Having been in the fire service for over 27 years, I can attest to the fact that it is a paramilitary organization. Concepts such as centralized command, span of control, and chain of command have all been adapted from military use. In Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R), the first level of authority is the company officer or lieutenant. Lieutenants are in charge of a company and typically supervise three fire fighters. The next level is captain, and captains supervise not only the three fire fighters under their command, but also supervise all three platoons that work at their assigned fire station.
Being promoted from fire fighter to lieutenant and lieutenant to captain are all major career steps, but the transition involved is facilitated by the fact that you work directly with the position you aspire to on a daily basis. Fire fighters can observe their officers and lieutenants can observe their captains and learn much from these observations. The administrative duties, fire ground responsibilities, and daily routine are all relatively familiar by the time promotions roll around. The same isn’t true of the battalion chief position.
Battalion Chiefs (BC’s) are the next step above captain in the supervisory chain of command. BC’s supervise battalions that are comprised of eight to ten fire stations and up to 12 companies. The BC’s operate alone for the most part, and report directly to the deputy chief who supervises the entire fire department. They are responsible for the accurate and efficient administration of their battalions, employee discipline, training, response readiness, and incident command for major multi-company responses. Some differences between the captain and BC role are subtle, for example captains investigate injuries and accidents, but BC’s are responsible for seeing the ‘big picture’ and determining the root cause of the injuries to prevent their recurrence. The promotional process for a captain to become a BC consists of an assessment center and interview that are scored, allowing a ranked list to be produced. It is a highly competitive process, but there is really no way to prepare for the promotion except to actually do the job of a BC.
Over the past four years, PF&R has promoted 13 captains to the position of BC. In PF&R, there are only 15 BC’s in the whole bureau, so the experience level is on the low end. The BC’s are stretched pretty thin for a large metro department, and are kept very busy, not allowing much time for honing their skills and learning new ones.
I have proposed that PF&R develop a comprehensive, on-going training program for our BC’s. I am currently assigned to the Training Center in the position of Chief Safety Officer, but I am a BC in rank, so my interest in seeing this program take flight is keen. As the Safety Chief, I am concerned about placing captains into a position for which they have little preparation. The BC’s act as the incident commander for large fires and other catastrophes. They are responsible for scene safety and must recognize all of the millions of things that can go wrong before they go wrong. Experienced incident commanders and safety officers can recognize the signs of an imminent building collapse during a major fire. Inexperienced ones may not quickly recognize this hazard, or if they do they may not act quickly enough to protect the fire fighters working within.
The format that I envision for this BC training program is a weekly 1.5 to two hour session on a variety of rotating topics. Thanks to our rotating schedule, by setting this session up on a particular day (Friday mornings for example), we would be able to train every BC once a month. A monthly training topic could be selected and the same trainer could present the topic every Friday for three successive weeks, covering all three shifts and allowing every BC to receive the designated class. This is still in the planning stage, but hopefully it can become part of our routine.
Until next time – be safe!
Click on the links below to read Safety Chief Bancroft's previous Firefighter Safety Blogs:
PORTLAND FIRE & RESCUE Always Ready, Always There
June 1, 2010