Congratulations on scoring high enough on the promotional examination to get promoted to company officer, or at least be able to serve as an acting company officer! Now that the dust has settled and you’re off your emotional high, it’s time to come to grips with what is in store for you. Are you really aware of what you are getting yourself into? Or, as some may say, “Be careful what you ask for!”
Being a company officer in the year 2015 is not the same as it was say 30 or more years ago–for a number of reasons. In the March 2014 issue of Fire Engineering, I wrote an article titled, “The 2014 Company Officer: Are You Up for the Challenge?” I want to take some time to build on and add to the two main concepts I discussed in that article: the challenges of being a company officer and your preparedness or preparation for the position.
In this article, I want to discuss two concepts: being the designated adult and taking care of your personnel.
The Designated Adult
Of all the positions or ranks within the fire service, I’ll be the first to say that company officer is probably the most challenging. Of course, I will be the first to admit that all positions and ranks within the fire service have their challenges; however, the one with the most challenges is, without a doubt, the company officer. This is primarily because it requires someone to change his mentality. As a firefighter or engineer, it was your job to think at the task level. Now, as a company officer, you’re required to think at the tactical level and sometimes at the strategic level depending on what is required of you in your department and what the situation may entail.
You’ve probably heard the term “buddy to boss,” which was the title of a book written by retired Division Chief Chase Sargent. That term, “buddy to boss,” is still one of the biggest problems facing today’s fire service. Don’t believe me? Take a look at any fire service e-mail newsletter; pay attention to social media stories related to firefighters and inappropriate behavior; or do an Internet search on a term such as “firefighter discipline” and you’ll find thousands of hits for fire service disciplinary situations related to personnel at the rank of firefighter or engineer who either are or have been in trouble for inappropriate behavior.
In a majority of these disciplinary situations, there is a common theme: a leaderless group, a lack of a supervisor (or boss) actually doing his job, or the lack of the person filling the rank of company officer being able and willing to be the designated adult. Being the designated adult means that the supervisor is the one who actually says the appropriate things when necessary.
It’s relatively easy to think you’ll be a great company officer after you pass the promotional exam. It’s not as easy to actually do your job and do it well. Doing the job well means being the one who stops inappropriate, unethical, illegal, unsafe, potentially offensive, wrong, or just plain stupid behavior.
This is where many company officers drop the ball. Don’t believe me? Take the time to research some of those situations that have occurred in the fire service, especially the ones on duty at the firehouse, and I bet you’ll rarely see that the firefighter or engineer acted on his own or acted in a vacuum. I will also bet that you will rarely see that nobody in the entire firehouse was aware of what was going on, including the company officer. In most situations that rise to the level of progressive discipline, it is not uncommon to find out that the company officer was keenly aware of the inappropriate behavior that was going on and either chose to look the other way or possibly even participated in the behavior.
I remember when I was a battalion chief and I was having dinner at my assigned firehouse with my crew of four (one captain who supervised three firefighter/engineers), and we were having our normal dinnertime conversation. We were talking about a number of different things when all of a sudden one of the firefighters started a conversation related to another firefighter who worked at another firehouse and happened to be female. This firefighter was talking negatively about his sister firefighter and was attempting to spread negative rumors about her.
Now, I will have to say negative rumors only because he was not present for the situations he was speaking about and was apparently going off of hearsay. During the bashing of the other firefighter, who was not present to defend herself, one of the other two firefighter/engineers also jumped in to add more negative energy to the conversation. This left the last firefighter/engineer and the company officer just eating and watching what was going on.
Before we go any further, as with any personnel issue, we have to focus on the behavior, not the individuals, because the behavior is bad–not the person. I’m not condoning their behavior, but I want to reinforce that these four personnel are good people who always give us an honest day’s work, do their job to the best of their ability, and take care of business. However, even the best of people can find themselves engaged in conversation or behavior that is inappropriate, especially in a group setting.
I didn’t want this bashing to last too long, but I did want to give the captain an opportunity to actually do his job. By this time, I was eyeing the company officer in the hopes that he would catch my eye, get that I was not happy with what was going on, and put an end to the negative conversation.
Before I finish this story, let’s stop to briefly discuss this situation. When a supervisor sees or hears something that may be inappropriate, unethical, illegal, unsafe, potentially offensive, or wrong, he really only has four choices:
1. Do nothing.
2. Jump in and participate.
3. Jump in and participate and take the inappropriate behavior to the next level.
4. Stop the inappropriate behavior immediately.
Each of the choices has good and bad consequences. Let’s briefly talk about each of the options.
