Congratulations, you’re a new company officer! Now what?
Five steps to establish a solid track record, plus key legal and ethical issues to consider
You put in years of hard work to prove your mettle, and when the time came that you had enough experience to be considered for a promotion, you studied long and hard to make sure that you were well-qualified and ready to compete in the process to be selected – and it worked.
Congratulations, you’re a new company officer! Now what?
Things are different now
The first realization is that life has changed. Your relationship to the firefighters who you have worked with, and in many instances socialized with, has changed. You are now their boss, or at minimum, a boss within their agency.
It would be nice to think that you’re still “the same old person” and, therefore, why should relationships change, but they simply will. That doesn’t mean that your friendships will end, but your friends may behave differently around you, being more cautious, and you will pretty much have to do the same. After all, there are clear boundaries that must exist between supervisors and employees that did not exist before you were promoted.
As a company officer, you have to give directions. Sometimes those are directions that your firefighters don’t agree with or like. In some instances, they might be directions that you don’t really like yourself. But regardless of whether you are imposing a mandate for safety reasons, as a result of direction from your supervisor, to follow department policies, or all of the above, the reality is that the buck stops with you. As a company officer, you will frequently be the agency representative who is most closely involved in day-to-day activities, and oftentimes the incident commander at a fire or rescue scene either initially until a chief arrives, or perhaps throughout the call. While this may be well known by seasoned members of the fire service, these realities may only now be sinking in as a result of your new role.
Fair and impartial
There’s another challenge to consider as well – in fact, perhaps many, but this one will require a bit more time spent thinking about how you will approach it. You know how during jury selection, the attorneys ask several questions of prospective jurors? There’s one question that seems to cause everyone to pause and clear their throat before answering: “Can you be fair and impartial?” As would be expected, “Yes, of course” (or some variation thereof) is the answer that most people give.
Now, as a new company officer, it’s important for you to answer that question, not to a courtroom full of people, of course, but to yourself. But you may be thinking, “My bosses have not always been fair and impartial with me, so why do I have to maintain this high standard?” Legitimate question. The first answers that come to mind are ethics and professionalism. No matter what others may have done, you want to demonstrate that you are fulfilling the requirements of your position, both now and in the future, so that you remain in good standing. But there is also the issue of liability. You would likely want to remain free of potential legal issues for yourself and your department.
5 steps to be a successful company officer
Now that we have ventured into the area of potential concerns, let’s address some steps you can take to help you steer clear of potential problems in your early phases as a company officer, plus steps to establish a solid track record.
1. Meet with your firefighters and establish expectations
In order to start off on solid ground, it is only fair that your people understand your methods of supervision and what you will expect of them, at least to the extent that you have determined in the early stages as a company officer. When they get a new supervisor, most people wonder what that person will do in terms of maintaining “business as usual” or changing things up.
One way to minimize initial concerns and potential conflicts is to “put your cards on the table” and simply spell out your intentions. Although some members may already know you, depending on the size of your department, it would be good to tell them about your style and how you would like things to operate, and the way you expect them to interact and perform. Although you may change some of your ideas as you evolve in your position over time, by doing so, you will likely begin with a solid foundation of understanding so that you can build a cohesive and effective work group of people who may not always agree with, but at least should, respect your approach and methods of supervision.
2. Encourage and demonstrate effective communication
While communication may be a mainstay of successful fire service operations, and may seem almost unnecessary to mention, it does bear repeating since it is a critical component of the initial and ongoing work of company officers. While few firefighters would dispute that communication on the fireground, either face-to-face or by radio, is essential, exchanging information up and down the chain of command is vital in every other context as well. As a person in a supervisory position, it is essential to build and maintain rapport with your team in order to facilitate interactions and remain aware of evolving conditions within your workgroup, lest you be “flying blind” and have an unexpected difficulty or crisis arise that you may have been able to prevent. This is the same reason that is important for you to keep your superior fire officer appraised of key developments within your area of purview because, it can likely be agreed, supervisors really don’t appreciate surprises. Ideally, the flow of information, in most instances, is reciprocal throughout levels of the department, but at minimum, from rank to rank.
3. Be supportive, yet hold people accountable
A question that is commonly asked in management training classes: Who should leaders support – their staff or the organization? That question presupposes that it is an either/or proposition. Those in leadership positions should support both. Of course, in every agency, there is work that needs to be done and goals that need to be met, especially when fulfilling the needs of public safety. But life happens, and there are times when employees experience difficulties, both personally and professionally.
