How do you help firefighters who are making the transition to company officer? It takes planning and education, said Steve Prziborowski, a deputy chief with the Santa Clara County (Calif.) Fire Department, where he has been employed since 1995. Prziborowski also is an instructor for the Chabot College Fire Technology Program, past president of the Northern California Training Officers Association, and frequent speaker on successfully transitioning to leadership roles. He also is a member of the . FIRE CHIEF spoke with him to learn more about the dos and don’ts of making the transition.
What is the biggest mistake a firefighter makes when transitioning to company or chief officer?
Not preparing is the biggest mistake. It is a challenging to jump from a firefighter without responsibility to a leadership role with a lot of responsibility. That’s a big transition, and often newly promoted officers don’t understand the liability and responsibility they will have on their shoulders.
Why are future officers often unprepared for the new responsibilities?
I think a lot of people wait for the department to provide them training, and that is impossible for financial and time reasons. So, firefighters wanting to move up the ranks must properly prepare themselves through education, training and finding a mentor.
How do new officers set boundaries or move out of the buddy role?
Going from buddy to boss is tough. You are still sleeping and eating with each other. You can’t disconnect, but you have to remember you are the supervisor or the designated adult. That’s the tough part, because there is a time to be a supervisor and a time to be a crew member. When you are having dinner and cooking dinner you can be [part of the] crew, having fun. But if it turns to negative — like inappropriate comments or jokes — that’s when to be the supervisor. I’ve seen too many company officers continue with the joke and take it to the next level, because they don’t want to offend anyone or other reasons. It’s tough to create those boundaries.
What type of administrative training is needed before a firefighter is promoted to chief officer?
It’s the typical management skills, including planning, organizing, leading, evaluation and others. Chief officers manage the firehouse, the apparatus and the personnel. So, as much as firefighters hate the “administrative” word, it is a necessary function that is not going away. They will need basic budgeting skills, basic organizational skills, the ability to plan out their day, and the ability to be flexible on the fly. They also have to creatively get things done.
What are some examples of failing to transition well into the role of chief officer?
Mostly, it is failure to understand what he or she is getting into. This happens when someone fails to talk to someone who is in the position, who has been in and now is above that grade, and get his or her feedback and suggestions for success. Talk to them and learn about what their mistakes were and what they’ve learned. You have to do your research to learn what you are getting into versus just taking the written test.
How does a firefighter successfully transition to company officer?
Some of the things I’ve mentioned already, like researching. The biggest thing I’ve done was to prepare for the position. Most people just prepare for the test and getting through that written test. Instead of being solely focused on the test, focus on preparing for the job. The problem is if you prepare for a test, you just memorize policies. During the test, we don’t just have you regurgitate policies. Now, we actually have you apply them. So memorize but also prepare through speaking to colleagues and finding a mentor.
It also is important to be well-rounded. Sometimes, company officers focus on firefighting — which is good. But it is only 5% of the job, so they have to consider the administrative and supervisor side as well.
Would it be beneficial for firefighters to map out a career path to chief officer from the onset of their career?
I totally encourage that because when you are a brand new firefighter, sometimes it is tough to know what you want to do 20 to 30 years from now, because you are so focused on getting through the probation period. But, that’s the time. I knew from a young age that I wanted to promote through the ranks, but I also knew I had to go one step at a time and learn as much as I could. If you want to be a fire chief in today’s world, you honestly need to start form the day you are hired. It takes awhile to get there. It takes education and training experience. It is a long journey and you can’t wait half way through your career to start to plan for it, or you might not get there.
From the chief perspective, I think it is good as chiefs to encourage career development and always trying to provide whatever training, education and mentoring opportunities we can to find those people who will be good chief officers and continuously try to develop them and encourage them. They are the future.