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Where to begin? How a new company officer should prioritize their workload

Before you start checking boxes, focus first on building your team and fostering crew cohesion


“As a new officer – or really an officer at any point in your career – your highest priority must be building your team and fostering crew cohesion,” Willing writes.

AP Photo/Steven Senne

You recently took the test for company officer and were thrilled to place high enough to be on the eligibility list. A couple promotions are made immediately, which pushes you to the top of the list. But after that, no more officer openings are expected for some time, greatly reducing your chance of promoting from this list.

But that’s OK. You tell yourself that you mainly took the test for practice anyway, and you have no expectation of being promoted this early in your career. You were the least senior person in the promotional process, and no one, including you, expected you to do as well as you did.

Then suddenly there is an opening, and you’re it. A company officer unexpectedly retires, and you are told to report to that station for the remainder of the year until new assignments can be made. It’s September, and you arrive at your first officer assignment with excitement and some trepidation.

Part of your nervousness about taking the new assignment is the fact that the engineer at this station is someone you tested against – someone who did not score high enough to make the eligibility list. He’s got years of experience and is well liked on the job. Most people agree that he would make a good officer. The other two crewmembers are on opposite ends of the spectrum: One has just a couple years left before retirement and is generally considered competent, if less than motivated, and the other is a wide-eyed newbie with less than two years on the job.

Upon arrival at your new assignment, your shift commander meets with you and informs you about the work that needs to be done before the end of the year. This includes the typical company officer worklist of inspections, hydrant testing, equipment inventory, station maintenance, and training and certifications. You look at the paperwork in front of you and realize that the officer who just retired has done virtually nothing to address any of these obligations. Your commander is empathetic. He’s aware that the other officer didn’t keep up as well as he should have. Still, he expects it all to be done by the end of the year.

Now you are left on your own in your first company officer assignment. What is your highest priority?

Start with your crew

It’s tempting to focus on the stated workload. That’s tangible, a list you can check off as you get each task done. There is satisfaction in doing that. But is this the best course of action at his point in time?

As a new officer – or really an officer at any point in your career – your highest priority must be building your team and fostering crew cohesion. This is especially true in a situation like this one, where you are working with someone who might feel some resentment about the circumstances, as well as firefighters who are at very different points in their career arcs. You need them, and they need to know that you need them, not only to be effective on emergency calls, but also to make headway on the to-do list given to you by your supervisor.

Team building is not mutually exclusive from taking care of routine tasks. Given the right kind of leadership, they are complementary; in fact, you cannot effectively take care of routine business without having a solid team.

Connect with the crew: But first things first. Let your new crew know who you are. Tell them how excited you are to be working with them and the high expectations you have for all of you together as a team. Ask about their expectations and goals.

You can do this initial introduction as a group, but also take time to get to know each crewmember individually. Start with the engineer who you tested against. Tell him how much you value him and that you are happy to have him on your crew. Ask for his advice and insights about station operation. Be honest and sincere when having this discussion. He will certainly know if you are being otherwise.

Expressing your need for your crewmembers’ commitment and contribution is not the same as giving away your authority in the position. You are still in charge. But making their needs and your needs as a team your highest priority will pay off many times over.

Tackle the checklist: And what about that long to-do list left behind by the former officer? Look at it critically and determine which items deserve the most immediate attention. Have training evolutions been overlooked? Get on that right away, not only as a matter of safety in operation, but also because training can be a great way to build crew cohesion.

What about the more mundane stuff like inspections and hydrant testing? Again, establish priorities. Some of these tasks may be weather-dependent and so must be added into the daily schedule on that basis. Others may be adaptable to being training experiences as well as tasks on the checklist, such as touring a new factory or medical facility. Taking a slow-and-steady approach to these kinds of obligations, making them as interesting and as fun as possible along the way, will likely have the best results.

A strong start

But as you configure each day, never forget the highest priority as a new officer – developing an effective, trusting team. In this quest, you will ask for and give honest feedback, you will facilitate open-ended discussions, you will work to improve yourself at all times, and you will express appreciation for the effort others contribute to the cause. If you accomplish all of this, but painting the kitchen gets postponed until the new year, well, you can still feel very good about your first assignment as a company officer.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.