Option 1: Do nothing and you condone the behavior or, as I heard a fire chief say during a recent speech, “What you permit, you promote.” If you say or hear something and you do nothing, you demonstrate to those around you that you condone the behavior, whether you agree or disagree. Even worse, you could allow someone else to suffer just because you did not want to say something.
Remember, you have to live with yourself, and nobody said doing the right thing was ever going to be easy. I assume many chose to do nothing when faced with inappropriate behavior for a number of reasons: It could make them look bad as the boss or supervisor for having something like that occur on their watch; it could get their buddy or subordinate in trouble, and maybe even cost them their career or cause havoc on their home life; and it would require a lot of paperwork and discussions with their bosses, who may or may not support them or believe them.
Options 2 and 3: Jump in and participate, or even participate and take it to the next level, and you also condone the behavior. You also put yourself into a situation where, in addition to the firefighter or engineer you are supervising, you could be disciplined. Jumping in and participating is also a common response by company officers or supervisors because they are showing those around them that they are still “one of the guys,” they want to be liked, they don’t want to rock the boat, they don’t want to be the killjoy, and they didn’t forget where they came from.
However, choosing option 1, 2, or 3 does not stop that inappropriate behavior; it only condones or permits it. Even worse, it more than likely perpetuates the behavior and will probably take it to the next level in the future because nobody said it was inappropriate. It also puts the fire chief, the department, and the jurisdiction that employs you at risk for liability and lawsuits.
Option 4: Stop the inappropriate behavior and you run the risk of no longer being seen as part of the team or as someone who doesn’t like to have fun. However, by stopping the inappropriate behavior, your actions may save not only your career but also the careers of your personnel.
The End of Remember When
Now back to the inappropriate dinnertime conversation. Of the four options, which one do you think that captain chose? Well, he chose option 3, jumped in, participated, and even took the inappropriate behavior to the next level. If you could have seen the look on my face or, better yet, if looks could kill, they would have. At this point, three of the four personnel are now berating not just one female firefighter but several female firefighters both inside and outside of our department. The conversation had gone viral and was out of control. The one firefighter who was not participating was watching what his coworkers and his boss were doing and was also watching me. I had the feeling he was looking at me, the highest-ranking person at the table, to see what I would do. Had I done nothing, I would have condoned or permitted the behavior–as many company officers and chief officers have chosen to do.
With the captain choosing to not be the designated adult, he forced me to have to tell everyone at the table that I didn’t want to ever hear that type of talk again and that talk like that was disrespectful and inappropriate and would not be tolerated. I then told the captain that we needed to speak in the office.
At first, the captain wasn’t getting it. He was a bit apprehensive and hostile, trying to make me feel like the bad guy for stopping the conversation. He tried to say I had forgotten where I had come from, that I wasn’t allowing them to have their free speech, and that I should have just left the room. After letting him vent a bit, I took the time to pull out the department policies that related to the situation, particularly harassment, and tried to correlate the actions I had just witnessed to the policies, as well as to what was expected. My goal was not to hammer him with discipline. I wanted to remind him of what his role and responsibilities were as a supervisor, which include being a mentor, training and educating his personnel, doing the right thing, being a leader, being the boss, setting a positive example, and not tolerating inappropriate behavior. I had to remind him he was no longer the buddy but the boss and, as supervisors, we have a responsibility to provide a harassment- and discrimination-free environment.
I tried to let him know that I wasn’t just doing this because I was trying to stick up for the people they were criticizing; I was also speaking up to help him save his career and keep him out of trouble. At that point, I think he was starting to get it. I asked him if his career was worth losing, or at least being tarnished, over some comments at the kitchen table. I wasn’t saying that as a threat, and I made that clear. I was trying to mentor and educate him and prompt him for success.
As his boss, and a friend, I told him it was also my responsibility to ensure my personnel stayed out of trouble and did the right things. I shared some stories I had read or heard about from around the United States where supervisors had been terminated, suspended, or demoted for allowing similar types of inappropriate behavior to occur while they did nothing to stop the behavior. I also shared stories that resulted in very negative public relations for the departments and personnel involved.
After about the third case study, he seemed to get it and realize I wasn’t trying to throw him under the bus but I was trying to prevent the bus from getting anywhere near him in the first place. I suggested he then take the policies and case studies we just discussed and share them with his crew while I went back to my office to take care of some work before calling it a night. I hoped that he would make it a teachable moment about why what had occurred was inappropriate and didn’t want to have inappropriate discussions like this one in the workplace again. I directed him to fall on his sword in front of his personnel for dropping the ball as a supervisor.
