5 tips for the new volunteer officer
Putting in the work includes a sharp focus on certifications, training, professionalism, positivity and decision-making
By Gary Simone Jr.
Sometime in the past, you wandered through the doors of your local volunteer fire department with an idea. You wanted to make a difference. Maybe a friend in the department convinced you this was the right way to do it. Or perhaps you’re a legacy – one of the kids who grew up around the station watching parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents drop everything in an instant to rush out the door to help their neighbors and friends.
Whatever the reason that brought you in the door, now you’re here. Now what? What comes next?
For some, a couple months in probie school and a career of riding in the back of the rig is all they want, and that is fine. For many others, though, there are grander plans. They want to make it to that coveted right front seat. They want the white shield or red helmet, plus the responsibilities and respect that comes with rank.
In today’s day and age, becoming a company officer may not be as difficult as it once was, but the responsibilities remain the same. Candidates for these positions must take it seriously. They must understand that the mitigation of the incident and the welfare of those in their charge will rest solely on their shoulders. As such, here we’ll explore five of the most important points a newly appointed volunteer company officer should keep in mind to effectively fulfill their new role.
1. Get and maintain appropriate training and certifications
Could you imagine getting hired at a warehouse as a forklift operator and your direct foreman doesn’t know how to operate the lift you’re driving. Who would you go to for guidance and help?
The fire service is no different. As a company-level officer, you need to not only know the basics, but be able to demonstrate proficiency in the tasks your firefighters will be performing day in and day out. Company officers in the right front seat are expected to be working alongside and guiding the firefighters from the back of their respective rigs. Whether it’s establishing a water supply, forcing a door or advancing a hoseline, you need to be their example, not just the one answering the radio.
Many departments have guidelines, or a pre-determined list of qualifications needed to become an officer. If this is the case for you, great. If it’s not, don’t use that as an excuse to not be the best officer you can be. As you are no doubt working your way up the line from firefighter to officer, take the time to enroll in and complete as much training as you can. If your department says your minimum is a state firefighter I certificate, then complete that and find a firefighter II class. Invest in yourself, invest in your career, but most importantly, invest in making yourself the best person to lead your people in and out of harm’s way. A good officer doesn’t stop at the minimum standards of training; after all, they are called minimum for a reason.
2. Train with your members
It’s easy to let the task of planning and officiating training drills get in the way of participating in them. This is a common mistake made by many new company officers in the volunteer fire service, but it is exactly that, a mistake. You need to share the priority of planning training with participating in the training and leading your members in a hands-on manner.
When you do this effectively, you accomplish a few major things. First, you maintain proficiency. Remember, white shield, red helmet, bugle or no bugle, we are still all at our core firefighters. You need to continuously train. We all know practice makes perfect and, in this vocation, nothing can be truer.
Second, and some will say most importantly, this will allow you to stay connected with your members. Inherent with rank comes a change in relationship dynamics. You are no longer just one of many members on the engine room floor. Now you’re a boss. There is a fine line, though, and one you can use in your favor. While, by definition, you are a first-line supervisor as a company-level officer, you are afforded the luxury at times to really be on both sides of the fence. You’re not quite brass, but you’re not quite rank-and-file. This is an important tool in the toolbox, so don’t let it go to waste. Use these hands-on drills to work alongside the members. It will remind them you’re still down there in the trenches, fighting the good fight right alongside of them.
Lastly, training with your members will help you plan and figure out future training. Being hands-on in the event allows you to identify potential deficiencies that will need additional attention. This can only improve the department’s image and operation. As an organizer alone, you won’t be close enough to the action to often see an individual member’s true performance; being beside them will paint a much more vivid picture of proficiency.
3. Be professional; your members will follow suit
When people call 911 and ask for the fire department, they expect and, more importantly, deserve a professional and effective group of men and women to show up. They are often having the worst day of their lives, and we are the salvation they seek.
Public perception is a big issue in our business. Whether it be a fire or medical response, a well put together responder will always illicit a more positive and calming response from the public. As a company officer, this is of the utmost importance. If you are displaying yourself and the department in a professional manner, your members will typically follow your lead. Would soldiers in the army respect and take the commands of a colonel who shows up in flip-flops and a cut-off T-shirt, or are they more likely to follow a colonel whose uniform is donned correctly with all of their equipment in good appropriate working order?
