AMU Emergency Management Fire & EMS Original Public Safety

Company Officer: The Fire Department’s Most Critical Role

By Dr. Randall Hanifen
Edge Contributor

As we promoted new company officers in my department this month, I was reminded how important this position is within the fire department. While everyone might say the fire chief is the most important person in the fire service, the exact opposite is true.

The fire chief sets the goals and objectives of the organization and works to ensure the community is satisfied with the fire service. But the company officer is where the fire department’s true leadership and management occurs.

A Company Officer Needs to Train Fire Department Personnel

The company officer is the person who spends the entire 24-hour shift with the majority of fire department personnel. The battalion chief or the command staff may briefly interact with firefighters during meetings or stop by a fire station to say hi, but firefighters are solely led by the company officer the rest of the time.

Training is the most important activity of a typical day, outside of 911 calls. When I sat in a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1021 committee meeting, the public input comment related to the need to have Fire Instructor 1 meet Fire Officer 1 was taken up.

My NFPA group overwhelmingly decided that the most important task of the company officer was to train personnel. In addition, adult educational practices were needed to ensure that we can deliver the necessary training in a manner understood by firefighting crews.

If information is delivered in a format that students cannot comprehend, that confusion pretty much defeats their ability to learn vital information. Company officers are often the best people to train their personnel, because they spend time with each person and can understand the strengths and weaknesses of that person.

The need for crew resource management is derived through daily training tasks. The company officer needs to find a basic level for all crew members and then play on the strength of individual members to take company performance to the next level.

Time Management Is Another Important Function of the Company Officer

Time management is likely the next most important function of the company officer. Any all-hazards fire department that is not at the extremes of unit utilization has many preparation tasks that create improved success during an emergency event, including:

  • Plans
  • Fire inspections
  • Fire safety education
  • Equipment maintenance
  • Management of different project areas within the fire department

While the fire department’s time management can take a backseat to 911 calls, the majority of workdays can allow time for some or all of these tasks. The company officer must have the ability to prioritize tasks and work with fire department crews to ensure they meet their assigned tasks as well.

In my organization, we have different areas of responsibility, which allows hundreds of ongoing projects to be completed. As I have not found a fire department with enough support staff to manage all of the projects while shift personnel only train and make calls, utilization of the shift personnel is needed to maintain self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) equipment, care for personal protective equipment (PPE), and make minor repairs in the fire station.

The company officer must work with his or her personnel to ensure that they can complete their daily tasks and responsibilities. This form of management takes more skill than just creating a list of what the company officer wants people to do.

Done correctly, the company officer acts as a guide for the day rather than an autocratic manager. Because a company officer is the first supervisory role in the fire department, it is necessary  to ensure that the CO remains the leader who ensures that all tasks are completed.

Professional Development Is Vital to Fire Department Success

Building personnel is a more long-term goal for the company officer, but it is vital to the success of the organization. While some fire department personnel are very self-directed and would undertake professional development regardless of their company officer’s presence, this is the exception, not the norm.

The proverb that the “apple does not fall far from the tree” is very true for the majority of fire service personnel. If a company officer does not believe in advanced training and education or demonstrates a poor attitude towards the fire department, then it is likely that a crew will have the same negative beliefs and attitudes.

Becoming a company officer can be the hardest transition in the fire service. The new company officer must make a smooth transition from peer to boss and must become a good leader. While this role is challenging, it can also be the most rewarding when you see your personnel’s talents grow or when they receive promotions. Ultimately, the most rewarding aspect of this job is to see positive outcomes at 911 incidents, outcomes that occur as the result of the fire department’s daily planning and preparation.

Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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