By Brian O’Neill
At some point in their careers, many firefighters aspire to be officers. What many do not realize is the level of responsibility that comes with sitting in the officer’s seat on the apparatus. Whether you are in a volunteer or career department, big or small, the officer’s seat offers not only many opportunities but an equal number of challenges as well. Many career departments have test- or merit-based promotion, while volunteer departments usually base promotions on popular elections. However you get there, the issues that can come up are the same. This article will discuss some of the issues that an officer will face, from the basic to the extreme.
Scenario: It’s a day like any other in your time as a firefighter, but now, it’s your first chance to be the officer. You jump up in the front seat of the rig and start responding. There are a million things running through your mind: What type of call is it—fire or emergency? Where is the address? Is there a chief or other apparatus responding? Is the dispatcher calling you with more information? These are just a few of the questions that you may need to answer before you even get on scene. Riding in the officer’s seat involves more than playing with the horns and sirens.
Knowing Your Crew
The first obligation that comes with sitting in the officer’s seat is being the “leader.” The crew will be looking to you to lead and give them direction. In larger departments, you might not know your crew members. In smaller departments, you may know the crew; some of them may be your closest friends. Each of these situations presents unique challenges. When you don’t know the crew, it means there is no dynamic to the relationship. They will be watching you and seeing how you handle different leadership situations. Even if it’s your first day on the job, they will expect you to know exactly what to do. And you will be doing the same with them. You may not know what their strengths and weaknesses are at different calls, and you don’t have the luxury of time to learn these things. In smaller departments, you may know your crew and what they are capable of doing. This helps in some ways, but these members may not be ready to take orders from you. They may see you as the equal you once were, or worse, they may resent that you were made officer ahead of someone else.
You are the officer and, whether you know the crew or not, they will be relying on you to make decisions, and you will be relying on them to do their jobs. You may have to adjust your aggressiveness based on how the crew is reacting to the conditions. From the time you get on the rig until the call is over and you are back at the station, the most important concern for the officer is getting the crew back safely. You are now responsible for their welfare, and your decisions need to be made with this in mind. If a member of the crew is injured, make sure they get the proper medical attention. Injuries happen in firefighting; it is an inherently dangerous occupation.
As the officer, you must instinctively weigh the risk to your crew against the rewards gained from your actions. Many officers and teachers in my career have taught me one valuable lesson: Firefighters are the only known life hazard in any fire building. You will probably put members at risk during your time as officer, but you must do so for sound reasons.
The “Big Picture”
The next issue that many new officers have is how to step back and not get caught up in the individual tasks of the crew. Or, how to see the “big picture.” If you get too involved in one task or one member, you lose sight of your job, which is to lead the whole crew. You need to give each member of the crew a task that they realistically can be expected to complete. Your job is to assign the task and stay updated to the status of the task, not do the task yourself. This transition is one of the hardest for new officers. They still want to be in there “doing it.”
As the officer, it’s critical that you communicate well. This includes communicating while responding and operating on scene. You will need to communicate with your crew and the chief or operating incident commander (OIC). While responding, the dispatcher may call you with updates, and you will have to disseminate this information to your crew. You will need to speak with the chauffeur of the rig to talk about directions or to give orders for apparatus placement.
Once on scene, you will have to keep in contact with your crew and get updates from members who aren’t under your immediate supervision. [For the purposes of this article, “immediate supervision” is defined as being within sight or sound of the members without the use of a radio.] You may have to relay the information you gather from the crew to the OIC or dispatch. Be proactive, not reactive. You will have to anticipate what information is needed and how get it from your crew. The crew can make your job easier; you can do the same for the OIC when he gets on scene by giving him a clear, concise update shortly after he gets on scene.
Apparatus and the Mayday
Being the officer brings some good things with it, but there are also other problems that will arise that you must be capable of dealing with as well. Some of the larger problems that may occur during the course of a response include the apparatus getting in an accident while responding, a member or members becoming lost or separated in a fire or, worst case scenario, a serious injury or death to a member of your crew. These are the most stressful problems you can encounter, and you must remember your training and experiences if you hope to handle these situations properly.
If the apparatus you are riding in is involved in an accident, there are certain actions you must take. Your department’s policies or standard operating procedures, most likely, give instructions regarding the paperwork you must fill out and notifications you must make. If accident occurred while responding, your first action is to notify dispatch that you are no longer able to respond to the original call. They will have to make sure someone else is handling the call. Once that has been accomplished, check on the condition of your crew and any civilians involved. If needed, request more assistance from other crews or medical help.
The next scenario concerns dealing with a member of your crew becoming lost or hurt. If a member becomes lost or hurt and he must call a Mayday, you will be put in a situation that will test you in every way. The rest of the crew will want to help that member. There may come a time where you have to stop your crew from trying to help that member or risk more members getting hurt or trapped. You are not giving up on the one member, by any means. Ensure that the OIC is sending crews to help that member. Your members trying to help may put them in a bad position and create more issues. These members may become mentally and physically fatigued, which may lead to mistakes. As the officer, you will have to stop them to let the other crews do their jobs. The worst case scenario that you could ever face is the death of a member of your crew. You will be wondering if you did everything you could. You will second guess yourself thinking about mistakes you think you made. You can do everything right at a fire, and people could still die. Sitting in the officer’s seat, you need to be ready to accept the burden these possibilities.
Sitting in the officer’s seat of the apparatus is a privilege. This privilege carries great responsibility; many new officers—or members who are riding in that seat—do not realize all that comes with it. People, both your crew members and civilians, are counting on you to make the right decision in a split second. If your department does not have a comprehensively structured training program for officers, or if you are in a department that allows anyone to ride that seat, think about some of these situations that could occur and ask yourself if you are prepared. If you are in that situation, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Think about the officers with whom you have worked over your career. Think about the good ones as well as the bad ones. Think about the ones you thought were ready and the ones you thought weren’t. You can learn from both the good and the bad. If you choose to sit in the officer’s seat, you owe it to the members of your crew to prepare yourself to do the job no matter what may come at you. Look to the officer’s that you respect, ask questions, and always continue to learn. I tell firefighters that if, at any point, you think you aren’t learning anything new, then is the time to stop being a firefighter, because you are a danger to yourself and others.
Brian O’Neill is a 20-year member of and a lieutenant with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). He is also an instructor at the FDNY and Suffolk County (NY) fire academies. O’Neill can be reached at email@example.com.