Company-level leadership: Where are we failing and succeeding?

Training, communication and safety mindsets show mixed results, but simple steps can set crews on the path to greatness


“There are no bad crews, only bad leaders.”

I first heard this quote from a mentor when I was working as a firefighter. We had just started studying the book in which this quote is found – “Extreme Ownership” by former U.S. Navy SEAL Jocko Willink. This message can be readily applied to the fire service and, more specifically, to company-level officers.

As officers, it is our duty to prepare our members to perform and execute our mission of fire suppression and life safety, and as officers, we use a variety of tools and techniques to accomplish that mission. Company officers should regularly look out for the safety of their firefighters and communicate regularly with their subordinates. Company officers must have proper training for their position in order to be successful in their endeavors. They should also encourage training and, by as a result, know the strengths and weaknesses of their team. Finally, company officers must have a team-oriented mindset, both for the firehouse and the fireground. Unfortunately, not all company officers embrace these principles, and worse yet, our firefighters and subordinates do not feel that we are consistently meeting the mark.

Demographic details

FireRescue1’s What Firefighters Want survey looked at many different aspects of fireground leadership. The good news: Of the 2,457 respondents, many reported that they had generally good fireground commanders; however, there were some alarming numbers to address.

The results were mostly from career suburban departments, with over 1,200 of the respondents coming from that type of service area. But a healthy number of respondents serve rural and urban areas, too, showing that the issues explained here are not isolated to volunteer organizations or a big-city departments, but rather the fire service as a whole.

Interestingly for the purpose of this discussion, the largest group represented in the survey (30%) are company officers, with 28% serving as line firefighters. Approximately 21% serve as chief officers, and 14% serve as chief of department.

Company officer training

First and foremost, a good company officer should have been a good firefighter. To be proficient in teaching, training and development, a good fire officer must be comfortable with firefighting. Fire officers must possess an above-average knowledge of fire behavior, smoke reading and building construction. They should be proficient in hoseline management, SCBA procedures, forcible entry and ground ladders. Additionally, they must know NIMS and how to apply it to an incident scene.

Looking at company officers and their training, we can see an interesting response. Of the 2,457 respondents, 55% of them (1,353) believe that company officers have the requisite training for the position. Likely this is true, as many of our promoted members and leaders have tenure in our organizations and have taken various classes related to operations and leadership. Yet, despite that slim majority, that means that 45% of respondents do not feel that their officers have requisite training knowledge for the position (1,104). Even though we have the U.S. Fire Administration, we are anything but united as to the roles and responsibilities of our officers, largely due to the different sizes and service types of departments nationwide. It is therefore vital to know what training is required of fire officers.

When in doubt about fire officer requirements, review NFPA 1021: Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications. The document spells out every job performance requirement expected for fire officers. This is a great place to start to ensure that you as a company officer are meeting the standards or if you need to seek additional training and education to better yourself, and thus your team.

Crew training

One way to achieve a great team and to improve the numbers from the survey is through training. Hands-on training, specifically, is the key to exceptional performance on the fireground. Training must be conducted frequently and, whenever possible, incorporate a hands-on component. From stretching lines to throwing ladders, we must continually drill to be proficient in the basics.

This mentality of basic proficiencies will help officers determine the strengths and weaknesses of their team and to be able to direct, educate and assist under-performing members. According to the survey, approximately 60% believe that company officers do indeed have a strong sense of member strengths and weakness. It is disappointing, though, to see that more than 20% of respondents do not feel company officers know their individual members to this depth.

While we cannot be masters of everything, and while I feel that there is no such thing as an “expert” in our profession (although there are many talented instructors and officers who I feel are at an expert level), we must be able to perform the basics and to execute our mission in an array of circumstances. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had.” In the fire service, we are fortunate to be able to shape that army in order to deliver well-trained aggressive firefighters to any emergency scene, and to operate on limited information where the stakes are extremely high.

For the 67% of respondents (1,649) who stated that their company officers encourage training, clearly you are at a good station. However, that again means that a full one-third of respondents do not feel that there is a value placed on training from their leadership.

From my experience, a lack of training often comes down to simple excuses. We find reasons to avoid training. Company officers must set the example, and simply put, must stop with the excuses and perform. As a company officer, I understand the increased run volume, the public education details, the station chores, the company level inspections, and the personnel issues or logistical challenges that we face. However, outside of responding to emergency calls, we must carve out time daily to train so that our members are prepared to meet realistic challenges and to overcome them. Failure to do so will increase injuries, property loss, and civilian casualties.

