I recently was assigned to a Ladder Company as a new Lieutenant. Prior to this assignment I had spent two years as a Lieutenant in the training division running recruit academies and providing department wide training. I had a Battalion Chief tell me, Jarrod, no one cares about Jarrod Sergi the Firefighter. They don’t care where you were or what you did. They don’t care what experience you gained while at your previous stations. All they care about is watching you as a new Ladder Lieutenant and seeing if you are going to be effective. When I first heard this, I was taken back and thought, what a jerk thing to say. You know what, there may have been a little truth to that. I was essentially walking into a new job, into their house and their culture, and had to step up and lead from the front right seat of that Ladder Truck.
My time spent in my department has all been assigned to an Engine Company. I felt very comfortable as an Engine Company Firefighter and I still do. In fact, I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t an Engine guy down to my core. My Engine Captain was great about exposing us to Ladder or Truck work also. We not only tried to master our craft on the Engine, we would conduct training exercises as if we were a Ladder Company as well. This really helped to keep us well rounded. All that training was great and extremely beneficial, but when we went to fires, we were Engine guys. We would occasionally fill in at other stations and be on the Ladder and would take full advantage of trying to focus on being exposed to as much Ladder work as possible. I was fortunate enough to catch a few fires while filling in as the acting officer or firefighter on the back of a Ladder Company, but did that make me ready to be a Ladder Officer?
One of the first things I can tell you is don’t neglect the other trucks you may be assigned to in your future. In my organization, and I’m sure in many other around the country, it is not uncommon to be assigned to an Engine Company for a long period of time and get promoted to a Ladder Company. Can you use the excuse: I haven’t been assigned to a Ladder before so I shouldn’t be a good officer on there? NOPE, wrong answer. If you have that potential in your department, you should be starting now to work towards being good at both. Your training should encompass both engine and ladder work. Train hard and often to become efficient at both and this will better help prepare you for your future assignment. Practice truck work and be ready for that day. I will always be grateful I had a Captain who looked out for us and kept us well rounded. We were engine guys, but he put us on roofs, aerials, made us force doors, perfect our searches, and kept our nose shoved into the truck work also.
So here I am, assigned to a Ladder Company as a new lieutenant, feeling like a rookie all over again, knowing that I have to prove myself as their new capable officer. So, how do I do that? Well, I am definitely still learning, and have had some growing pains along the way, but I will share with you some advice for the new Truck or Ladder Officer that I have started to pick up.
Rule 1: Put away your Iron fist.
Not all of us have an iron fist, but if you do, don’t think that you are going to come in there and make immediate change. Maybe some of you will, but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of your men or women. People will not respond well to your ideas, even good ones, if you come in and mow them down. You can implement change and do it the right way. Build trust and prove your competency and they will follow. Hopefully, the station was doing just fine before you got there. Acknowledge that and build upon the strengths that already exist.
Rule #2: Be Humble
Be open to suggestions from the other members who have been on there for a while. Be humble and don’t think you know it all just because you ride the front seat of that Ladder. There may be people with years and years of experience on that truck. Listen to them and find out how they do things and incorporate them into the way you do things. You will have to learn how to use the strengths of the people around you and know their weaknesses as well. If you don’t stay humble and keep a beginners attitude, something will happen along the way that will humble you, and probably not in the fashion that you would like either. People will respect their Officer more if they remain humble as opposed to being condescending or maybe even acting like a know it all.
Rule #3: Set Expectations
Ensure that everyone that rides your truck knows what expected of them. When you arrive on scene to search does each seat position know what to grab and what to do? How about if you get the order to vent? What does the driver do? Who grabs the saws? Make sure your crew knows exactly what you expect from them on the fireground. This has to be communicated early and often. If they fall short on the fireground and you failed to set these expectations and tell them what they should be doing, you are at fault.
Rule #4: Don’t be afraid to say I don’t know
You will be asked dozens of questions. Sometimes I wonder if I am being asked as a test, and maybe I am. Some you will have answers to and some you will not. Don’t BS your crew! If you don’t know something, tell them you don’t know and make the effort to understand what they are asking you and find answers. I will say that again, find the answers! Your fellow crew members will likely have the answers. Listen to them! Nothing will damage your credibility more if you pretend to know something and when the moment comes, you are clueless.
Rule #5: Become the expert at Ladder Operations
This one is tough and likely never attainable, but you better darn try. You are their officer, their leader. You have an OBLIGATION to become the best damn truck officer you can be. Take every opportunity to get out and train. Throw ladders, walk on roofs, handle saws, and have discussions around the galley table and stay involved with the latest information. Welcome new methods and training ideas. Practice and practice some more. When you find yourself sitting around the firehouse with nothing to do, pull the truck out and put your hands on the equipment. There are so many resources out there and so much information available to us, that we have no excuse to not be looking at something every single day.
There can be a number more, but we will start there for now. Remember you are walking into their culture, their way of doing things and you have to find a balance on ways to incorporate your expectations along with their current operations. Are there going to be times when it comes down to, this is the way we are doing it on the fireground? Sure there is, but don’t say it’s because I’m the officer and I say so. Nothing will shut people down more than that. There are better ways to show why it’s going to be this way. If you can show them it works and build confidence by demonstration and not just telling them, you will get a better response. Always lead by example and lead from the front. People are counting on you to make decisions and act in critical moments and they want an officer that is confident and competent. I am certainly still learning as I go and have plenty of roads ahead of me. Hopefully the little bit that I have picked up along the way as my short time as a Ladder Officer will also help you as you make the transition.