Becoming an officer is a large step, and holds many responsibilities. You need to be ready to accept the challenges and the conditions that go with the title. As an officer you are now responsible for not only yourself, but also for all those around you. As you have advanced your way through the different fire department levels of your career, you should have learned, and be able to identify, certain things that will make you a qualified officer:
- Knowing, and being familiar with departmental policies and procedures as well as those of your municipality or Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).
- Have a basic knowledge of the fundamentals of human resource management, and how it relates to your personnel and to you as an officer.
- As the safety officer it is your responsibility to bring them home safe at the end of every incident, and at the end of every shift.
- Have a working knowledge of current trends in building construction, as well as construction practices from yester years.
- Be knowledgeable about fire ground strategy and tactics. Know the difference between offensive, defensive and marginal attack practices.
- Be familiar with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) guidelines and standards.
- Time Management
- Fire Inspections
- Fire Education
- Fire Investigations
- Alarm and Communication Systems
- Basic emergency management practices
- Documentation skills
The art of communication is the most important, and the hardest skill to master. An officer that does not know how to effectively communicate with their personnel on a daily basis jeopardizes the integrity and the well being of those personnel he or she are attempting to manage. You are the go-to guy. You have become middle management.
The following are seven principles that every officer needs to practice. Try them, and I think you will find that your personnel will develop a more positive attitude toward their day-to-day activities within the department and toward you as their officer.
1. Motivate your crew
As an officer, it is your job, and your responsibility to keep your crew motivated. You set the tone. Complacency kills. Keeping a positive attitude within your crew will instill a sense of purpose and pride in the job that they do on a daily basis. Learn what motivates your personnel and use those techniques to instill a sense of pride and ownership in the work they do.
Don’t forget the words “please” and “thank you” when asking personnel to complete a task — outside incident operations. These three words will take you a long way in respect and motivation of your personnel.
2. Being a Leader
A leader is a person who has integrity, and a vision. A leader is someone that is honest and trustworthy, with a drive and a commitment to achieve that vision, and the skills to make it happen. As a leader, first and foremost lead by example. Don’t expect your crew to do things you wouldn’t do. Instill trust in your crewmembers. Your crew will realize that you have their best interest at heart, and they will be more likely to follow you into hazardous situations once you have gained their trust.
3. Effective Communication
As I briefly mentioned earlier, communications is more than just being able to speak and write.
A leader’s communication must motivate people to work toward a common goal the leader has chosen. On average, 75 to 80 percent of your job as an officer is human relations oriented — people skills. It is your responsibility to keep your crew informed where possible, of day-to-day events that will affect them and the way they perform their daily duties. Make sure that you keep the lines of communication open. Open communication between you and your crew gains respect. No one likes surprises. Ineffective communication hurts not only your crew, but also the entire department.
4. Mentor Your Crew
Mentoring has a long tradition in the fire service, and it has been handed down for hundreds of years. As firefighters we have all had officers that we have looked up to. Those individuals you say, “I want to be like him when I make officer.” We have also had those that have taught us what not to do. We look up to those officers that have taken the time to work with us, show us the ropes, responsibilities and prepare us for our job and our future. There are no better teachers in the fire service than the seasoned veterans that take time out of their days to educate and train us on the way the job was, is, and should be in the future. As a mentor, don’t be afraid to relinquish some of your duties and knowledge to those personnel who will be following in your footsteps someday. That is how the next generation will learn your position. Yes, I said your position. None of us are permanent fixtures in the fire service. Too many times officers are afraid that if their secrets get out that someone will advance in front of them, or worse yet take all their glory. Remember, firefighting is a team effort. No one person can do this profession alone. A good officer is also a good teacher. Lead by example.
5. Train with your crew
Training is a vital part of what we do, now more that ever. Convey the importance of training with your crew. Make each shift a training day. If there is no formal training scheduled on a particular shift, take the crew out on driver training. Get the rope bag out and brush up on your knots or learn some new ones. Practice buddy breathing with your SCBA, or a rapid intervention scenario. Practice ladders out back of the firehouse. Preplan a building in your district that you’re not familiar with. Discuss the layout, construction type and the potential risks and hazards. Would a rescue be of a concern, and if so, where and how would you deal with it if it happened? Are there exposures to deal with? Where is the nearest water supply and is it enough to sustain a prolonged fire attack? Would this be an offensive or a defensive incident? Are there hazardous materials that need to be addressed? The more you train with your personnel the more comfortable you will become with them, and them with you as their officer. Remember, this profession is a team effort. Freelancing will get you killed.
