interpersonal communication skills, all of which you will be using on a daily basis. I firmly believe that communication skills, just like leadership skills, can be learned and polished.

Your department may not offer sufficient training in this area, but you can still take time to work on being a better communicator. Your local community college should offer classes, and the Internet is also a valuable resource. If you haven’t checked out Toastmaster’s International, I encourage you to do so. Further, listen to your personnel and your supervisor. Ask them how they perceive your communication style, and ask for their advice for improvement.

Another component of effective communication skills is keeping your personnel and your supervisor informed as appropriate. Don’t hold back information from your personnel or your supervisor that they may benefit from hearing. On the flip side, keep confidential information confidential, but know when to let your supervisor know of something that may have the potential to be a significant issue to your department, jurisdiction and/or community.

Be calm in the face of adversity, and remember that one wrong word can doom you. In today’s world, where everything said and done is instantaneously made public via social media, it is critical to be on your best behavior and always represent yourself and your department in the most positive way possible. Think twice before you talk or act, and remember that you are never off camera; somebody is always watching and waiting to critique your actions and hold you accountable for what you did or did not do.

Commandment #9: Know the difference between supervision, leadership and management

The terms supervision, leadership and management are required at one time or another by a company officer. A good phrase to remember is that we lead people and we manage things. Have excellent planning, time management and organizational skills; you’ll definitely need them.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, your typical day as a company officer may not be that typical. You need to expect to be thrown curve balls and unexpected challenges, all while having to continue to get the job done each and every day. A company officer needs to be on their “A” game each and every shift, no different than an airline pilot.

Know your leadership style(s) and when and how to use each one. No one leadership style works for every person or situation. Take the time to learn as much as you can about your personnel so you can attempt to use the best leadership style to meet the needs of the department and complete the necessary tasks of each day. Put your personnel and the public you serve before yourself, and remember you are there to serve your personnel and serve your community.

Commandment #10: Be the designated adult

Too many company officers get promoted or appointed and they can’t let go of the fact that they are no longer the buddy; they are now the boss, the supervisor, and ultimately the designated adult. A day doesn’t go by where I don't read an article that discusses a situation where an on-duty firefighter does something illegal, inappropriate, unethical or just plain wrong. What is the common theme? The common theme is the lack of supervision and leadership, or more importantly, someone stepping up as the designated adult.

If the negative situation occurred in a career department, then it means there is a company officer (sometimes even a chief officer) who is robbing the taxpayers of their hard-earned money and fraudulently taking money for a job they are not doing. Ouch. If the shoe fits. I don’t say that to be disrespectful or second-guess anything. I say that because you look at these negative public relations stories and they are hurting the fire service in so many ways.

Be the company officer who is able to say no, knock it off or stop. I know that sounds simple, but it’s not for many company officers because they don’t want to discipline their friends or their buddies. Well, if they truly were your friends, they wouldn’t be putting you in a bad situation. And if they were your friends and you had to discipline them, they would apologize to you afterward for putting you into that position, and they would thank you for the discipline, as you may have saved their career.

Other requirements that come with being the designated adult include having integrity, being trustworthy, having high ethical standards, being dependable, and knowing when to be a crewmember and when to be a supervisor. There is a time and place to be a crewmember and to be a supervisor. As a company officer, you are a supervisor 100 percent of the time, but a portion of that time you can also be a crewmember. Times you can be a crewmember are when you are preparing the important daily meals, cleaning up after the important daily meal, doing house work, reloading hose after a wet drill, or when you are performing physical fitness with your crew.

In Sum

Following the 10 commandments of an effective company officer will help you be the best company officer you can be. Why is that important? Because everyone expects you to be the best company officer you can be, and that is why you were promoted to the rank of company officer in the first place. Nobody said leadership or being an effective company officer was going to be fun or easy. If it were, everyone would be doing it!

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