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Fire Officer Development: Emergency Response, Management and Leadership

Anyone who has seen the HBO Mini-Series “Band of Brothers” knows who Major Richard Winters is. The leader of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment states in his book, “Beyond Band of Brothers” that, “Having selected the right men for the job, I then delegated the authority to my subordinates and allowed them to use their initiative to execute the mission. There is no need to tell someone how to do his job if you have properly trained your team” (Winters, 2008).

One of the main jobs of a leader, is to create more leaders. In addition to delegating authority to them, trusting and supporting them, you must also train them. If you are a fire chief, what are you doing to ensure that your official organizational leaders, the company and chief officers, to whom you delegate authority and trust, are being properly prepared to do the job? Often this is not considered much. Many times we think that if someone was a good firefighter, or if they did well on a test and assessment center or received enough votes in the annual department officer elections, then they will be a successful officer. Their development might be left up to on the job training, or hoping that they learned something from their officers when they were firefighters. Sometimes people are promoted and all they get is a badge, a handshake and someone with a lot of bugles on their collar telling them, “Congratulations, I hope you figure it out…oh, and don’t get anyone killed”. That leaves a lot up to chance, and in this profession, that’s just not good enough.

You must pro-actively train and develop your officers. There are many different types of fire service organizations, volunteer, combination, career, rural, suburban, urban, etc. and as such, there are many different ways of organizing the preparation of fire officers. However, the foundation of this development must include three major areas, emergency response, management and leadership.

 

Emergency Response

Fire officers, at both the company and chief officer levels are combat officers, and must be prepared to lead firefighters into combat with an enemy that does not care what a captain’s promotional test score was, or how many seniority points a battalion chief had to help get them into the top ten on the promotional list. A short list of areas that officers need training and practice in includes, but is not limited to:

  • Initial and ongoing risk assessment. How much risk should they take, based on the situation, their resources, etc.? What is your organization’s risk taking values? If you are not planning on standing next to them at every incident, then you had better teach them how to make quick, possibly life threatening (to them, the people they lead and civilians) decisions.
  • Size up, both radio reports and mental size ups.
  • Incident command as the 1st or 2nd arriving officer at a working incident, all the way through an effective transfer of command.
  • Operating effectively as a tactical level Group or Division Supervisor, and what the bigger picture role of a tactical level officer is.
  • Strategy and tactics, beyond simply how to do tasks. It’s one thing to know how to cut a vertical ventilation opening, conduct a vent, enter, search operation, or perform an interior or transitional fire attack, it is a completely different thing to be able to assess the situation and quickly decide, with limited information and sometimes limited staffing, when it is appropriate to do which type of operation.
  • Fire dynamics. Fire officers MUST KNOW THE ENEMY, and know how the enemy is going to act in the confined structure of a building, with limited ventilation. They must know how the enemy is going to react to what they do and what their firefighters are going to do. They have to know the WHY of fire dynamics in order to effectively determine the WHAT and HOW.

 

Management

Both company and chief officers spend a vast majority of their time, not at emergency incidents, but managing and supervising people, equipment, processes, projects, facilities, etc in non-emergency situations. Many of these things they have never had to do or learn as firefighters, then one day they get promoted and we expect them to know it. How do they learn to manage the administrative ins and outs of your particular organization’s ways of doing things? Make sure you are preparing them properly to do things like:

