How to prepare to be a company officer

Follow these steps to get the promotion and to be a good officer

So you're thinking about becoming an officer. Good for you. Every fire and EMS organization needs good, competent leadership at all levels in order to be successful. That is particularly true for the first step on the leadership ladder: company officer.

In a single-engine fire station, a company officer is responsible for a fire engine (more than $700,000), three firefighters (and all the tasks that accompany managing and supervising personnel); and the fire station building ($500,000 and up in value). 

First, ask yourself, "Why do I want to seek a position of greater responsibility?" If you can't come up with really good reasons you're probably looking to do it for the wrong reasons.

Among the answers you probably should avoid are: More money; I’m smarter than the people already above me; and it will make life easier for me if I'm in charge. 

Next, think about the company officers you've worked. Ask yourself what they did on a regular basis that you would emulate and what you will do your best to never do as a new officer?

These activities in introspection are just as applicable to volunteer firefighters who are looking to get selected or elected to a first-line officer position in their departments.

The next step is to find out what are the minimum requirements in your organization and how the promotional or selection process works. You don't want to find yourself within a month of the promotion test only to find out that you're missing a required class, certification or necessary time in grade.

Take this information and create your own dashboard to keep track of your progress. The easiest way to do this is to create a table in word processing or spreadsheet software so that you have the requirements and your completion dates all in one place that you can monitor regularly.

Skills of leadership
Today's company officer must possess a wide range of leadership and management skills to successfully take care of their assigned personnel, apparatus and facilities. One of the core competencies is the ability to manage tactical operations for the crew and as the initial incident commander on incidents.

This requires at the very least five fundamental skills.

  • Develop and deliver a concise on-scene report via radio upon arrival at an incident that begins to paint the picture for other responding units.
  • Conduct a 360 degree assessment of an incident.
  • Develop an incident action plan on the fly.
  • Develop and deliver a size-up report via radio that provides additional information and initial tactical assignments from your action plan to incoming resources.
  • Manage a crew of three to five firefighters to accomplish tactical functions as assigned command.

First published in the National Fire Protection Association Journal in 1954 by the late Lloyd Layman — one of the pioneers of modern firefighting tactics in the United States — the "7 Fundamental Steps" outlined the priority of tactical operations for firefighting:

  1. Size-up
  2. Call for help
  3. Rescue
  4. Exposures
  5. Locate and confine the fire
  6. Extinguish the fire
  7. Overhaul the fire

Salvage and ventilation operations are implemented at any time they are needed to support the last five steps.

Use these seven steps in developing the initial incident action plan and you'll have taken a huge step in becoming the answer to every battalion chief's dream: A company officer who's capable of getting the initial tactical operations going safely, effectively and efficiently.

Learn to read smoke signals
A company officer must be adept at reading smoke at structural fires. The color, consistency and points where smoke is exiting the building can provide a wealth of information.

Smoke that continues to change in color from light to dark is a good clue that water is not being applied to the seat of the fire. Smoke that changes from dark to light, and eventually steam, is indicative that firefighting operations are being successful.

Smoke that starts issuing under pressure from areas of the structure remote to the seat of the fire, such as the eaves or roof vents, means that the fire is traveling to that area quickly. These are just three of the more common examples, and they in no way totally address the subject. Find a class near you.

Crew safety
A company officer is responsibility for the good and welfare of his or her crew. There are some very common safety challenges for any company officer, and especially new ones.

We've now known for many years that exposure to smoke, and the carcinogens contained in smoke, pose a major short-term and long-term threat to firefighter health. Too many firefighters and officers are not taking exposure to smoke seriously.

In too many video clips, firefighters and officers are hanging out in smoke — outside the structure — without their SCBA face piece in place and breathing cylinder air. Frequently, they are standing in smoke that completely obscures them in the video.

Don't be that company officer. Enforcing safety policies will not make you a popular officer, but it will make you a respected officer of old firefighters. Learn everything there is to know about gas monitoring devices carried on your apparatus and use science to determine when it's appropriate to work without SCBA.

Unfortunately, the adage, "Go along to get along," is still too pervasive in the fire service culture. Too many officers are not taking advantage of technological improvements to fire apparatus and equipment and tactics.

This why are we still sending firefighters up aerial ladders — and frequently into heavy smoke that obscures them from the view of those on the ground — when the ladder has a pre-piped master-stream device that's controlled by the operator on the turntable. It's why we have such a hard time accepting the fact the lightweight building construction is designed to resist gravity not fire.

Half teacher
I consider these three books to be the foundation for the library of any up-and-coming fire officer:

  • Brannigan's Building Construction for the Fire Service, 4th Edition, by Francis Brannigan.
  • Fire Command: The Essentials of Local IMS, Second Edition, by retired Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini.
  • Collapse of Burning Buildings: A Guide to Fireground Safety, Second Edition by Vincent Dunn, Deputy Chief (Ret.), FDNY.

A good company officer is half supervisor and half teacher. Aside from your formal responsibilities, you'll have both moral and ethical responsibilities to ensure that your people have the knowledge abilities to get the job done safely and effectively.

You won’t get it done sitting around the fire station waiting for the next call. Most firefighters relish the opportunity to learn new things and practice previously learned stuff. I've always found that firefighters are happiest when they are busy doing what they came to the job for: doing firefighter stuff.

There is an incredible array of training and drilling resources available on-line, and the number and quality keeps growing. There are lesson plans for teaching, plans for more effective practical drills, simulators to hone incident command skills and more.

Is there more to being a good company officer than being a good tactical leader? You bet — plenty more. One could make a career of studying how to be a good officer. In the meantime, get busy learning what you need to know to make that next step in your career.

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