Fleming, Robert S. “Will You Be My Training Officer?” The Voice 28, no. 4 (April 1999): 18.
Each of us has probably seen at least a portion of the extremely successful PBS television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Even if you have not seen this educational television program, you have probably heard the phrase, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Fred Rogers, the show’s host, echoes this phrase in word and song throughout every program in the series. Each time he uses this phrase, Fred Rogers is inviting his television viewers to become his friends in his magical virtual neighborhood. He is asking a question and communicating to each member of his television audience that he or she is valued as a friend by Mr. Rogers; thus, he is also making an important declarative statement.
The question posed by Mr. Rogers has a corollary question that is asked more frequently than we may imagine or want to admit. This question is periodically asked in volunteer, combination, and career fire departments regardless of size or geographic location. It is actually one of the most important questions that a fire chief will ask during his or her tenure in leadership. The question is, “Will you be my training officer?” It is a question that should be asked only after a conscientious review of an individual’s qualifications and willingness to assume this crucial leadership position. Regardless of whether the training officer position carries line or staff rank, it is one of the most critical areas of responsibility within the contemporary fire department.
The training officer, ideally working with a training committee, has the charge of ensuring that new members and seasoned veterans alike have the necessary training and practice to function positively on the incident scene.
The involvement of the department’s line and chief officers in training cannot be overemphasized. In addition to affording them the opportunity to share their knowledge and skills with other members of their department, the personal involvement of these officers sends an important message: they have taken the time to become involved in departmental training because they believe in the importance of training and are committed to the training and development of all departmental personnel.
This personal involvement on the part of the line and chief officers also provides them the opportunity to gauge the capabilities of each member. This insight can be critically important when he or she is later called upon to appoint individuals to positions within the department or to make assignments on the incident scene.
The similarities between the question posed by Mr. Rogers and that of the fire chief interested in recruiting a training officer should include the fact that the questions are asked only after careful consideration of the appropriateness of an individual becoming either a friend in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or the training officer in the local fire department. Presumably, Mr. Rogers only extends the invitation to become his friend after careful consideration. You may be thinking that it does not take any such consideration to make such an overture to his extensive television audience. You may actually be correct in drawing that conclusion.
I would, however, suggest that while careful and conscientious consideration of an individual’s qualifications and willingness should be an integral part of the selection of a training officer, that certainly does not always happen. All too often, fire chiefs reach out to find a “willing soldier” to handle their fire department’s training program.
Were you to view the PBS television show for even one program, you would learn that Mr. Rogers not only recruits new friends but that he stands willing to teach them about friendship and to enable them to grow and develop. While there are likely many fire departments across the nation where the fire chief and the officer cadre are actively involved in the recruitment and support of the training officer, I truly believe that this is often not the norm.
In too many of our fire departments, there is a lack of commitment on the part of the entire officer cadre to training. In too many departments, support of the training officer through the active involvement of the other fire officers in the planning and delivery of training is conspicuously absent. In too many departments, we have training officers whose ability to successfully perform their responsibilities is compromised. In too many contemporary fire departments, our training officers are not empowered.
Contemporary fire departments need training officers who are highly qualified and motivated. We need individuals who recognize the importance of continuous education and commit to maintain and enhance their own knowledge and skills while encouraging and facilitating the members of their departments to do likewise. We need empowered training officers who will assist our fire departments to prepare for the many challenges of the 21st century.
Perhaps it is time that we take the lead from Mr. Rogers.