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Executive Officer Leadership: Things Have Changed

The Way Things Used to Be

In late 1982, the buzzer rings as tones drop in the firehouse. We listen carefully as the dispatcher provides the nature of the call and the incident address. We glance to a large map of the territory that has been drawn on the wall of the engine room bay, just to doublecheck the location before responding.

As we board the engine, the driver says he thinks there’s a hydrant at the intersection just up the street from the address. He has a great memory of hydrant locations in both the first- and second-alarm territories. He’s one of few who have chosen to be so exact in their jobs as engineers—a true asset.

As the engine rolls out of the fire station, one of the firefighters grabs the rope of the overhead door and pulls it down. We quickly drive to the incident location and arrive to find a working structure fire. As the company officer gives us direction on which fire attack lines to deploy and completes his initial assessment of the building, the driver begins to establish a permanent water supply by laying out two 3” supply lines to the hydrant.

We encounter heavy black smoke after forcing the front door open and stay low as we seek out the seat of the fire. The truck crew enters the building right behind us and begins a right-hand wall search of structure to search for any possible victims. Visibility is limited and although the primary search takes a significant amount of time, it comes up as all clear.

My company officer stays a little further back than the two firefighters on the nozzle, since he’s not wearing SCBA and the heat and smoke are too much for him to stand for long. The house was built in the early 1960s and the furnishings are from that time or before. The bulk of fire is in the kitchen at the rear of the house and is contained to that room with no extension into the attic due to the hardwood tongue-and-groove ceilings.

We overhaul the structure without SCBAs as a smoke ejector blow’s some of the toxic smoke and fire gases out the back door of the house.

Fast Forward to Early 2017

Lights come up slowly in the firehouse with a low tone to alert the engine company of a fire alarm. At the same time, all crew member’s smart phones go off with an individually selected tone they’ve chosen.

The crew walks to the large monitor mounted in the dayroom to confirm the incident location. It displays a software program that contains a detailed map of the district, with all streets and hydrant locations labeled. This information is available on the phone application every crew member has on their individual smart phone.

As the officer climbs into the engine, he taps the screen of the laptop mounted in the cab of the apparatus. The map of the district comes up in Google Maps, with the route calculated to the incident location.

As they driver leaves the station, a censor denotes the turnout time of the crew and starts the clock of response time. The voice of the computer tells the driver which way to turn and how far it is to the next intersection, as well as your estimated time of arrival.

The company officer is familiar with the location we’re responding to and brings up the preplan by tapping the icon on the monitor screen. The preplan has a complete diagram of the building with a list of all contents, down to the last inspection date of high-pile storage and the commodity stored there. There are photos of all exterior sides and several interior pictures, detailing the type of building material used in the structure’s initial construction.

A permanent water supply will need to be established by laying 5” hose from a hydrant located 200 feet west of the building. It should produce about 1,150 gallons per minute based on the information displayed by tapping on the red hydrant icon.

As we arrive on scene and the officer gives his initial on-scene report over the radio, an engine turns the corner from the neighboring department that we have a boundary agreement with. They are stationed closer than another unit within our own district and the automated vehicle locator has sent the closest unit to the fire even though it’s outside their district.

We begin to pull attack lines from our truck and prepare to enter the building. The officer steps up beside us with his SCBA facepiece already in place as we prepare to breech the metal door. A thermal-imaging camera integrated into the side of his facepiece allows him to see the temperature of the door, showing there is a significant amount of heat behind it.

As we open the door, heavy black smoke rolls out and the nozzleman enters the building. We make our way down the hallway and the officer says there are flames coming from a door located at the back of the building. It’s still dark from our viewpoint but his TIC provides a clearer picture of what’s happening within the building, keeping us safe.

We advance to the back of the building, enter the fire room and quickly extinguish the fire that was held in check by the commercial sprinkler system. The truck crew comes in right behind us with several TICs to complete a quick primary search and ventilate the building.