6. Being a Supervisor
A supervisor is the team leader, overseer, coach, facilitator and a manager in a position of trust. It is your job to make sure that work is completed safely, effectively, and in a timely manner, and that everyone comes home.
7. Being a Good Listener
Be open to what your crew has to say. Take time to be a good listener. If one of your crew needs or wants to discuss something with you, make time to do so. Save what you’re working on, on your computer, put your cell phone on vibrate, have another member of you crew answer the phone and take messages for you. Using this type of behavior shows your personnel that you honestly care about them, and what they have to say. This behavior also instills respect from your personnel. Being a good listener is probably one of the most important things you can do to instill trust and respect in your personnel behind good communication.
The number one priority at any incident scene is firefighter safety. The officer is responsible for leading and directing the personnel under his command at all times. Additionally, the officer must continuously size up the actions of those under his command; how the operation is going, whether it is progressing, or whether it is changing such that it requires a change in tactics. If the situation requires immediate action to maintain firefighter safety, the officer is responsible to do whatever is needed to protect the crew. Just like the captain on a sinking ship, the officer should be the last one to leave.
The officer is the one person responsible for the accountability and safety of all personnel under his command. The officer must ensure that all the personnel are safe and accounted for before he or she leaves the hazardous area.
Respect is earned. “A leader must lead from the front.” It doesn’t come with the promotion. An officer should strive to better themselves every day. It is your responsibility to motivate and keep your people heading in the right direction. It is also your responsibility to keep yourself motivated, educated, and up with new trends, management and leadership skills, and equipment in the fire service. Never coast along, because it only hurts those who want to do a good job. Officers should remember these six priorities:
- Personal safety — (yourself and family)
- Firefighter safety — your crew and other members of the department
- Community life safety
- Incident stabilization — i.e., successfully managing the incident
- Property conservation — minimizing property damage
- Fire station, apparatus and equipment maintenance
When these priorities are consistently addressed in the same order every time, your role as an officer will be easier. If your personnel know your priorities, and that this is always how you handle every incident each time, it is easier for them to do their job safely and with less supervision.
If you make your safety and that of your crew the top priority, your crew knows that you will not put them intentionally in harm’s way, and that you want everyone to go home at the end of the incident and at the end of your shift.
As an officer you must not be afraid to make a decision. Whether it is the right one or the wrong one, you need to have the ability to decide and justify it if questioned. A decisive officer instills trust and leadership with the crews. Having the ability to make a decision in the heat of battle or in every day life defines your character.
Becoming an officer can be one of the best jobs in the fire service, or one of the worst. Too many times firefighters hurry for collar brass, and the ability to climb into the front seat of a piece of apparatus and blow the air horn, federal Q, and talk on the radio before they are ready. This is the easy part of the job. As we have discussed above, an officer’s duties far out way just blowing the horns and talking on the radio.
Officers today must continue to keep up with the changing times. Technology is moving at an astounding rate. Building construction is becoming lighter and more unforgiving to firefighters. Lawsuits are ever present and proper documentation is a crucial part of our daily activities. With the number of structure fires in decline, now, more than ever, it is the officer’s responsibility to keep crews in a state of readiness and not let them become complacent and lazy and to make sure that “Everyone Goes Home.”
Todd Shoebridge, is a 31-year fire service veteran and captain/EMT with the Hickory Fire Department in North Carolina where he has served for 20 years. He serves as North Carolina’s Lead Advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) “Everyone Goes Home” program. He holds certifications as a National Registry (PROBOARD) Fire Officer III, Rapid Intervention and NFA Mayday Instructor, Level II Fire Service Instructor, and Fire/Arson Investigator (CFI) through the NC Fire and Rescue Commission. Shoebridge holds Associate’s Degrees in Biology and Ecology from Montreat College and is a graduate of the University of Maryland with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Science.
Todd Shoebridge is a 31-year fire service veteran and Captain/EMT with the Hickory (N.C.) Fire Department, where he has served for 20 years. He serves as North Carolina’s Lead Advocate for the “Everyone Goes Home” program; He holds certifications as a National Registry (PROBOARD) Fire Officer III, Rapid Intervention and NFA Mayday Instructor, Hazardous Materials Technician, Level II Fire Service Instructor, Basic VMR Rescue Technician, and Fire/Arson Investigator (CFI) through the NC Fire and Rescue Commission. Shoebridge has associate’s degrees in Biology and Ecology from Montreat College and is completing his Bachelor’s Degree in Fire Science at the University Maryland.