Young leaders in the fire service: Tips for surviving as ‘the boss’
The job of a company officer is not easy, but these tips can help you start off on the right foot
By Isaac Schultheis
Fire officers are getting younger and younger.
With so many older, more experienced members retiring or preparing to retire, the younger members are hurriedly trying to learn the job and absorb as much institutional knowledge as they can before they are left to guide the team on their own. In my area, more and more departments are holding certification classes, often filled with relatively young individuals.
The fire service has always involved high-stress emergency calls with various personalities and ways of doing things, both on calls and in the firehouse. It is therefore imperative that a new fire officer takes certain steps to be successful in their journey, especially since being a “young officer” presents even more challenges when stepping into a position of leadership.
I have spent the last several years in some form of an officer position, as both a volunteer/part-time company officer and a fill-in and full-time officer at career departments. I have relied heavily on mentors and learning from mistakes in both environments. I have found that the issues faced in volunteer and career departments are often similar, and learning how to overcome these is key in succeeding in the role of an officer.
Establish clear expectations
The job of any supervisor is to assign tasks to the personnel whom they are supervising and ensure those tasks are being completed. To make the job as a company officer easier, we need to set clear expectations, both for our personnel and for ourselves. This does not mean we have to sit down and meticulously lay out exactly how everything must be done; this can present the image of “laying down the hammer.” A simple discussion of what you expect around the station and on calls will go a long way, for both yourself and your crew. This can prevent unnecessary issues down the road. If your members know what is expected from the beginning, they will be more likely to complete the expected tasks.
This is also a good time to ask your crew what they expect from you as well as what your superior officers expect from you and your crew. Talk to your crew about their experiences, and if you don’t know them, learn about their strengths and weaknesses. One of your crewmembers may have a special skill, like rope rescue, that you do not. Utilize your crew to the fullest, and do not box them in to the sole role of being a backseat rider or chauffer.
Handle conflicts fairly and at the right time
We are bound to face many conflicts during our time in the fire service. These may be personal, professional, on scene or at the firehouse. Most people who have been in leadership roles will tell you that 90% of the issues you face will be at within the firehouse and not on a scene, but don’t think the two are not related. How you handle issues at the firehouse will have a direct reflection to your leadership on a scene.
This also reflects on future opportunities for promotion, as every action you take prior to promoting will be remembered when you promote. How you carry yourself will be a topic of discussion around the firehouse when you try to solve a conflict as a new officer with someone retorting, “Well I remember that one time when you ....” Make choices that won’t come back to bite you when you are in a leadership role.
Be fair and think out decisions before you make them. During a tradeshow educational session, Chief Gary Ludwig said something along the lines of this: “On scenes, we are dispatched to a problem and make an immediate decision to solve the problem. At the firehouse, we often revert to that and look to make that immediate decision instead of taking a couple minutes and thinking things over before solving the problem.” This stuck with me. For issues on scenes, correct them immediately if there is a safety issue, but wait until you get back to the firehouse to discuss operational deficiencies. This will save you and your members from others overhearing about the issue, and we all know what happens around different firehouses – gossip tends to spread like wildfire.
Identify the right training for your members
As an officer, you have the responsibility to ensure your crew or members are performing as expected. You also have the benefit of knowing these members’ skill sets and their strengths and weaknesses better than others. Use this to your advantage and train on the aspects that you see need improvements as well as the areas where your members are strong.
Give your crewmembers the opportunity to teach a topic in which they are knowledgeable; this will empower your members to have influence on the crew or other members while showing that you are not a micromanager. Remember, just because you are in the right seat does not mean you have all the answers or know everything. By training on relevant topics and improving crew cohesion, you will develop a well-rounded team – a better option than having an all-star officer with a crew that can’t perform.
Find a mentor and be a mentor
Everyone in the fire service has or will have a mentor in some shape or form. Providing your junior members with guidance as they progress along their time in the fire service will help them grow into leaders in the future. Also, remember that you as an officer need to have a mentor as well. This may be an officer above you, someone at another department or a senior member of their crew.
As the senior member, you are likely very knowledgeable and should be a source of information. But as I noted above, you won’t have the answer to every issue, conflict or question. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know but I will find out and let you know.”
Don’t let issues within your agency or crew get the best of you, and don’t be afraid to talk to your mentor and vent about your frustrations. We often find ourselves focusing so much on the mission that we can end up getting burnt out and inadvertently letting our members see our frustration. Remember, your members are looking at everything you do. If they see you having a negative attitude or outlook, they will likely follow suit. Do your best to remain positive and give your members the guidance they need to thrive.
Master scene management
This is the most critical portion of the officer’s job, as you are managing a situation that can result in death or serious injury. Learning to properly manage your crew or others on a scene is imperative.
Take the time to prepare by working with your superior officers on scene operations and incident command. Making decisions is often stressful, but the officer needs to make an immediate decision to solve the issues they are facing. You won’t always make the best or most popular decision, but that is the life of an officer. Learn from your mistakes, and don’t be afraid to admit when you do something wrong.
Talk to your crews after calls for feedback. They might have seen something you didn’t. Make it a habit to learn from all major calls and involve the command staff as well as other crews on the scene.
Remember, being in the right front seat, wearing the red hat, being the boss – however you want to phrase it – doesn’t make you suddenly know everything and immune to mistakes. Don’t use your position as a reason to do less; it is a reason to do more. The officer often makes or breaks a crew, and the first few minutes of a scene are critical in making immediate decisions to solve the problem. Take care of those under you, and support those above you. When in doubt, ask for guidance. The job of a company officer is not easy, but these tips can help you start off on the right foot.
About the Author
Isaac Schultheis has been in the fire service for eight years, currently serving as a full-time company officer as a sergeant with Monroe Fire Protection District in Bloomington, Indiana. He also serves as the training captain for his part-time/volunteer department and an adult education fire instructor for Central Nine Career Center in Greenwood, Indiana. Schultheis holds several fire service certifications, including Fire Officer II, Instructor II and Fire Investigator, and has instructed several certification classes that have resulted in over 50 students gaining state certifications.