Overhaul is started with our SCBAs still in place. A multigas monitor is brought in to ensure that the toxic gases are at an established level before SCBAs are removed.

After a quick rehab, a small CO detector that will omit an alarm in a toxic environment is clipped on each member’s turnout gear; if it alerts, the crewmember must go back on air with an SCBA.

Many things have changed over the last 30+ years and technology has played a major role.

With the introduction of such equipment as thermal-imaging cameras, digital-response software with advanced mapping and improvements to SCBAs, firefighters are much better prepared to perform their job than ever before.

Development and improvements have come from firefighters themselves making suggestions as the true end users. They offer feedback to help advance equipment that keeps firefighters safe and allow them to better protect the public they serve.

“200 Years of Tradition, Unimpeded by Progress”

Does this saying still apply? I don’t think so!

Yes, a few of us still wear leather helmets, but if you’re open to being that progressive chief officer, you move beyond seek out innovative means of doing the job. As new technology come’s on the market, it’s up to the department’s leader to decide if they’re going to move that way or not.

Change in any organization is difficult, but leaders should explain why and how new methods may work better than what we’re doing now. Often, department members bring new technology to the officers’ attention. This presents an opportunity to include those members in the investigation and purchase of new equipment, allowing members to buy into change. Why wouldn’t it? It’s their idea and an excellent chance for the chief officer to include department members in the decision-making process.

When members are part of a process, they’re certainly also part of the team.

Fire Service Technology Summit

Last year, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation hosted the its Fire Service Technology Summit to identify new technology that would improve firefighter health and safety. The summit’s goals were:

  • Technological Advancement Recommendations
  • Research into Practice Recommendations
  • Existing Technology Outreach Recommendations
  • Fire Service and Technology Industry Collaboration Recommendations
  • Funding Opportunities Recommendations

The summit produced many critical technology recommendations for the fire service, which will allow departments access to the latest advancements and information in the industry. With smart buildings, improved PPE and apparatus technology and even robotics such as unmanned aerial vehicles, there are significant improvements arriving in the near future.

Social Media

How can we reach millennials who process information different from those from an earlier era? I hear quite often that “they always have their phones out and are focused on that, not studying or learning their job.”

They process information differently than previous generations and at a faster rate. Why not attempt to communicate the way they are now? Stop telling them to put their phones away and let them use the device to learn and grow.

We often start meetings with a few housekeeping items, including asking for phones to be turned off or muted. I’ve started telling members to leave them on and tweet or post on Facebook to enhance interaction on the topic.

On one occasion, I asked a group—mostly older chief officers—if they knew what a hashtag is; no one in the room did. Our firefighters are using social media daily to communicate and so should you and I.

For example, you could hold a Twitter chat, designating a hashtag for that topic. The host, which could be you, could pose questions and the group could respond with the hashtag. This is a great way to gain that interaction and engage firefighters.

A few months ago, I created a group in Facebook messenger that really started as a way to disseminate information to firefighters in the department—a kind of informal communication where anyone can post whatever they want, at any time.

The group includes all members of the department by their Facebook account, and they can choose to participate or not. I began to post articles from trade magazines that focused on firefighter safety or a tactical skill that may be relevant to the department at that time. Many would reply to the article and others would not, which is OK; this is nothing more than an online conversation across the group. However, this has proven to have value as we find that some who have never heard or seen some of the information.

I recently created another group of the same people on Instagram. It hasn’t taken off yet, but members are posting and sharing fire-related material, which sometimes turns into great discussions: a new way to build a high-rise pack or what we should be carrying in a hydrant bag. The thing is that it’s their conversation as much it’s mine. We’re just talking about the job and what we can do to improve it while having fun at the same time.

As chief officers, we must find innovative ways to involve our members that allow them to learn and be heard. New technology is out there and will continue to grow quickly, so we must embrace it. It’s a very exciting time to be in the fire service; so much happening, and you can still wear your leather helmet if you want to.

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