Company Officer Leadership: Innovation in Officer-Development Training

Fairfax County (Virginia) Fire and Rescue serves the Washington Metro region and spans rural, suburban and urban environments; the company that responds to a rural water event may also help mitigate a high-rise fire. With such varied needs, ensuring a highly trained and effective officer corps becomes even more critical.

A company officer’s ability (or inability) to transition between task-level action and tactical decision maker in the blink of an eye is imperative for any life-saving agency. The company officer must navigate the rocky shoals between their roles as coach, mentor, task master, role model and department and employee advocate almost minute to minute during an average day. Their leadership skills are crucial to the ultimate success of any department.

How is it possible to expect good results, the solid tactical decision or crucial judgement on a personnel matter, without effective training?

To answer that question, the leaders of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue began making investments. One of those, the Northern Virginia Fire & Rescue Leadership Development Institute, is a weeklong intensive course of study that brings national-level speakers to the students; it’s coupled with a curriculum that focuses on practical application.

This regional effort distributes the workload of the organizing staff across the region’s departments. This means that not only are the students learning, but an entire staff of company (and now command-level) officers are applying organizational and leadership skills within an ICS structure and making decisions at a level typically only expected from chief officers.

Additionally, the West Point Leadership Course is an extended, college-level curriculum developed and taught by former Army officers and West Point graduates. The department brought the program in-house and tailored it to the organization. They accepted a broad range of junior and senior company officers, as well as some civilian managers, to spread the lessons of effective leadership throughout the organization.

Another unique program called “Horse Sense for Leaders” has been repeated annually since its inception and is widely sought after by field personnel. The one-day seminar examines leadership through the eyes of a horse trainer. While this may seem a bit at odds with the concepts behind leading people, it’s a well-developed program that effectively translates established leadership skills and abilities.

Concurrent with these efforts were several pieces aimed at the newest officers in the organization. First was the move to formalize prepromotional training with the creation of the Lieutenant’s Task Book. This created a template of training and mandatory riding time with a senior officer guiding the candidate from the back seat for 20–30 days.

Another element was the Officer Development School (ODS). The ODS brought together junior lieutenants for a week-long course of study that emphasized not only the administrative and personnel skills needed, but the expectations of the organization, baseline leadership and tactical training.

Finally, a new probationary lieutenant’s process is being developed to supplement the task book and to guide new officers through their first year on the street. All these efforts are aimed at making a better transition for what is arguably the hardest in the fire service: from firefighter to fire officer.

Finally, the organization has made two key investments that are still evolving.

First was the effort to achieve delegated authority. Delegated authority allows the department to control the training content and delivery and the testing of our future and existing officers. This allows us to focus the national-level textbook material and reinterpret it through the lens of Northern Virginia/Fairfax County policies and procedures.

In addition, the culmination of all these efforts has been the recent creation of an officer-development training section. The section has been charged with organizing these independent elements into a comprehensive and cohesive program.

Emphasizing mutual themes and concepts, with Fairfax County Fire & Rescue’s expectations as the common thread, we have a much higher chance of developing an effective, proficient and exemplary officer for the organization. It starts the first day of Instructor I and runs through Officer I, the Lieutenant’s Task Book, Probationary Process and Officer Development School and on to the other leadership-development programs. The goal is to duplicate the same processes for each subsequent rank.

Innovation comes in many forms and is often associated with hardware that produce concrete, tangible and immediate results. Returns on investments in human capital are not as neat. They need constant reinforcement and often take a long time to realize a final benefit.

By investing in wide array of programs, some much smaller in scale than others, the department has shown its willingness to make that investment. In an era of ongoing fiscal constraints, where reductions in training can be seen as an easier path towards a balanced budget, resources spent on effective leadership truly create a force multiplier. Without that commitment to the work of training its officers, the long-term costs to any organization can be significant.

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