Just promoted: How fire officers can succeed

Rick Markley, FR1 Editor-in-chief

Making the jump from firefighter to company officer is arguably the hardest career move — more difficult than going from civilian to firefighter or from company officer to chief.

And taking steps to make that jump successful doesn't just fall on the shoulders of the newly appointed company officer; the fire chief who promoted that officer has a vested interest in making that transition work.

In his presentation at next month's International Association of Fire Chiefs FRI conference, Deputy Chief Steve Prziborowski will unpack those issues for both new officers and their chiefs. Chief Prziborowski's seminar "Back Seat to Front Seat: Successfully Going from Firefighter to Company Officer" will be held Aug. 13; the early registration discount is available until July 15.

Chief Prziborowski has been teaching fire and EMS classes since 1993 and was named California's instructor of the year in 2008.

Leadership, he says, starts at the company officer level. The chief sets the vision, but it is the company officers who must deliver that message — if they don't deliver, the vision won't become reality. And that is why company officer training is so important to the entire department.

100 percent supervisor
Newly appointed officers are generally very good on the fireground. The big challenges come from the human resources side of the business, he says.

It is important that company officers know how they fit into the larger scheme of the fire department and change their mindset to think big-picture, Chief Prziborowski says. Part of that is making the difficult transition from being the firefighters' friend to being their boss.

A company officer must be a supervisor 100 percent of the time and step in and be the adult in the room when necessary, he says.

"That's where a lot of officers fail," he said. And part of his presentation will be aimed at helping officers avoid making career-damaging mistakes.

In it, he'll outline what he calls the headline test, a four-point decision-making tool for non-fireground situations. Often, problems occur when company officers fail to recognize when a situation needs to be stopped and pushed up the chain of command.

Changing world
One of the challenges for fire chiefs mentoring new company officers is that the fire service landscape has changed since they likely moved out of the company officer role.

The public's expectation of fire departments has changed drastically in the past 20 years, he says. And so too has the technology for moving information; when something goes wrong, people expect answers instantly.

One tool new company officers should consider is obtaining a college degree. Yes, Chief Prziborowski says, there are good officers without degrees and bad ones with degrees.

But the skill learned from both the classes and the processes of completing a degree are very useful to company officers. A degree program will offer more hours of such topics as building construction, fire behavior as well as soft skills like administration and management.

Just as important, a degree program teaches students to complete projects.

A four-year degree is important for battalion chiefs and higher, but most company officers can get the education they need in a two-year program.

The jump to company officer is a tough one and a great deal of a fire department's success depends on having good company officers. The tools to develop those good officer skills right out of the chute is something Chief Prziborowski hopes his seminar attendees take home.

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