Company Officers View on Training and Personnel Development

The smallest volunteer organizations through the largest fire departments with the most comprehensive and best staffed training divisions rely extensively on their company officers to deliver training, evaluate company performance, and develop and mentor subordinates.  Therefore, it is essential that all company officers view training and personnel development as one of their primary responsibilities.

When I was the Director of Training for the Chicago Fire Department all newly promoted Lieutenants went through a five week training cycle before being deployed in the field.  We spent a great deal of time preparing them to conduct a company drill or school on their first day in their new assignments, and strongly encouraged them to do so.  Running a successful drill is a great way to demonstrate personal competence to the crew while building the officer’s confidence at the same time. 

You never really have mastered a skill or topic unless and until you can successfully teach it to someone else.  Developing the ability to provide effective instruction is not just a requisite skill that any good company officer must possess, it is an essential step in achieving personal mastery of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of both firefighting and leadership.

The most effective and efficient way of ensuring safe operating practices on the fire ground is through understanding not just the “how” but also the “why” of a practice or procedure.  Personal Protective Equipment and safety practices are essential but cannot be relied on to make up for serious deficiencies in skills or understanding.  

Needs Assessments, etc.

If a newly minted company officer finds herself in a situation where she has not been provided with effective lesson plans or training guidelines, she should turn to the many professional organizations or training instructor societies for templates, guides, schedules, etc.  Though these may not be a perfect fit, they cover the essentials every company and firefighter needs and moreover can guide the officer through the process of developing her own. 

Professional Development

Seek professional development guidance (both for yourself and your company) from outside the fire service as well as from within.  Classics such as “The Art of War”, “Shackleton’s Way”, “Marcus Aurelius Meditation”, are classics for a reason.  The contain insights and advice that transcends both generations, cultures and occupations.   They will often help you develop both a finer appreciation for and ability to critique current literature and fire service based books.

Prepare Present Practice Evaluate

I simply cannot overemphasize the need to motivate your students to learn.  This means that the officer must be motivated himself, which in turn means that the officer believes in the need for and value of the training.  If the officer doesn’t “buy it”, the firefighters certainly won’t.  You cannot fake this.  If you don’t understand the importance of what you have been charged with delivering to your company, seek guidance from your superiors, a trusted peer, or a mentor.  The words, “because we have to”, should never EVER be spoken in conjunction with your company training. 

Importance of the Topic (and random musings)

Leaders are lifelong learners.  In order to learn you have to be comfortable being vulnerable, i.e. willing to acknowledge your shortcomings, the gaps in your knowledge, the rusty parts of your skill set.  People will submit to learning from you only to the extent that they see you learning (and being vulnerable) yourself.  They may submit to your direction, but they won’t learn a thing. 

Ours is an often dangerous and sometimes unpredictable profession.  Therefore, you simply cannot ever know enough about it or the limitless number of other professions that act upon it and influence it.  Architects, designers, engineers, every building trade, every manufacturer of every product that you wear or use.  The list goes on and on.  Be curious about your profession and everything that impacts it.  Hone your skills every day.  Learn something new every day.  READ every day.  Share what you have learned every day.  Ask questions every day. 

One does not become a firefighter in the course of a probie training program, or within a year, or three years, or twenty . . . .  Becoming a firefighter is the essence of this vocation and it will take you your entire career, and then some, to accomplish this.  This is the greatest lesson an officer can learn and the first one he should endeavor to pass on to his crew.  Remember it will take them, as it does you, a lifetime to learn it.  Don’t delay. 

Give members of your company things to read, (that you of course have read). Then ask them about what they learned.  You will be amazed at what this can do for the effectiveness of your training, the personal and professional development of your firefighters, the morale of the company, and the bonds and relationships within it.  These kinds of shared experiences are at the core of developing the culture of your company. 

Set your standards high.  For most knowledge, skills and attitudes, your personnel can be expected to reach competency on their own with a little guidance and encouragement from you.  True company level training is reserved for achieving excellence and mastery.  The goal is to develop that synergy that enables the company to achieve more than a collection of individuals can and that requires leadership.

It is incredibly important that you are a life-long learner and that this is patently obvious to both your superiors and your company.  Then and only then will your superiors fully trust you and your company truly follow you.