Team-oriented mindset

The other benefit to hands-on training is how it develops a team-oriented mindset. Fire officers should not fall victim to archaic practices and autocratic leadership styles. Instead, the modern-day fire officer should consider servant leadership styles, where our job is to support our firefighters and to arm them with the equipment and tools needed to execute. In servant leadership, firefighters will see that the fire officer values their opinions, values their time, and truly cares for their wellbeing. Subordinates will see that their leaders are not above them but lead beside them, and this translates to greater trust and willingness to go a little further on the fireground. After all, if you don’t have a team of dedicated firefighters who trust you enough to follow you, then are you really an officer or do you just carry the title? Being team oriented, giving praise when warranted, and helping your firefighters grow is necessary for a fire officer to thrive.

As fire companies, we truly live and die as a team, and a team is only as a strong as its weakest link. The best place to develop a team is during training. As company officers we know this, we’ve seen this play out time and again, and we’ve reaped in its success. It is so simple, but 33% of respondents don’t feel there is a team-oriented mindset from their officers.

Let’s look at professional sports for a moment. The best teams in any professional sport do not show up on game day and execute a play from scratch. Instead, those teams have run the same play time and again, almost to boredom in order to find the strengths and weaknesses of each player and to hone and know each intricate position and possibility. It is almost instinctual how teams in any sport execute, because to that player, it is instinct.

Some may say that we don’t know what our “game” will be because we don’t know the details of the call type. And while I understand that thought, I do not agree with it. We go to fires. We respond to EMS calls. That is our game. We must get out and discover our strengths and weaknesses, and have difficult conversations about performance. If someone is underperforming, we recognize that constructively, then give them the tools to succeed. Perhaps a firefighter is highly skilled but mentally exhausted. The team is there to pick up that firefighter, to rally around and support them, and to build a culture that lasts. We must build highly effective teams in order to have mission success on the fireground and within the firehouse.

Safety mindset

Prioritizing the safety of your crew is paramount for a company officer. Members must feel safe in their work. There is a dichotomy to safety, though, in that the mission is to save the lives of the civilians we are sworn to protect. We are equipped with PPE, a portable radio, tools, a fresh air source, often a thermal imaging camera to help see and orient inside of a structure fire, not to mention an equally equipped firefighter with us to help. Our civilians don’t have those items, and they are counting on us to rescue them.

Safety is not choosing our crews over civilians, rather making calculated decisions based on the situation presented. How far can we reasonably go, and how far are we willing to push to save savable lives? This question is based on staffing, training, response times, resources and various other factors that change minute to minute in many cases, but company officers must be able to recognize when a rescue is warranted in order to have safety on the fire scene. Similarly, fire officers must recognize building collapse hazards and maintain accountability of their personnel to avoid fireground injuries or deaths. Fortunately, 85% of respondents feel that company officers prioritize their safety, but it is still disheartening that 366 firefighters do not feel that safety is a critical concern from their company officers.

Company officer communication

Firefighters should receive regular feedback from company officers on their performance. If a member is struggling to perform or, conversely, if a member is excelling, it is our job to let that member know. Morale is such a powerful force in a fire department and fire company, but it is not a constant force – it changes with the winds of administrative issues, personal issues, life issues.

While there are some factors that we cannot control, we can recognize exceptional performance and let that firefighter know that we appreciate their hard work. Ideally this should be face to face, not communicated through an email chain. Further, be involved in your firefighters’ lives, so that they have the utmost trust and confidence in you. If a member isn’t performing well, then they need feedback on their performance so that they know where the expectations of performance are so that they can be met.

Many departments have benchmarks for tasks like turnout drills, mask-up times or how long it takes to stretch a line. Fire officers should drill with their members and ensure that their members (and themselves) can meet those benchmarks. It all comes down to training and communication.

Of the 2,457 firefighters who took the survey, approximately 70% (1,707) stated that their officers do communicate regularly, but another 30% were either indifferent or did not agree that company officers communicated regularly.

We must communicate with each other, and we must be willing to have hard conversations. The weight of our profession necessitates strong communications. We are the fire department, and our job is to protect lives and property, and that should never be taken lightly.

Heading toward greatness

There are thousands of company officers who are excelling in their positions. They are prioritizing the mission of life safety and property conservation through incident stabilization while simultaneously taking care of the men and women they have been entrusted to lead. But, based on the survey results, there is still much work to be done.

The simple answer is to train and to communicate – it really does make a difference. Over time the open and honest dialogue matched with regular hands-on training will develop a team-oriented, valued fire company where the members feel safe, trusted and valued by their leadership.

While this survey cannot account for every single department, and each of our agencies has its own politics and problems, it is important to note that of the top three least satisfying aspects of the job, 61% of survey respondents highlighted poor agency leadership as their top concern. As company officers, we must recognize and own this problem, then use our knowledge, skills and abilities to build high-performing teams to best serve our communities. Once we have accomplished that, our departments and our profession will be aimed and heading toward greatness.

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