  • Conduct annual performance appraisals. If you expect them to develop and support the people under them, you have to teach them how to do it, as well as the importance. It’s not just about how to fill the form out, but how to give feedback to their people all throughout the year. Otherwise, this extremely important opportunity to help their people get better may become a vague, generic, standard form that gets the name and date changed each year, with a “satisfactory” stamp on it, because they “just have to get it done and turned in”.
  • Subordinate counseling. People who they will be supervising are going to have problems and issues, both personal and professional. Teach your people how to support and help them. The objective of subordinate counseling is to help valuable folks get better, but you have to train your officers how to do this effectively.
  • Discipline. The point of discipline is not to punish, but as a way to help people get better. However, your officers need to know how to apply it effectively, fairly and appropriately to avoid legal pitfalls. What is your progressive discipline process? What is a company officer’s or chief officer’s role in the process, and what authority do they have to discipline people?
  • Documentation. Police officers are taught how to effectively document and write narratives, because it is guaranteed that quite often they will end up in front of an attorney. Do you teach fire officers how to document NIFRS reports, write effective incident narratives, document injury reports, fire apparatus accident reports, etc? Without proper training on how to document, report narratives after working fires may end up being nothing more than three sentences about how they arrived, put the fire out, picked up and went back in service. Take that to court three years later and see how it goes.
  • This list could also include conducting fire inspections, pre-fire plans, developing and conducting classroom and hands on training and drills (do you teach them how to teach?), the legal aspects of being a supervisor, doing budgeting, staffing, sexual harassment and discrimination eductaion, public and customer relations, etc. What do you think is important for them to know in your organization?

Leadership

Management is completely different from leadership, and being a person in a position of authority, with a certain rank, does not make them a leader. While management may be the WHAT we do, and HOW we do it, leadership is the WHY and WAY we go about doing things, and it is a skill that can be taught. In the case of company officers, they are going through a transformation of being a buddy to now becoming a boss. Chief officers are getting promoted even further from the level of firefighters, but with an even greater area and opportunity to spread influence. Some of the leadership skills that you can help develop in your officers include:

  • Leading by example. Everyone is now watching everything they do, from below and above. Everything they do, and how they do it matters.
  • Developing and maintaining trust. Leadership is impossible without trust, and it is a two way street. To gain the trust of the people they lead, they first must take the chance and risk of extending trust. It takes time to develop, and only seconds to lose.
  • Inspiring others to constantly chase excellence, not because they have to, but because they want to. It’s about creating an environment where other’s want to give their best.
  • Servant leadership. Being a leader that serves does not mean you give your people everything they want, but rather you give them what they need to be successful. This includes such things as trust, as stated above, training, equipment, moving obstacles or red tape out of their way so they can get the job done, active listening, and even holding them accountable to the officer’s, the organization’s and the community’s standards and expectations. When someone gets promoted, it’s no longer only about them anymore, it’s about those they lead. Simon Sinek states that, leadership is not about being in charge, it’s about taking care of those in your charge(Sinek, 2015).
  • Making sure that your officers understand the organization’s shared vision (where we are going), mission (the purpose), and values (what the organization and everyone in it believes. Vision, mission and values will help and guide them to make the right decisions every day in everything they do for their people, the department and the community they serve.

The way you go about developing your company and chief officers in the three major areas of emergency response, management and leadership can be as varied as the types of fire departments out there. Whether it is a formal 2-week officer academy, weekend or nightly meetings or classes, personal mentoring, completion of task books, etc, does not matter. What matters is that you ensure that you are teaching them and preparing them to do the job you expect them to do. Don’t rely on chance, make it happen. You owe that to them, and you owe it to the people that they will be leading, managing and taking into harm’s way.

References

Sinek, S. (2015, January 28). Twitter. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/simonsinek/status/560513329148723202

Winters, D. (2008). Beyond Band of Brothers. Dutton Caliber.

 

 

CHRIS LANGLOIS, is a Battalion Chief with the Omaha (NE) Fire Department and a 31-year veteran of the fire service serving in volunteer, combination and career fire departments, the last 18 years with Omaha Fire. He has been a fire instructor for the last 25 years, and was an FDIC instructor in 2013, 2014 and 2018. He holds an associate degree in fire science, a bachelor's degree in public fire administration, a master's degree in executive fire service leadership and the NFA’s Executive Fire Officer Certification.

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Comment by John K. Murphy on June 9, 2019 at 11:16am

Great article. Thanks

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