I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of the company officer and in particular about what that means in a suburban fire department. Most of us, I would think, work in a suburban department. For the purposes of this discussion lets define suburban as towns with populations less than, say, 100,000 people. Most of our response areas are primarily residential in nature with some commercial spread in and maybe even a little light industry. Others of us are primarily residential and agricultural with pretty wide-open spaces. Either way, we do not respond in what we would term a “big city” district. Why is this significant? Well, in my experience these small to medium-size departments are caught in a conundrum (there’s my second minor in English Lit paying off). Our departments are just big enough to be able to deliver certain levels of service but just small enough not to be able to do them all well or efficiently enough. Training immediately jumps to mind, especially since I am involved with it at my department. We train most every day for 3 hours. The bulk of this training is delivered by the Training Officer who is a company Lieutenant assigned to a regular 24/48 shift. He is assisted by shift-instructors spread out amongst the three shifts. It works ok, but if the T.O. doesn’t deliver the drill on all three shifts then the message may not be uniform for all members. We are just big enough to need and perform training every day on a set schedule with a dedicated T.O. but we are just small enough that we realistically cannot afford a full-time T.O. not assigned to shift and dedicated instructors assigned to a separate Training Division. I would think most of us are in this situation. This problem also bleeds over to the Company Officer position as well.
Most suburban company officers are caught in a difficult position. They are both company leaders as well as pseudo-management. Now, we all know the company officer’s job description calls for managerial skills so why is being a pseudo-manager a problem? I mean it in the sense of upper Administration assigning areas of responsibility and projects onto company officers that in larger departments are handled by staff officers or even civilian employees. For example, my Lieutenant is responsible for both grant writing for our department and Public Education. Arguably both those jobs could be combined to create a full-time position of their own. But, my Lieutenant works shift and takes care of all that while on shift or, quite frequently, at home on his off time. So what does this do to his traditional company officer role? I can tell you that it causes the traditional company officer role to suffer. That is not a slam against my Lieutenant, it’s just the nature of the beast. If you have all the daily paperwork, training, calls, next-shift scheduling, house-duties (ok, that was kind of a joke), spider-solitaire (that was not a joke) and the additional administrative duties thrown in on top there isn’t lot of time left-over for those “traditional” duties. What do I mean by “traditional duties”? Let me ‘splain Lucy.
When I think of a Company Officer I think of someone who is a smattering manager, drill Sergeant, counselor, enforcer and yes, to a certain extent, buddy. But above all else my ideal company officer is a leader. He (and I am using “he” in a gender-neutral way, ladies) is the guy who evaluates his company’s readiness, their abilities and their performance. He drills with them to improve operational readiness and preparedness above and beyond what is mandated by the department’s drill schedule. He keeps his firefighters informed of new trends and tactics and strategies. He is a wealth of experience and information, or if one or perhaps both of those are in short supply, he is wise enough to tap senior members for theirs. He is driven to be better and more knowledgeable and to ensure that his firefighters are as well. He should be someone whom his charges trust and whom they look to for guidance, not someone who is tolerated or largely ignored unless the words, “that’s an order,” cross his lips. That’s my vision of a Company Officer and the one I hope to be someday.
Unfortunately, the suburban fire service is in short supply of those real Company Officers. Whether it be the demands of the shift-level as well as the administrative level responsibilities forcing these officers into a different role or the testing process itself that leads to the promotion of a certain kind of individual I’m not one-hundred percent certain. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. I can tell you two personal experiences that makes me tend to lean towards the promotional process, at least in my area.
The first occurred during a conversation with the Chief (see “Hello World!”, below). During this conversation he was talking to me about the desirable qualities of a leader and how they relate to a company officer. In describing these qualities he made the comment, paraphrasing here, “I mean let’s face it. An officer doesn’t have to be as good tactically because we don’t get fires anymore, right?” I was stunned by this comment and still don’t really know if he meant it the way it sounds or if he was trying to make some other kind of statement which I didn’t pick up on. The second example was the last promotional test for the rank of Lieutenant. During the oral interview each candidate was given five questions. They had a moment to formulate their answers and then deliver their responses. Everyone was given the same five questions. Not a single question was tactical in nature or dealt with any sort of emergency scene management. All five questions were personnel or national standard (2-in, 2-out) based. These two examples, I think, speak volumes as to which kind of company officer our organization desires, and it’s a company manager. Someone who will enforce the rules, regulations and SOP’s of the organization, ensure the proper paperwork gets done, the rigs and house are clean and is able to get special projects done when assigned. Being a tactically sound fire officer, a true leader and teacher is secondary at best. And that is unfortunate.
Perhaps the company manager position in our small to mid-size departments are inevitable for the reasons I mentioned earlier. Perhaps I am idealistic or old fashioned and am not keeping up with the changing face of the fire service. I do not think that the paperwork doesn’t need to get done or that if you are assigned a project that does not directly relate to emergency scene work that it should be ignored. I am not that naive. I do believe, however, that being a true Company Officer should be the main focus. If you operate as a true Company Officer the administrative type things will fall into place.