Your company level training program is much more effective when it is coordinated with what is going on in your Department, District, and Battalion.  For smaller departments, reach out to your surrounding Mutual-Aid partners and align your training with theirs whenever possible.

Company officers tend to gravitate, quite understandably, to operations focused training.  However, it is equally important that you devote time to company schools that cover Department administration, Rules and Regulations, Practices and Procedures, etc., particularly those that the company officer has direct responsibility for enforcing.  Covering this material provides you with an excellent opportunity to establish expectations for behavior and performance within the company.  Never assume the members of your crew know the rules.  Invest time into ensuring that they do. 

I have observed again and again over the course of my career that the company officer that has established a reputation amongst his peers and superior officers as an effective trainer is also the one with the least personnel problems within his company.  Similarly, that same officer typically has a reputation with the troops for solid operational command presence and leadership in the fire station.  This is no accident.  Training, whether through formal drills and company school, or informal guidance and mentoring, builds the comradery, trust and respect that is at the core of effective command and leadership.  Leadership is after all about sacrificing your self-interest for the advancement of the group.  It is about giving.  Training is the greatest vehicle the company officer has to develop her company and her ability to lead it. 

I and my peers had the great, the very great, good fortune of being “broken in” by what I have come to regard as the Greatest Generation of the American fire service.  Those men who came of age as firemen in the 60’s and 70’s when urban firefighters really did go to 3 and 4 fires a day.  Every single day.  They learned their job through fire ground experience.  Grinding, crushing, freezing, searing, brutal experience.  At first it was that kind of experience that I thought I had to have to live up to them.  But over time I learned that they brought a lot more to their profession than lessons learned from the fires they went to.  They also brought their knowledge from their previous careers, their military (largely Vietnam) backgrounds, and most of all from their “side jobs”.  Virtually all of those jobs were in the trades.  The officers and members of Engine 83 and Truck 22 who taught me my first lessons were carpenters, plumbers, roofers, electricians, car mechanics, cement finishers, laborers, painters, appliance repairmen, and machinists.  They brought an institutional knowledge of the built environment, and its changes, to the kitchen table each morning.  They knew instinctively, fundamentally, practically, that every “job” (not just every fire) is different and that if you wanted to be a master of your craft you had damn well better bring an open mind to work with you every day.  In addition, my officers, none of whom would describe themselves as students, or book smart, were never the less constantly putting books in my hand.  Books by Layman and Nelson and Brannigan and Clarke.  I never heard the words, “because I said so”, or worse yet, “because we’ve always done it that way” in my early career.  On the contrary I was expected to understand and to be able to explain the “why” of what I did or did not do on the fire ground.  As I said, we were indeed very, very fortunate

Over the next 3 decades I watched, and am afraid I must admit that I participated in, a change in how many of us do business.  We lost the benefit of our connection with the trades and their underlying connection to science and engineering.  We became obsessed, perhaps necessarily, with our new missions and our new gear.  As fires became less frequent and our own immediate and personal experience with them declined, we became more dependent on the experience of those who came before us.  We began to do things the way they did it because . . . . well, because that’s the way they did it.  Along the way I truly believe that we lost the greatest lesson our predecessors tried to instill in us, “Be curious and ask why”.    Exactly how and why we got from there to here is beyond my or any individual’s ken, but I believe we can agree that there has been a tendency to drift away from understanding and toward dogma.

I have been trying to choose my words carefully.  I said “drift away”, not, “abandoned”.  We never really lost our connection with the fundamentals, (it is named Fire Engineering for a reason after all).  We just stopped paying close enough attention.  That has changed over the last decade and more largely due to the work being done by Underwriters Laboratories Firefighter Safety Research Institute (UL-FSRI) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).  Madrzykowski, Kerber, Zevotek, et al have picked up and are running with the gauntlet laid down by Layman, Brannigan, Royer, Nelson, etc.  We area at last poised to stand on the shoulders of our Greatest Generation and help the American fire service take its next great leap forward



July 24, 2019 01:29 PM by Jake Barnes

What a great article!

Company Officers

July 24, 2019 05:58 PM by Vince Conrad

I never can get enough of your insights, this article is right on the mark, awesome.

Great Stuff

August 5, 2019 12:16 PM by Tim

Great stuff, Chief!

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