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The Most Important Person on the Job

This phrase has been used countless times in the fire service to describe nearly as many positions: from the chief, the company officer, the senior firefighter, to the guys riding the backstep; although in my experience the most important person on the job is the training officer.

Being a firefighter today is not an easy job; our shareholders (the citizens we serve) expect us to be experts at everything from haz-mat mitigation, to wildland firefighting, to paramedicine, to vehicle extrication, to technical rescue, to structural firefighting, etc, etc. We owe it to our shareholders, and our brothers and sisters, to become skilled at all of our sworn duties. None of us come out of probie school being proficient in any one of these disciplines, so how then do we become experts? It starts with the training officer (TO).

Throughout my career I've had the pleasure to know and learn from some great, knowledgeable and passionate TOs. TOs are tasked with a seemingly impossible responsibility - making sure that every firefighter is good at their job, and constantly getting better. In this digital age and current firefighting renaissance, finding great training tools, resources and instructors isn't a problem. The problem is getting the crews to lust after that information. What makes a good TO is one that inspires those around them to WANT to improve and continue to learn, thereby creating competent, and thusly confident firefighters. Competence and confidence are a catalyst for passion, and passion in the antithesis of our most feared enemy...complacency. TOs can combat complacency by being into the job, making training fun and promoting the importance of learning and education.

A good TO cares about the job; and it's immediately evident upon walking into the firehouse and meeting the enthusiastic brothers and sisters. In my experience, I can usually tell within the first couple of minutes upon entering a new firehouse whether the TO is worth their salt. It's as easy as looking at their rigs, having a brief conversation about the job or talking to them about their department's morale. If the rigs are clean, the lines are pretty and all of the equipment is serviced and in it's place...chances are that the TO gets it. If the members are intelligent and in agreement on different tasks, tactics and strategies for different scenarios...then the TO cares. If the crews love their department and their jobs...then the TO does too.

More than any other position on a department, the TO has a direct impact on everyone at an emergency scene, from the probie catching a plug, to the chief running command and control. When something goes well on scene (or if it goes poorly), it can usually be traced back to the TO. Hopefully most TOs realize how much of an impact their actions have on the members around them and take this responsibility seriously. A TO should strive to leave the department, and their brethren, better than when they entered.

That being said, I've also had the obligation to work and learn from some less than ideal TOs. Knowledge and passion are contagious...but so too are incompetence and complacency. If you follow my above premise, then it follows that a bad TO can lead to low morale, poor performance and possibly even LODDs. I believe that it's a universal truth that all firefighters want to be good at their job, and this can only happen through relevant, repeated and realistic trainings. A poor TO will find any excuse (time, weather, misinformation, not wanting to look stupid, etc, etc.) to change, debase or even cancel drill/training. An inadequate TO will not do their due diligence making sure the information being taught in class is accurate and current. An awful TO will stiffle and strangle the spirit of the few remaining enthusiastic firefighters around them. At the very least this is complacency, and at the worst this can be criminal. There is no faster way to reduce the morale and expertise of a department than to decrease the level of training.

     Now that we understand the importance of the TO, how can we help them succeed? Try starting with these few simple steps. First of all, they need to know how important their role is, and how much you, the other firefighters and the citizens appreciate and depend on their hard work. You might be surprised how simple conversations and encouragement can open someone's eyes. Second, share some of the responsibility. This could be as easy as offering to instruct a new class/drill or sending new information along to the TO. Third, open and honest feedback about prior trainings can help improve future classes. Lastly, if your TO is great at their job...tell them "thank you"; if they aren't...help them.

Now go get sweaty.

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Comment by Nick Ledin on August 1, 2013 at 11:19pm
Thanks Chris, "but all it takes is one...." - totally agree.
Comment by Chris Bednarek on July 31, 2013 at 2:13pm

Well said.  As a new TO myself, I battle against complacency daily.  Trying to change the culture of an entire department is a tough order, but all it takes is one...

I remind myself every day to take baby steps, work for the buy-in from the troops and to make trainings informative, practical and fun.

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