What Firefighters Want in 2022: The state of fireground leadership
Despite strong scores, there is much work to be done to build effective fireground command skills
This article first appeared in the What Firefighters Want in 2022 digital edition. Download the full copy here.
There is a natural progression in levels of rank and responsibilities in the fire service. Consider how we see this in the riding positions within a standard fire apparatus. With a four-person crew, there are two positions in the back of the cab facing backward. Then there is the operator’s position on the front left side of the cab and the company officer’s (CO) position on the front right side of the cab. It is a given that most fire service members begin their careers riding backward in the rear of the cab. Eventually, an opportunity is provided to ride in the officer’s seat.
For the motivated individual who earns the privilege of riding in the officer’s seat, the promotion creates a plethora of changes, including the power of significant additional responsibility.
A standard new CO scenario
Imagine this scenario. A brand-new CO is at the station with a group of highly motivated, well-trained and well-intentioned firefighters. The tones drop and the dispatcher’s voice comes across the radio and announces the report of a structural fire at 2121 Acme Dr.
Everyone scrambles to don the appropriate PPE and assume their designated positions on the rig. The new CO makes sure everyone is appropriately seated with seatbelts fastened and gives the nod to the operator to proceed.
Keying up the microphone, the CO says, “Dispatch from Engine 1, we are enroute to 2121 Acme Dr. for a reported structural fire.” This transmission by the CO to dispatch is routine and most likely in accordance with department policy. However simple, this communication is a pivotal point for this incident. The reply from dispatch can be a catalyst that changes the dynamic of the incident. It can change the environment in the cab and the mindset of everyone on the crew.
If dispatch replies, “Engine 1, you are enroute at 2204, again the address is 2121 Acme Dr. for a reported structural fire,” the dynamic does not change. There is little expectation of smoke or fire. The atmosphere in the cab is relatively benign. The crew is calm.
Contrast this with the following reply from dispatch: “Engine 1, you are enroute at 2204, again the address is 2121 Acme Dr. Be advised, we are receiving multiple calls on this.” This creates a new paradigm for the incident. Everything from this point forward has a higher level of urgency. The atmosphere in the cab changes, as does the mindset of the crew. The metaphysical effect on the CO is documented through research – a discussion for another time.
Does this sound familiar? I am sure many of you have been in this situation. The two firefighters in the back get so hyper-excited that they unfasten their seatbelts to don their SCBA out of the seats. This causes the seatbelt warning alarm to activate in the cab. The operator appears to go through a physical metamorphosis. First, the operator’s right leg increases in size and weight, forcing the accelerator to the floor. Second, the operator turns into a multi-tasking machine. Not only are they driving the rig, but they are also operating the Q-siren and air horns while attempting to maintain situational awareness and control of the vehicle.
Amid all of this, the new CO is suffering from information overload. The seatbelt alarm is ringing in their ears, the two people in the back are arguing over who is going to hit the hydrant and who is going to grab the nozzle, the Q-siren is wound up so high only dogs can hear it, the air horn sounds like a runaway freight train, and the entire crew is resisting the g-forces as the rig swings around bends and corners. It is as if the CO is trying to get a sip of water from the steamer connection on a fire hydrant.
It is the responsibility of the CO to make a critical decision that will determine the goals and objectives of the incident action plan (IAP). This decision is the most important decision of their career, if not their life, every time they are the first on scene of an incident and assume command. That decision is the go/no-go decision.
The go/no-go decision could mean life or death for victims and crewmembers alike. The CO must make a rational decision based on present conditions, a risk/benefit analysis, training and experience. Emotions and adrenaline should not play a part in the decision-making process. We will risk a lot to save a lot, we will risk nothing to save nothing. Most important, the CO must live with their decision, right or wrong, good or bad, for the rest of their lives.
The actions taken by the CO within the first 10 minutes of their arrival will dictate how this incident will end. The CO’s actions, if appropriate, will allow subsequent incident commanders to continue with the IAP. If the initial IAP is flawed, subsequent incident commanders will be forced to stop operations, reset and begin again. This is a huge waste of time and resources.
For the CO to initiate a proper and effective IAP, they must be prepared for the power of this role. This will include the proper training and experience to meet the responsibilities of the position. In addition, there are specific tasks the officer can perform upon arrival to assist in achieving the goal of an effective IAP. A well-prepared CO will have information within their database to assist them with this scenario, no matter if it is their first structural fire or 100th structural fire.
Research, along with the experience and writings of fire service leaders before us, have provided company officers with the tasks, strategies and tactics to manage these situations:
- Remember that life safety begins with the lives of the responders.
- Weigh the risks versus the benefits.
- Provide a brief yet thorough initial size-up, which includes a 360.
- Possess a strong command presence.
Preparing to lead
So, how does one prepare to be a fireground leader? It begins with mindset, followed by training and experience. Success requires all three, much like a chemical compound.
A good leader in the fire service must have a growth mindset. They must be open to new and developing theories and ideas. They must believe in the doctrine that there is always more to learn, and as a believer in this doctrine, they must continue to seek knowledge on the subject.
If you cannot stand up to the challenge, you will fall to your highest level of training. If the CO’s training is at the level of a firefighter, there will exist a gap between training and responsibilities. This gap will be more pronounced if a chief officer’s training is at the firefighter level. The fall can be significant. There is no arguing that a good company officer will require strong technical skills, but leadership skills and communication skills are also required.
Finally, there is experience. Nothing can replace experience, and experience comes with time. However, training can supplement the lack of experience if the training is realistic and challenges the CO by presenting problems outside of the COs comfort zone. An example of this type of training is realistic simulations that are controlled, timed and capable of providing injects, or unexpected twists that will cause the CO to think on their feet.
Strong scores, continued work
The What Firefighters Want special coverage gives us critical insights into the realities of fireground leadership responsibility, from the foundational training to the tactical competencies and the tools to manage worst-case scenarios – and so much more.
What we see at the highest level is fireground leaders performing their essential tasks on a routine basis with competence and support. Respondents report strong fireground leadership, particularly in key areas like performing a 360 size-up and following department policies. However, the data shows room for improvement, for example, in areas related to freelancing and leaders exhibiting myopic focus, not seeing the bigger incident picture.
So much of these areas of improvement are rooted in our foundational training. Approximately 40% of respondents who had served as incident commanders strongly agreed that they had received the training necessary to perform the duties of an IC. Why only 40%? Considering the responsibility heaped upon ICs, isn’t this one position for which training confidence is essential? Further, the 16% of respondents who disagree or had no opinion create much cause for concern. What’s more, ongoing IC training is dismal, with only 5% of respondents reporting more than 73 hours of training in 2021. Approximately 69% reported zero or fewer than 24 hours of IC training in the previous year.
The fireground is stressful enough. Imagine what happens when fireground leaders face a mayday under their command. One-third of survey respondents reported a lack of confidence in an IC’s ability to manage the incident – a significant percentage. But looked at from another angle, considering what we know about the lack of ongoing IC training, perhaps the 25% who reported extreme confidence in the IC’s mayday-management abilities are unaware of the reality of the situation – a dangerous scenario rooted in overconfidence.
The good news: Fireground leadership scores are still strong across the board, and responders report generally positive experiences with company officers and supervisors at all levels. This sets the stage for improvement – open communications, training buy-in and continuous skill development. It’s vital that we now harness this feedback to level up our fireground leadership knowledge, skills and abilities.