A young fire officer: 4 things I learned

Making the jump from firefighter to officer in your 20s is challenging; here are some tips to succeed from one young officer

Updated Aug. 14

By Zack Bonnema

If you thought being a young firefighter was hard, being that young officer is even harder. I know because I was promoted to lieutenant at 22 with less than four years on the department.

I learned fast that being an officer was not easy. Yes, I had some hiccups along the way, but I learned from my mistakes and other lessons I was taught from older members and more-seasoned officers.

There are some good and bad things about having young officers. One good thing is that they are willing to learn, train and share the new things happening in the fire service. But the bad part is that they may be seen as lacking experienced, leadership and the full respect of their firefighters.

Here are some of the things that I have learned from being a young officer, or as people have said, "a kid playing officer."

1. Know the job

The first thing that all young firefighters looking at becoming an officer must do is learn to be a firefighter first. If you have not mastered the art of being a good firefighter don't become an officer.

When you have become that good firefighter, you are going to know what you will need to get the job done whether it be a fire, crash or a medical call. You will have those files in the back of your head to tell your crew to grab that tool, pull that line, and open that wall.

Becoming that good firefighter, or the go-to guy, will take a while, but it's worth it; it will make your transition to that next rank easier.

2. Keep learning

The second thing you will need to do is keep learning. This seems like a no-brainer, but I have seen people get a promotion and think that they know everything. Just because your helmet has a new color or front doesn't mean that you are an encyclopedia about the fire service.

When you get that new role in your fire department, it goes without saying that you will need to learn the officer duties. Yes, you will need to learn those rolls, but you will still have to learn about the fire service.

You still need to train and do drills with your crews – not only to train them, but to keep your skills up to par. I have seen too many people get the promotion and think it is all about the paperwork and all that officer stuff.

This does not help your crew; it hurts them. Don't get so wrapped up in being an officer that you forget how to be a firefighter because things are changing in today's fire service. Although I've been promoted to lieutenant, I am still online looking for new training classes or new research.

3. Respect your elders

You got the new badge; be proud of it. But, know that the respect is earned by you not pinned on you. Now you are going to be that rookie again. That means earning respect from the crews, but most importantly from the older members of the department.

Don't push them around; you need to work with them. Approach the seasoned veterans and say, "Hey, I'm thinking of doing … ; what are your thoughts; is it good or bad?"

This will show that you respect them. Because face it, they have been doing the job longer then you. However, when push comes to shove, you need to make sure they are listening to you.

But being that young officer, you will need to keep building that respect and confidences with your crew. This will also take time, but if you are patient, stay focused on it and evaluate yourself on how it's going, it will happen.

Without respect and confidences from your crew and for your crew, you have nothing and you will fail.

4. Listen and support

Your crew wants an officer who will have their backs and who will listen them. You should do this by always keeping their best interest in mind, defend them when they are under attack and applaud them when they do things right.

But remember, the fire ground is where you need to take charge and make decisions; it is not the place to listen and take input from people.

The hardest part of this will be learning the line between friend and officer. Yes, you are their friend, but when you have the different color shirt or helmet on you have to know when to be a friend and when to be the officer they need.

Ultimately, your job is to be the leader and to know what needs to be worked on to keep you crew safe and trained to the best of their ability so they go home at the end of the day. 

About the author

Zack Bonnema has been with the Chaska (Minn.) Fire Department for almost four years, where he serves as the training lieutenant. He has almost completed an associate's degree in fire science. He is a certified Instructor I and helps instruct at the county's fire academy.

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