Equally important, how could you as a supervisor council a member on their professionalism if you yourself don’t take pride in yours? The public often, and rightfully so, holds the fire department to a much higher standard, so we must equally hold ourselves to as high of a level of professionalism. They say dress for the job you want, not the job you have. If you want the job of a company officer, then dress the part.
4. Foster a positive environment in the station
The firehouse kitchen table has always been a sacred place, filled with war stories, advice, jokes, training and much more. There is often a darker, more detrimental side of that same table – one where the less-than-thrilled, somewhat disgruntled members of an organization go to pass judgment and make disparaging remarks about other members, officers, neighboring departments, etc. While many of us have learned to tune out these sessions over the years and chock them up to a particular “salty” member, these things can fester in the minds of our newest generations, doing irreversible damage to volunteer retention and overall attitude within the department.
As a company-level officer, it is your responsibility to do your part in attempting to eradicate this age-hold burden on our beloved fire service. This can be completed via numerous different approaches, but often it is as simple as correcting it head on at the time it is being disseminated. Don’t just sit there quietly, going back to the perception that if you don’t make efforts to correct the situation, you will often be observed and believed to be complicit with the things being said. That can have a significantly adverse effect your ability to lead as well as provide a huge hurdle to overcome in your climb up the rank ladder.
Further, such gripes are often between two members. As an effective leader, if you can identify and address these personnel conflicts early on, you are more likely to avoid a more serious issue down the road. Constantly remind your members that regardless of how busy the department, you all have to have each other’s six on each and every run. Firefighting is an inherently dangerous business and often the only person a firefighter can count on to bring them home safe is their team of brother and sister firefighters.
In all my years in the fire service, I have never walked out of a station thinking, “Wow, that group of disgruntled, undermanaged firefighters are one heck of a unit.” I have, though, on more than one occasion had the privilege of observing some amazing volunteer fire departments that show true pride, professionalism and love for one another, thus demonstrating that they are the most well prepared and proficient members they can be.
5. Make the best possible decisions, regardless of popular opinion
One of the most historical traditions in the volunteer fire service often proves to be its greatest Achilles heel. That is of course, the popular vote. It’s how most decisions are made, from the mundane to the most important. Is it the best way to do this? Of course not, but it is the foundation that many of these organizations are built upon. The key is, while remembering its importance, to not allow the vote to dictate operational policy or decisions and tactics in time of emergency.
A good, informed, tactful decision on the fire scene must be made. If you’re concerned that making a decision, even if you know it is the right one, will adversely affect an upcoming popular vote, as difficult as it is, it’s often a risk a good company officer should take. Hopefully, most of the voting membership will recognize that a difficult but appropriate decision was made, but even if they don’t remember, the mission comes first, not winning elections.
We are here for a very simple reason: to save lives, protect property, and assist the citizenry we are sworn to protect. At the end of the day, if your decision has checked all three of those boxes, regardless of how it affects the outcome of an election, you can hold your head high and sleep peacefully at night knowing you performed your duties to the best of your ability. The one good thing about fire department elections: They come back around every year.
While holding a ranking position in a volunteer fire department has some unique variables, the core of the job is the same whether career or vollie. Train and become proficient to the level that’s appropriate; lead your members from the front, regardless of whether it’s on the fire scene or training ground; facilitate positive change in culture within your agency; and make decisions based on the best possible outcome for the people we serve, nothing else.
Bonus tip: You must also put in the work. Why would someone want to give 100% for a boss that only puts in half the work? Demonstrate to those under your command of what needs to be done, and then show them the work ethic by giving it your all and then some.
Now, it’s time to chase that advancement. Run for the position, do the job, and be the role model for the new members. Be safe and keep up the good fight!
About the Author
Gary Simone Jr. serves as an assistant fire chief with Toms River (N.J.) Fire District 1, which protects approximately 75,000 full-time residents in an area of nearly 25 square miles along the Jersey Shore. He has 20 years of service to the department, with 10 as a supervisory company officer or chief. Simone is a state-certified fire instructor and currently serve as a staff instructor at the department’s regional training academy. He is also an eight-year veteran of the department’s special operations group, which acts as the county’s provider of all technical and swiftwater rescue operations.