The fire service can move at lightning fast speed one minute and other times the clock can move at a turtle’s pace. This constant change in working environments can be a draw to many who join the fire service to begin with. We must remember though, the public expects us to keep pace with the demands they put upon us. When a firefighter finally decides to make that commitment to become an officer within an organization, that leap at times can seem like it is mentally impossible. The complexity of stepping out from the job as you know it after many years of feeling secure in your position can add to the mental challenge. The thought of now being the supervisor instead of one of the brothers, can equally add to the stress of a new fire officer’s plate. The challenge is how do we get the new officer up the speed with their responsibilities without overwhelming not only their confidence but with the credibility of their crew as well?
Years ago, before I was in the fire service I used to professionally race motorcycles as a privateer. I clearly remember my first experiences at the Daytona International Speedway. Being from the northeast and gaining most of my racing experience from little old Loudon… the complexity of "Getting Up to Speed" at a superspeedway was not easy. You see on the front stretch of Loudon we would tap out at about 120 miles per hour for a brief moment, before braking hard for turn one. The first time I ever rode at Daytona it was mentally overwhelming. The front and back stretch of the superspeedway was "full throttle" for what seemed like an eternity. After the first practice session, I thought to myself some of these guys must need a wheel barrel to tote their manhood around. You see running a 250cc grand prix motorcycle wide open for significantly long distances on Daytona's premiere 33 degree banking, produced 166 mph on the radar gun. Upon coming off the track for the first time, my wife (then girlfriend) said to me, looks good except you need to stay on that throttle for about a football field longer... The mental challenge I faced with no superspeedway experience was how to get my thought processing and decision making skills up to these new speeds. It was quickly pointed out that I was covering the length of a football field about every second (252 feet per second to be exact) In light of these facts, the term predicting the future had a new meaning to me. In between practice sessions, my then Daytona savvy mechanic told me those factory supported riders were faster because of their previous years of experience at Daytona. Thus breaking down the mental challenge, it was quickly acknowledged that we needed more time to not only set-up the bike, but I needed additional “seat time” to get accustomed to the speeds faced in the new setting. In the end, we were able to bridge the gap with an extra focus on additional seat time and tuning our equipment to get the bike into the top 10. The process of getting the new fire officer up to speed in my opinion is no different. The position has many new responsibilities, delivered in a new setting, going to battle leading a company making life or death decisions with little to no discretionary time. The success or failure of the new officer should not fall solely on the shoulders of the new officer but the organization should be big part of the equation as well.
"Training to Failure” is a term I coined when instructors allow students to use their current level of training and/or experience to go through an evolution and figure it out on their own. There is usually alot of trial and error in these scenarios. Sometimes they succeed but more often than not they fail. Sometimes they learn from their mistakes but often do not because they lose confidence in their ability to obtain the end goal. But in today's hostile working fire environment, that mindset can injure and kill good people fairly quickly. So to avoid the "Training to Failure" mindset with the new fire officer, we should not pin them and allow them to figure it out on their own. Clear expectations must be established and delivered to all parties involved. It is expected that the candidate must study for the written promotional exam for example. Without investing in solid study time the candidate will likely not run with the lead pack. But how many times have you heard an organization say to a firefighter early in his or her career, “preparation for a promotion” starts today…. long before the process is ever posted. Gaining as much experience as possible from real world incidents and the fireground in general is the responsibility of everyone involved. Some fire departments who have a positive and successful mentoring program in place will fund additional education to brothers who are striving for greater professional development. This is where we come in and provide specifically designed professional development programs like our popular"Personality Based Effective Communications" seminar or our newest class called "The Art of Dealing with Negativity" . These are just a few that we offer to take professional development to the next level. It is understandable that many fire departments can't afford development programs in these tough economic times. Therefore those opportunities are not as common as they used to be in earlier well funded times. Realistically though, many organizations do not need to develop and fund an expensive in-house training academy to establish a good, professional development program. Most fire departments have what they need already. For example, mentoring starts on the floor... the next time you have a fire alarm activation, have the current officer mentor his or her firefighters to maximize their experience level. Once they have determined that the incident is under control and companies have been placed in-service/on scene, have the company train on the facilities fire alarm system, have them review any pre-engineered fire protection systems in place, and/or tour the facility for the layout and any known hazards? Better yet, how about a quick 10 minute "curbside" after action debrief post incident right there before taking up? Same goes for the administrative side of the job, time management, assigning daily and weekly maintenance, scheduling and delivering company training, and post incident NFIRS report writing, etc. This is just a few examples of a "zero cost" mentoring process I am suggesting for in-house programs. Now to provide the potentially new officers with greater command / control experience, short money buys the department an investment in a command / control simulator package. In theory, using this new software affords the officer the luxury of burning down every target hazard in your community without any loss of life or property. I personally purchased a nice software package at FDIC-2010 and you can easily add-in outside stressors to make the virtual training more realistic. One example for company officer training that we (FETC) provides, is viewing the simulations from the right front seat. We regularly use this training technique to provide a more realistic environment for the new company officer with his or her initial arrival and size-up reports. Projecting the video on the bay wall from the apparatus roof, while a crew is seated inside the apparatus provides background stressors. The dynamics of making decisions at speed, providing a quality size up report over the radio while firefighters are asking for what line do you want to take Loo, etc. goes a long way in preparation for the real deal. As the saying goes, "As the first line goes... so does the fire"
In our FETC officer development class titled “Gaining the Leadership Edge”, we spotlight the on-the-job mentoring process as just one way to prepare the next generation of fire service leaders with little or no impact on your annual budget. Now for the reader who's organization does not offer a mentoring program as described, do not fret, may I suggest taking on the challenge yourself. Select a person you look up to in this business, everyone needs a good mentor, speak with him or her about your desire to gain professional growth for future promotion. In the end, your personal commitment in concert with a solid and trusted mentor should better align you for the possibility of future promotion. That way when you are asked, “Why do you feel you better than the other candidates in this promotional process?” The answer should flow easily off of your tongue, with I have committed myself to coming to work each day and preparing to be the next professional leader of this department.
Regardless of whether we are preparing a line officer, staff officer or chief officer, how does anyone expect the candidate to hit the ground running if they were not afforded the opportunity to be mentored and brought up to speed for their new role and responsibilities.
Most of that should be done before they assume the position…
Lieutenant Billy Greenwood serves with the City of Keene, NH. Fire Department and is the Assistant Fire Chief for the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport Fire Department. He is also the owner of FETC Services and hosts "Tap the Box" on Fire Engineering Radio.
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