Training time: A company officer’s guide for avoiding risk

How company officers can focus on training in a way that underscores risk management essentials


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 FireRescue1 Digital Edition, "Risk Management at Every Level." Every single person in the fire service plays a critical role in risk management, from the fire chief to the newest recruit. Find out how each member of a department is crucial in mitigating risk by downloading the full digital edition here.

When I started in the fire service, the idea of risk management simply wasn’t much of a factor on the fireground. It’s not that we were reckless or doing anything out of line. Risk vs. benefit, before it became a catch phrase, was always a factor in how we made decisions, and that does not align with risk management – but we didn’t think of it as a mindset for safety.

The fact is, when something goes bad, it typically comes back to a failure to train – a failure of the administration to train their officers and a failure of company officers to train their crew. It’s not our tactics that are unsafe and need changing; it’s how we prepare for and employ those tactics on scene – and as a company officer, that is your responsibility.

The training/risk management connection

Practice forcible-entry tactics to ensure crewmembers are using the most proven and efficient methods possible. (Photo/Chris DelBello)
Practice forcible-entry tactics to ensure crewmembers are using the most proven and efficient methods possible. (Photo/Chris DelBello)

What can the company officer do to avoid being the next example of risk management failure or target of discussion after the next incident? How can we accomplish this without killing the morale of the member or stifling aggressive tactics?

Risk management boils down to how well our members are prepared. And preparation comes in the form of hands-on training and our members’ complete comprehension of tatics. Further, officers need to ensure that their members have a complete understanding of not only how we do things but also why we do them – and this is all about training.

The single most beneficial recommendation I can suggest is simply to put your members’ hands and minds to work. Get out of the station and get comfortable being uncomfortable – this means full gear, hose in hand, water on the ground, ladders in the air. While discussions in front of a chalkboard have their place and serve a certain role, it’s vital to build that muscle memory through action.

While the administration will promote such training through a memorandum, the reality is that the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the individual company officer. And a good officer should take this responsibility personally. After all, department leadership will be coming to the company officer for answers if someone gets injured or poor performance hampers operations.

Training tips

With this in mind, following are some simple training tips all company officers can employ.

  • Train daily. Training is fundamental to what we do. There is no truer statement than “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Forcible entry is a prime example. Aggressive interior attack is another. If you do not know how to get in the house in a timely, coordinated manner, the aggressive attack mentality is pointless.
  • Train your members on proven and reliable methods. When you think they have mastered the task, encourage them to lead the next session. There’s no better way to test your comprehension than to teach.
  • Be slow and calculated in your training. Ensure that everyone understands exactly what you’re trying to teach them before moving to the next step. This helps avoid miscommunications and misunderstandings that could lead to injury or failure on the fireground.
  • Always wear appropriate PPE. We work in full gear to avoid injury. We should train in full gear to avoid injury as well.
  • When training in the manipulation of hand tools, saws and ladders, always use safe and proper techniques. Train your members to be ambidextrous too, as you cannot always work from your preferred position of comfort or from your strong side. Preparing your members to function in unnatural positions pays big dividends on the fireground in terms of a lack of awkwardness and safe operations.
  • Know and understand your policies, guidelines and procedures and ensure that the members working with you understand them as well.
  • Train your members on proper techniques. Discuss, show and insist that they display the understanding through manipulative exercises. Their complete understanding of the tactic, technique and goal is necessary so that on the fireground, you can do your job as a supervisor, which is to identify and correct inappropriate actions.

Remember, training time is discretionary time. There’s no excuse for not using every possible safety measure. Injuries that occur during training are a sure sign of poor leadership.

Members' complete understanding of the tactic, technique and goal is necessary so that on the fireground, you can do your job as a supervisor, which is to identify and correct inappropriate actions. (Photo/Chris DelBello)
Members' complete understanding of the tactic, technique and goal is necessary so that on the fireground, you can do your job as a supervisor, which is to identify and correct inappropriate actions. (Photo/Chris DelBello)

Ongoing education

An officer’s training and education is crucial to the company’s performance and success. Officers or aspiring officers should dig deep for their education and learning opportunities – and your education should be focused on your position. I imagine no one in your company cares about your degree in business ethics when operating on a questionable roof. Your education should be focused on sound practices and proven tactics – and never-ending.

If you’re one of those firefighters thinking, “If my department doesn’t pay for me to have this training, then I’m not going to seek additional training,” well, I am sorry. You are just not officer material and that’s the simple truth. Your education and training in this field is entirely on you. It is solely your responsibility, as are the civilians you swore to protect and the safety of the men and women who could work under your command.

Company officer expectations

It cannot be put any simpler: The training of your crew is all on you as the company officer.

As an officer, your supervisors expect you to use good judgement. They expect you to use practices that are as safe as possible in all aspects of your duties. They expect you to prepare your members through sound training – and they expect this daily. They promoted you to officer for this exact reason.