Did it work in the long run? I wish I could say it did, but I guess I’ll never know for sure. One thing I do know for sure is that while I worked at that firehouse, I never heard similar inappropriate discussions again, and I never had to step in and do the captain’s job.
Taking Care of Your Personnel
If a company officer or chief officer were to ask most firefighters or engineers what they wanted from them, I bet one of the top items would be to “take care of us.” While the opinion of what that actually means can vary drastically from person to person, the key points should be that you do your best to ensure they go home safely at the end of their shift; try to be flexible with their needs during the shift (within reason); do your best to assist them with their career development; do your best to train, educate, and mentor them; prepare and challenge them to be the best they can be; don’t settle for mediocrity or incompetence; treat them fairly and impartially; and treat them with courtesy and respect.
If you truly want to take care of your personnel, this will also require you to be on top of your game and to be the best you can be. As the supervisor, or the parental figure as some may say, you need to be that rock, that solid leader who is consistently doing the right thing and doing what is best for the department, the individuals, and the communities we are fortunate to protect and serve.
When I was a captain, I would always do my best to start off the shift trying to take the pulse of my assigned personnel by asking them how their day off was, what was going on, and how they were doing. I cared deeply about them because they were my coworkers, and I wanted to ensure they were also ready to take on the day, as easy or as difficult as it may turn out to be. I think it’s critical early in the shift to find out where everyone’s head is at. Nobody is ever on his “A” game 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Your job as a company officer is to know early in the shift where each of your crew members is at, both physically and mentally. It could make the difference between a great and a not-so-great day.
While we were at the kitchen table eating breakfast and discussing the plan for the day, I would always try to ask everyone if they had any special needs or requests. Most of the time, the answer was no. On occasion, though, there was a request related to one of the meals of the day, or being able to watch a certain television show, or being able to perform a certain type of training scenario. Usually most requests were very reasonable and easy to accommodate in and around the things we needed to get done for the day. However, on occasion there was a “special request” that was just not realistic in my eyes. When I would have to say no to the unusual or unrealistic request, the words that usually came out of the person’s mouth were to the effect of, “I thought you told us you would take care of us.”
Making a Choice
What type of request would I actually say no to? Well, a number of them would probably get a no answer, especially if they were inappropriate, unethical, illegal, unsafe, potentially offensive, wrong, or just plain stupid. Let me provide an example: One of your firefighters says that his mom is sick and he wants to see if we can swing the engine by her house on the way to the store to pick up groceries for the day. At first blush, you may think that isn’t a big deal. Then something tells you to ask a key question such as: Where does mom live? If the answer is a street you don’t recognize as being in your first-due area, then it’s time to do some research prior to saying yes. If you don’t recognize the street, then give that puzzled look to the firefighter and ask where that street is. After a little hemming and hawing, you find out it is about three to four first-due areas away from your own. Your firefighter goes on to add, “What’s the big deal? Nobody will know. It will just be for a few minutes. Everything will be OK.” Now I realize there may be some who are reading this who are wondering what the big deal is, and I would also venture a guess that things like this occur on a regular basis in some departments without any issues.
I am by no means advocating that family doesn’t come first. However, there is a time to draw the line and do what is right for the taxpayers, the ones who pay for us to serve in these amazing careers. If the request was within your first-due area, then it may be very easy to accommodate. When the request occurs outside of your first-due area, then it may require the company officer to actually do his job and advise his personnel of the need to take approved leave to accommodate such family requests as opposed to taking care of personal business during work hours while being paid by the taxpayers. I realize that may sound like I don’t care about family or put family first; however, in today’s world, and given the current political climate, having a situation like this make the news can be extremely disastrous to a fire department’s image and public relations. This is the type of incident the elected officials eat up and love to hammer a fire chief and his fire department and union local on.
Should a company officer take care of his personnel? Of course! But, like anything else, taking care of your personnel requires a company officer to fully weigh the requests he receives from personnel, which includes thinking of all of the pros and cons of accommodating the request and the potential impact the decision may have on a number of factors, including customer service, response times, public perception, public relations, and what the negative consequences may be to his career if he is disciplined for allowing the inappropriate behavior.
When in doubt, just do the right thing! I know it isn’t always that easy, especially when you want to do everything you can to take care of your personnel, but nobody said being a company officer was going to be easy; if it was, everyone would be doing it!
The company officer of 2015 has a number of critical duties and responsibilities. I hope that this information reinforces how important it is be the designated adult and take care of your personnel. Be a true leader, and be the best company officer you can be. Most importantly, don’t just give lip service to being the designated adult or to taking care of your personnel. Talk the talk, walk the walk, and remember that actions speak louder than words!