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‘It starts now’: Progressing your way into company-level leadership

Forge a solid foundation now to avoid the awkward buddy-to-boss transitions down the road


Some departments formalize a procedure for functioning in an “acting” or “out-of-rank” capacity to help future leaders make the transition.

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There’s an almost sure-fire way to struggle with garnering the respect of your subordinates and peers when you promote into the company officer ranks: Carry a reputation as a mediocre firefighter.

The path to formal promotion typically involves studying books and departmental manuals, working toward a degree, practicing scenarios for an assessment center, or some combination thereof. But the path to true leadership, or at least the opportunity for true leadership, is often built over the course of the years preceding that shiny new badge.

The fire service has a disproportionately high aptitude for sniffing out those among us who aren’t really that “into the job,” and all those hours spent in the recliner won’t translate very well into suddenly shouting orders and doling out discipline, just because you had a lucky day on the promotional exam. For members looking to promote, and hoping to be accepted and respected when they do, the message is simple: It starts now.

When the tables turn …

One of the more awkward situations surrounding the first promotional time in a firefighter’s career is having the tables turn from being a participant in the amusing firehouse antics to suddenly being the designated “adult in the room.” And while that socially awkward shift is challenging enough, it’s only made worse if you had spent a lot of time as the ringleader in the daily circus. While we all love the jokes and fun of the firehouse culture, and it’s often a mechanism to manage the stress of our profession, an aspiring officer should remain cognizant of the plans for their own future. While we all want to have an enjoyable shift with our closest brothers and sisters, a degree of moderation and decorum as a senior firefighter typically makes for a smoother transition into company officer. An overnight flip of the switch from class clown to company officer is almost certainly bound to elicit a steady stream of eye rolls and credibility challenges. And the conundrum of suddenly being obligated to initiate discipline for an infraction that you have personally committed yourself will not go easily unnoticed by your peers.

There are several effective ways to gain some leadership experience over time and “ease in” to the sometimes-tricky world of personnel management.

1. Become an instructor: At the top of that list is becoming an instructor. The company officer is an instructor by default (and hopefully a good one) in day-to-day company drills and crew development around the firehouse. Becoming a certified instructor ahead of that promotion leads to the opportunity to gain confidence speaking in front of a group, managing the actions of fellow firefighters, and further developing your own technical knowledge on a broad range of fire service topics.

2. Secure a labor spot: Another route, at least for those members in a department represented by a labor union, is to secure a position within union leadership. Much like instructing, becoming involved in union leadership can elevate the understanding and knowledge of the future front-line supervisor on a variety of topics, particularly in the areas of disciplinary procedures and policy development within the department. It offers another potential opportunity to function in a leadership and decision-making capacity prior to formal promotion, and in many situations also provides direct insight into various disciplinary circumstances that the member will later be responsible for managing as an officer.

3. “Ride up”: Some departments also formalize a procedure for functioning in an “acting” or “out-of-rank” capacity. While some may be concerned that these temporary roles diminish the required staffing of officially promoted officer positions, the experience gained while occasionally functioning in that front-line supervisor role prior to formal promotion can prove to be invaluable.

The ability to “ride up,” as it’s sometimes also referred to, is often left to the most senior firefighters on a crew, or those currently on an established promotional list. This practice allows the member to gradually begin to gain a feel for the position over time while still primarily functioning in their role as a firefighter on most workdays. The members “riding up” experience personnel management and tactical decision-making challenges that they can then bounce off of experienced officers and mentors within the department. The experience gained in smaller increments puts them in a stronger position to handle the daily challenges and task management of their eventual assignment as a company officer. Furthermore, other peer firefighters begin to see that member in a leadership role prior to their formal promotion, helping to ease the transition for all involved. While these types of arrangements are far from required for a successful transition, out-of-rank programs can be an effective tool in the overall officer development arsenal.

4. Ramp up professional development: A final piece to consider for a member in the pipeline for company officer promotion is intensifying their professional development in the months (and even years) prior to formal promotion. Attending fire service conferences, enrolling in classes at the National Fire Academy, studying emerging trends in fire service periodicals and web-based content, reviewing NIOSH Line-of-Duty Death reports, joining and engaging in national fire service organizations, and taking college-level coursework can all be effective tools to elevate the technical knowledge and broader “fire service IQ” of the member as they prepare for the biggest professional leap of their career. And their peers will take notice, too. A leader that sets the bar for professional development will inspire others to do the same. A current or aspiring company officer taking professional development seriously sets the stage for their peers and crewmembers to take them more seriously in return. While their actions around the firehouse and on incident scenes will ultimately set the reputation of that officer, investing in themselves and their members through education and engagement goes a long way as well.

Set yourself up for success

Promotion to company officer is without question one of the single most exciting and challenging time periods in a firefighter’s career. The company officer rank is truly the glue that holds it all together, both tactically on a fire scene and in the daily routines around the firehouse. While chief officers, senior firefighters and several other factors will always play a role, the company officer truly sets the tone for the company and is ultimately responsible for its success or failure.

One of the most sought-after intangible goals of an officer in the fire service is earning the respect of their peers, and several actions taken now can prepare a firefighter to evolve into that leadership position more smoothly. The stark contrast from a non-engaged recliner-dweller to suddenly being “off the couch and in your face” with a litany of orders as an officer never seems to sit well with the troops. Take the active steps now to set yourself up for eventual success, and your department and future crew will be the better for it.

Brad French is a captain in the Dayton (Ohio) Fire Department. He is a 20-year member of the fire service, and holds degrees in fire science and fire administration. French is a former member of the Board of Directors for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), serves on the technical committees for NFPA 1700 and 1402, and is a member of the technical panel for the UL-FSRI Coordinated Fire Attack study.