Your company members have the same expectations. They do not want to be physically worn out or injured during training. They are relying on you to make good decisions based on your training and experience. They expect you to lead them at the fire station and on the fireground, so let’s be trained, smart and aggressive officers. Sprinkle in some common sense, too. We never have enough of that stuff laying around.

No matter what the assignment, safety is entirely the officer’s responsibility. The officer’s primary job is to lead the members as a team into a dangerous environment, remove any victims and ensure everyone’s safe return. It is the officer’s job to ensure every member’s safety at the station, driving to the grocery store, responding to and returning from an incident, and on the fireground.

One of the hardest things for a newly promoted officer is stand back and observe. But that is your job and your primary function now is to train, lead, observe and correct any poor actions or mistakes that could result in unsafe methods or the failure of the mission.

Study pump panel operations on a regular basis. (Photo/Chris DelBello)
Study pump panel operations on a regular basis. (Photo/Chris DelBello)

Putting training into action

Where should we focus our training activities? And how do we translate this training into action? The following are just a few things we as company officers should consider while preparing for day-to-day operations. As officers, we are still part of the team, we are just functioning in a different capacity.

Responding to the scene: Train during the drive and insist that your driver knows where he is going before pulling out of the station. Instill in your driver, through training, the importance of knowing the territory and not driving beyond their ability and the reasons why. Make sure everyone is seated and wearing their seatbelts.

Hoseline operations: Train with and use proven deployment methods. Use hose loads that work for your district, not the entire department.

Size-up and smoke-reading: Train yourself and your members to perform a size-up. Do not go blindly into a burning structure. There is so much information an officer can obtain prior to breaching the front door threshold. Train on the art of reading smoke. Where is it most turbulent? Use the thermal imaging camera (TIC). Where is it hottest? Get down on the floor and attempt to look below the smoke. Do you see a glow? Prior to making entry, ensure there is an exit opposite the hoseline for all the heat, steam and smoke to flow out. Wait for proper ventilation.

Coordinate operations: Look at fireground photos. Do you ever wonder why there are 10 firefighters standing at the front door with a charged handline? They are waiting for ventilation. It’s called a coordinated attack. Many fire departments have never practiced it, have forgotten about it or never heard of it. It’s a proven method to make conditions safer for the attack team, and it was common practice prior to SCBA and protective hoods.

Roof operations: Train on and use proven techniques and tactics. Always have a plan and a back-up plan. Know where you are going to ladder the building. What is the pitch of the roof? Should we use a roof ladder? Is the roof condition sketchy? Use the TIC to help locate where to start ventilation while sounding the roof. Always sound the roof! Always insist that every member follow your path on the roof. Watch your members and correct them immediately if they stray. When they begin cutting, stand behind them to maintain a visual on members and to protect them from slipping or stepping off the edge of the roof.

Search operations: Train on and use a search method that doesn’t crowd three to four members into a bedroom. Choose a search method that allows us, as officers, to maintain orientation, crew integrity and situational awareness. Do not actively participate in the search process. We are there to make this tactic as safe as possible. Choose the oriented search method for interior-initiated search, and utilize vent, enter, search (VES) as simultaneous and supplemental search approach as much as possible.

Freelancing management: Freelancing means an individual or a company is performing duties outside the scope of command, things that are not being accomplished by crews with assignments. This activity usually involves a very aggressive crew that is tired of standing around watching the incident go south. Freelancing is a dirty word in today’s fire service. This is not necessarily because the activities freelancing crews or individuals are doing are misguided, but because there is no communication, no accountability or tracking and little to no oversight. The fix for this is simple: Make it an assignment and communicate it!

Accountability: Many command officers will assign non-active members with tasks like an additional 360-degree size-up or situational report, giving the crew an assigned purpose to walk around, observe and report conditions, actions and needs. See how semantics and interpretation can change the perspective? It’s now acceptable because there is an assignment with responsibilities and expectations. It allows for accountability and communications. It is part of the incident command system. Train your crew what to look for, what to be concerned with, and how to respond appropriately and safely.

Taking action – the right way: When it comes to risk management of individual companies, the reality is, it is all about actions – actions taken or actions not taken, actions taken in a timely manner, in a calculated manner, with the right amount of restraint, yet the right amount of aggression , and with crews that are prepared through the training of their company officer.

Training pays off

To conclude, I want to reiterate my key recommendation for all company officers: Get out of your office and train your members through realistic, hands-on exercises. Train them daily. Train them thoroughly. Train them for the basics and train them for the once-in-a-career fire, because leaving them seat-belted in the apparatus is not an option. Training is how we manage risk on the fireground. The training an officer provides at the company level will pay off, I promise. It has for me on many occasions.

Train safe; stay safe

Editor's Note: What tips do you have for company officers working to keep their crews safe during training? Share in the comments or at editor@firerescue1.com.

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