When we bring a problem to our supervisor’s attention, we hope that they will be concerned and responsive, not bothered or dismissive. However, it is important to know your limits. Wanting to help your people is essential, but that does not mean you can or should be prepared to solve all their problems. It is vital to know when and how you should offer solutions, and when you should refer them to others, such as HR or healthcare professionals, for assistance.
As a company officer, finding that appropriate balance point with your firefighters between ensuring the necessary duties are performed and being responsive to their issues will have a significant impact upon your interactions and relationships, and as a result the morale and productivity of your company and station.
4. Take advantage of mentoring from senior fire officers
Some departments have a formal mentoring program, but many do not. Even if there is not an official procedure in place in your agency for mentoring, it is within the history and tradition of the fire service for more senior members to help those moving up the ranks to learn, grow and advance. Seek out those who have the knowledge, skills and experience to help you learn effective leadership to produce better results more quickly and reduce the likelihood of struggling with obstacles that may have already been identified, addressed and resolved by others.
Another aspect of mentoring to be considered is that the people with helpful information may not be exclusively those at a higher level. There may be members of the profession, both inside and outside of your department, who have unique and valuable experience or education (e.g, military, other public safety roles, business acumen) that may be helpful to you. If you view potential mentors from this broader perspective, you will have a much larger pool of resources from which to draw.
5. Invest in continual improvement, both your own and others’
It has been engrained in firefighters the need to train, train and then train some more. It is essential, and it has clearly proven to be lifesaving. Such a commitment in the world of firefighting is unquestionably a culture of continual improvement. But just as important, in both in emergency and non-emergency situations, is that a group of people can work together to achieve a uniform goal of working to ensure a safe and effective outcome for firefighters and those who they serve.
While this might appear, on the face of it, to be as routine as training in the use of a particular tool, it is not. The human interaction element is more complex and therefore requires more practice.
The truth be known, we don’t always like everyone who we work with or supervise or are supervised by, nor should it realistically be expected that we do. But it can be expected that we have cooperative relations with others in as much as it is required to get the job done. This is a continual process of fine-tuning for all involved, and, in healthy organizations, it is a foundational expectation of those who lead.
These five points are not all-inclusive of everything that is necessary to be effective as a new company officer. There is considerably more to know, certainly in both the operational realm and leadership domain. But it’s a good start nonetheless – a start intended to serve as a foundation on your path to leading effectively while avoiding pitfalls that have been experienced by other fire officers. Over time you will likely seek answers to questions that you may not currently find the necessity to ask but that will later prove essential.
Legal and ethical points
Before wrapping up this discussion, there are two additional topics to address that could lead to legal or ethical risks: the handling of personnel issues and the enforcement of rules.
As a firefighter, you may have been well aware of issues among peers and supervisors, and they were probably the topic of more than a few firehouse conversations. But as a supervisor, the expectation about discussing such matters is quite different. Simply put, information about personnel or personal matters that come to your attention because of your position should not be shared with anyone who doesn’t have the need and right to know. As the old management adage goes, “Praise in public, correct in private.” Just to be clear, this is in the context of day-to-day activities, which is presumably most of the time. However, if a safety issue arises that endangers firefighters or the public, that matter should be addressed immediately, wherever it takes place, but still out of the hearing of others, if possible.
As stated at the outset, you will now be in a role to give directions and ensure compliance. Hopefully, you will not encounter resistance to the instructions that you give very often. However, if there is push-back, there might also be a sticky issue associated with the fact that you are now having to enforce a rule, policy or procedure that you previously objected to or even violated yourself. When members of your department call you on that, it would probably not be effective or ethical to claim amnesia. Often the best course of action is simply to acknowledge your past actions and state that you see the matter differently now and/or are duty-bound as a leader to issue and comply with orders. If you choose the amnesia route, it may seriously harm your credibility.
None of this, of course, should be construed as legal advice. For that you should check with your department’s attorney and consult your HR staff. But these are issues that should be handled carefully.
An ongoing process
There are many opportunities to obtain management information and training within the fire service. Although there will be much to learn and practice in your new role, it will take time and will be an ongoing process. But then, to train, train and train some more has likely already become second-nature, so follow that instinct.
Best of luck in your position and career.