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Company Officer Leadership Must-Haves

Issue 2 and Volume 7.

Editor’s Note: FireRescue magazine would like to welcome Capt. Stephen Marsar as a new writer for the Company Officer Development column! Steve will share the duties of authoring this column with long-time COD columnist Deputy Chief Ray Gayk. Watch for Ray and Steve’s unique perspectives on leadership and personnel issues throughout the year. And as always, tell us what you think: [email protected]

To borrow a line from the late FDNY Captain Patrick Brown, “I’m not in charge, I’m just responsible.” As a company officer going about your day, you may run calls and successful drills; your firefighters might be highly motivated, dedicated and at the pinnacle of their firefighting careers; the apparatus and tools might be cleaned, checked and in working order, ready for firefighting duty; the paperwork might be done and the firehouse cleaned. Basically, you may feel like you’re ready for anything. All is right with the world—and then one of these situations occurs:

  • One of your young firefighters is dating an underage girl and her father calls the station, wanting to speak to you about your firefighter’s actions.
  • You’ve heard rumors and had your suspicions about one of your firefighters having an addiction problem, but now they show up for work under the influence and you see it firsthand.
  • You have “STP” (that’s “the Same Ten People”) who just can’t seem to _______ (fill in the blank with whatever works for you: pay their house taxes/dues/commissary monies on time, show up to work on time, get with the rest of the team, etc.).

What do you do? Some officers might throw up their hands and say, “Hey, I didn’t sign up for this—this has nothing to do with fighting fires!” And you know what? They’d be right; it doesn’t. However, you took a test, got voted in or miraculously ascended into the glorious position of company officer. Whatever the case may be, like it or not, you’ve got the job. You’re responsible. So lead.

How It’s Done
It has been said that managers manage things and leaders lead people. As a company officer, it’s your job to lead a group of people involved in one of the most dangerous—and most rewarding—professions in the world. Therefore, you must always keep in mind the following points if you want to lead safely and successfully.

  1. Lead by example and try to be consistent. How can you expect your firefighters to show up on time, be in good physical and mental condition, dress in proper uniform and bring their “A” game if you don’t do the same? If you’re one of those hot-and-cold, split-personality types who’s happy one minute and angry the next, chances are you don’t even notice your shortcomings—but your firefighters do. And although they probably won’t tell you, it’s very difficult for them to follow you when they first have to cautiously say good morning to find out which one of your personalities (the happy one or the angry one) showed up that day.
  2. Expect the unexpected, and don’t be afraid to make decisions. Remember that no fire is “routine,” so as firefighters we must be ready for anything. If you’re faced with something you’ve never been faced with before, you must recall your training and prior experience when making split-second decisions. Although you may need to rethink your decisions later on, we all know that making no decision is worse than making the wrong one. While on the fireground, if you find your decisions aren’t working, address them the same way we extinguish fires—at the base of the flames—or, at the earliest point possible, before they grow into larger problems that you can’t stop.
  3. Get organized. Prepare for your tour/shift/workday in advance. Make a list of items that need to be accomplished (if that helps). Don’t worry about writing them down in order. You can always adjust your priorities as the day goes on. Or, in some cases, your day will dictate which items on the list can be accomplished and when.
  4. Set priorities. On the fireground, life safety always comes first, followed by protection of property. In the station, personnel issues come before paperwork. Treat outsiders—customers, other city workers, etc.—before insiders—your fellow firefighters—unless an insider has a serious problem that requires immediate attention, and respond to your superiors before dealing with routine issues that involve your subordinates.
  5. Learn how to properly deal with logjams. To help you filter your laundry list of to-do items every day, consider the four Ds: Defer, Delegate, Do and Delay. Recognize that some items can be deferred (put off to a later time and/or date); some items can be delegated (to a subordinate); some items must be done by you (immediately); and some items can be delayed (completed later that day/tour). Note: Delegation is justifiable when it is used to train a subordinate prior to promotion or to motivate skilled workers, but it also may be necessary because you simply can’t complete all the required tasks by yourself.

Things to Remember
However you did it, you got promoted to the rank of company officer, so you must be ready to take responsibility for the safety and success of your crew, make tough decisions in a matter of seconds and deal with all the other miscellaneous issues that are going to get dropped into your lap—such as the three examples at the opening of this article. In short, you must be ready to lead with confidence—and not just on the fireground. My advice: Don’t shy away from tough issues and decisions. Not only is it your job to handle the problems that occur on the fireground and within your crew, but ignoring an issue or shying away from making a decision ensures that the problems at hand will only get bigger.

On the fireground, always complete a thorough size-up. Off the fireground, do another kind of “size-up” when dealing with personnel issues, and attempt to look at all sides of the story. In both scenarios, weigh the possible outcomes and then make what you believe at the time is the right choice. In the words of the famous pilot Charles Lindberg: “I don’t believe in taking foolish chances; however, nothing would be gained if we took no chances at all.”