As with most firefighters, it is in our DNA to aspire to have more impact. In the fire service that often translates into promoting within the ranks. Many are fortunate enough to promote and are successful as company officers. Others for whatever reason may choose not to or may never be successful in promoting and remain a firefighter for their entire career. Regardless of which category you may end up in, there are some essential questions and self-reflection that are necessary before you decide to take the next step.
I will preface what is about to be covered with this statement. If you have the pleasure of working with a great company officer, you will already have the right answers for what I'm about to say. If not, then we may have some work to do.
First, you need to ask yourself WHY... Why do you want to promote? There are right answers and wrong ones. When you come up with an answer share it with someone that will give you honest feedback. If you get the answer you need and it's telling you that you are seeking promotion for the right reasons, then move on to the next step. If not, stop here and be the best firefighter you can be. There is no shame in not promoting. In fact, it is more honorable to recognize that it may not be for you. It is not for everyone and not everyone should be an officer.
Second, take time to reflect on your career to this point. This is a great time to discuss with a trusted mentor, whoever that may be. Some things to think about are:
- How have you prepared yourself to become a company officer? Notice I didn't say, how has your department prepared you to become a company officer. Self-preparation is on you. I'm not just talking about tactics classes, being a company officer requires much more than that. If you truly want to promote, you will do what it takes to get the training and experience to be prepared.
- How do your peers view you and do they support your decision to promote? Remember, every decision or indecision you make during your career will the used to judge your ability as an officer. Years of poor performance cannot be undone by a few months of good performance, especially when that good performance is occurring just before an upcoming promotional process.
Third, you do not have to be an officer to add value and positive influence on your department and your peers. Some of the most impactful people I have known in the fire service were not officers, they were seasoned firefighters. Promotion is not a prerequisite to making an impact.
Let’s talk about the preparation it takes to be ready to promote. Preparation is an ongoing process. It is not meant to be a means to an end. The process itself may look different depending on what position you are promoting to. In this example, preparation starts the day you start in the fire service. The instant you step foot in the firehouse you are being watched by those around you. How you conduct yourself in everything you do will be scrutinized. How you do anything is how you do everything. In other words, if you get rattled easily in simple non-stressful situations, you will more than likely react the same way in stressful ones.
So, what are some steps to take in order to best prepare yourself for promotion to Company Officer?
- Make sure you know what the department expects and achieve that training or certification. If your department doesn’t have specific requirements, then find a progressive department that does and use them as a guide. The International Association of Fire Chiefs has a great document called the IAFC Officer Development Handbook that can provide a roadmap to promotional preparation.
- Read often. Not just fire department articles. The corporate industry has great ideas on how to manage people, time and efficiency. Try to apply those ideas to the fire service.
- Network and attend trainings from other people, learn how they do things.
- Place yourself in uncomfortable situations on purpose. Identify the areas you are weak in and work to improve them.
- Take classes on leadership, managing people, discipline, computers, Microsoft Office, time and project management.
- Become an instructor and teach often.
- Don’t fear failure. Plan for it.
So, you have the right "WHY", you have prepared yourself and your peers support your decision. There are some things you still need to know.
Being a company officer, when done well, is a complicated and challenging job. Making calls (the fun stuff) is only a portion of what you will be responsible for. Other more frequent and challenging responsibilities include:
- Personnel issues. You are now responsible for the people that were once your peers. This means you may have to confront weaknesses, mentor them, discipline them, lead them, listen to their family issues and know them well enough to see little changes in behavior that may be subtle signs of bigger issues to come.
- Being able to plan out your day ahead of time and know that that plan will change frequently without warning. Inspections, public education details, calls for service, training, house chores, facility maintenance, vehicle checks and eating meals are just a few of the tasks that are competing for your time. They all have importance. They all must get done and many of them have deadlines.
- You are now even more responsible to implement and support the department’s mission, vision and values. When your people are not meeting the departments expectations, it's your responsibility to reign them back in. Your crew’s behaviors, good or bad, are a direct reflection of you and your ability or inability to hold them to the expectations that you and your department have set. Those expectations need to constantly be held up to the department’s mission, vision and values. Remember, setting the example starts from day one as a firefighter, not day one after promotion.
- Be comfortable with being in the middle. You as a company officer now have to be able to gain consensus between your firefighters and the administration. We as firefighters are not great communicators, so much of your time can be taken up by gathering, understanding and facilitating that understanding to those you work with and for.
- Take Responsibility. Everything that happens in your station, on your calls, with your crew... everything; own it, fix it and move on.
Too many times we see great firefighters promote simply because they are experienced, and it is the next likely step. This often results in frustration for the crews and the new officer because they were not prepared and their "WHY" missed the mark. The decision to promote is an important decision and should not be taken lightly or without thought.
With that said, the company officer role is an essential part of the success of a department and can be the most rewarding decision you will make in your career in the fire service. The company officer not only provides company level leadership and development, but when done well they add value to the lives of their crews which will positively impact others in the fire service and our communities for years to come.