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Firefighter Safety: The Company Officer's Dilemma

Whether you’re a company officer in charge of a three-person company, a station or an entire shift, the top priority is the safety of the firefighters. Why do some company officers have so much difficulty getting their firefighters to follow safe practices? How many officers really enjoy pulling a firefighter aside to tell them to put their gear on or to that they need to wear their SCBA? Something that’s probably already written down in a rule or SOG?

Most officers don’t enjoy this, but there are times it needs to be done. Issues and situations arise where officers should, as Coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots said in 2014, “Do your job!” Keeping your firefighters safe is part of the responsibility of being in leadership.

So how do you get your firefighters to follow rules, department SOGs and best practices? Here are three reasons some officers have difficulty getting their subordinates to be safe:

  • Lead by example – “Leadership is an action, not position” (Donald McGannon.) Believe it or not, leading by example needs to start on your first day as a firefighter. When you get promoted, how can you tell a firefighter to wear their gear, place wheel chocks out or to do a proper check of important equipment if you didn’t do it when you were a firefighter? Does the “Do as I say, not as I do” mentality have a place in the fire service?
  • Ethics – Do the right thing. When making a decision, company officers should ask if it’s in the best interest of the department and is it in the best interest of the community. “As members of the fire service, we share a responsibility to project an ethical character of professionalism, integrity, compassion, loyalty and honesty in all that we do, all of the time.” (National Society of Executive Fire Officers, 2012, [PDF]). Company officers need to do the right thing and be ethical well before they are promoted.
  • Respect – Do firefighters respect you as a company officer AND as a person? Have you heard the quote, “Respect is earned, not demanded or bought?” Firefighters who respect you know that you have a job to do and part of that job is to do what is safe for them and what is in the organizations best interest.

What can firefighters do to become safer and to assist the company officer in promoting a culture of safety? Below are three examples:

  • Continuing education and training – After your initial training (Firefighter I/II) do you continue to seek-out learning and training opportunities? There are an unlimited number of courses in your state, across the country and online. The IAFC, FDSOA, NFA, and NFPA are just a small example of organizations that offer training opportunities. Have you considered higher education from a college or university? Remember to bring back what you learned to your company or station.
  • Know your department – The majority of departments have rules/regulations and SOGs. Do you know them? The next time you’re at work review an SOG on your own or make it a company/station drill.
  • Respect your officer’s decisions – A big part of an officer’s responsibility is to make decisions. You’re not always going to agree with the decision your officer made, but keep in mind that making decisions sometimes is not an easy task. Most of the time these decisions are ethical and it is what the officer believes to be right. Remember, a team functions best with just one leader.

The fire service is a dangerous profession and it is up to all ranks, including company officers, to make sure “our” firefighters go home safe after every call and at the end of every shift.

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