One thing is for sure, the badge doesn’t come with instructions when you get promoted. The role of the Company Officer has evolved greatly over the last 10-15 years. The amount of responsibility seems to grow each day. And on of the toughest parts of being a company officer is navigating through personnel issues and when it involves behavioral health, it makes it all the more complicated.
One of the issues that we must overcome is how to handle those situations where we have an employee who is having issues in their marriage, asks for help for their drinking problem, or admits to the Company Officer that they have a substance abuse issue. In both classroom discussion and recent promotional preparation training sessions where the scenario involves an employee suspected of being under the influence I have received the same talking points: policy is discussed, notifying the Battalion and/or the Administration is mentioned, taking the employee for testing is mentioned, and interviewing witnesses is covered (some never speak to the employee in question). The one thing that is consistently left out? The employee with the problem. In some cases, the employee isn’t even addressed.
Understanding that policy must be followed in certain situations, however we must also understand that doesn’t mean we turn our back on those who trust us to lead them. Someone drops this on you, you have an obligation to the employee as their officer to help them in this difficult time. And we have to understand if the employee is in violation of the policy, such as being at work intoxicated, then you also have an obligation to the public to ensure you aren’t putting them at risk.Most policies are clear on this, it must be reported. It is an uncomfortable situation. And covering it up creates the opportunity to further complicate things and places several careers on the line. But reporting it doesn’t mean we turn our back to the employee. Don’t lie to the people who you are leading, let them know who you are required to contact and the process involved but also let them know that you will be with them every step of the way. If that means you have to contact a therapist for them then do so. If they need a ride to an AA meeting, help to get them there. Encourage them to be honest and ensure that they get help and take care of them.Our obligations as officers are as much (if not more) to the employee in these situations as it is to the public and to the organization. Often times it isn’t the actual act that gets people fired, it’s the cover up and lying that seals it. Not every issue requires notification of someone else, make sure you know when you have to report and to who.
These are complicated issues and this is why you were made an officer. When we have these situations, it is in our culture to keep them within the four walls of the fire station. Handle it ourselves. And most issues and stress reactions we can. We are very resilient and we go a great job of helping each other. But it is those complicated ones, the ones that quickly spiral out of control and before we realize it, we are in the deep end of the pool. These are the ones that tends to get us in trouble. Our people depend on us to take care of them and sometimes that means reaching beyond the four walls and asking for help.
The process to help those who follow us isn’t as complicated as the issues themselves. And the Stress First Aid* model by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation simplifies it very well. Check on your people, get to know them. Know what is going on in their lives and build trust with them so they are comfortable coming to you when things aren’t going well. If they are having an off day or seem distracted, find out why. Bad call? Talk to them about it and reassure them about the decisions that were made. If they are going through a hard time, follow up with them and see how you can help them. Coordinate and connect them to the resources that they need, whatever that may look like. Do they need EAP? Peer support? Just someone to talk to? Time off? Financial advice? Or what about professional help? Get them in the right direction and with the right people. At the end of the day we are firefighters and not therapists. This is a complicated subject that may require someone with a little more expertise.
In addition to check and coordinate, if they are having a stress reaction, provide cover and help to calm them. If it is a loss of faith in the skills, ability, and self-esteem then help to restore their competence and confidence. At the end of the day all we are talking about is taking the time to pay attention and talk to those who trust us and to just show that we care. We don’t have to know how to fix the issues, we just need to know how to listen, how to support them, and where to get the help and to let them know that they aren’t alone. That goes along way.
This is part twoof a three-part series. Part one looked at the recruit and Part three will look at the Chief Officer’s role in firefighter behavioral health and stress.
*For more information on Stress First Aid please go to www.everyonegoeshome.com or www.fireherolearningnetwork.com
About the Author
SIDNEY LUCAS began his fire service career as a volunteer with the Belle and Cedar Grove Volunteer Fire Departments (WV) in 1999 and currently serves as a Lieutenant with the Newport News Fire Department (VA) and is assigned as the Department Safety Officer. He has been with the department for over 11 years where he has served in various capacities. He is a former Chief of Quinton Volunteer Fire and EMS (VA) and a veteran of the United States Navy, serving onboard the USS Wasp (LHD-1) as part of the Crash and Salvage Team supporting the Global War on Terrorism. Sidney is a graduate of the Virginia Fire Officer’s Academy and currently serves on staff.
He holds an AAS in Fire Science and a BS in Occupational Safety and Health and is currently pursuing a MA in Management and Organizational Leadership. He is certified at the Instructor II and Fire Officer III level through the Virginia Department of Fire Programs along with being an instructor and a Virginia State Advocate for the National Fallen Firefighter’s Foundation. He also co-owns Colonial Training Solutions, a training and consultation company that specializes in leadership and safety. The