The fire service in the United States has a lot in common—organizationally—with the U.S. military. I should preface that statement, though, by admitting that my experience with both professions is limited to a relatively small subset of each. In the Navy, I served in the SEAL Teams, a small community that cannot and should not be used as a typical example of aspects of the larger U.S. Navy, let alone of the wider U.S. military. The SEALs are a unique subset of the Navy, and even more so of the larger U.S. military.
In the fire service, similarly, I currently serve in a paid, professional, municipal fire department, while the majority of firefighters in America (approximately 70 percent) are volunteers who do not live and work full-time, as paid professionals, at city fire stations. So, maybe I should rephrase my opening statement as such: the paid/professional, municipal (i.e., not wildland) fire service in the United States has a lot in common—organizationally—with the U.S. Navy SEAL community.
Both communities rely on a strict chain of command, and on the theories of “unity of command” and “span of control.” Unity of command means that you report up to, and are directed by, one commander/boss/leader, who also reports up to one commander/boss/leader, until you reach the top of the chain of command.
If a Battalion Chief, for example, wants a fire crew to accomplish a task on the fire ground, he assigns it to the company officer of the fire crew, who then directs his crew in working to accomplish the assigned task. Similarly, if a Joint Special Operations Task Force commander in a war zone wants a SEAL platoon under his joint command to accomplish a certain mission, he tasks the platoon commander, who then directs his SEAL platoon in accomplishing the assigned mission.
The theory of span of control simply means that one commander will only have so many subordinates under his or her tactical/organizational control, such that he or she can manage them effectively in whatever operation or task they are undertaking.
A typical fire captain, for example, has three-to-five firefighters under his direct tactical control on the fire ground, while a typical SEAL officer at the platoon level has roughly seven-to-eight SEALs under his direct tactical control (those numbers are subject to variance depending on the era, mission, etcetera). This span of control allows for the maximum and most-efficient command of personnel, and facilitates the most effective tactical control of an operational unit.
A significant organizational difference between the two professions, on the other hand, is how officers are selected to command fire and SEAL units, respectively. In the SEAL Teams, officers come through either the United States Naval Academy, the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC), the Navy’s Officer Candidate School (OCS), or through an enlisted-to-officer program. This latter path— enlisted-to-officer—accounts for very few of the SEAL community’s platoon-level officers. Most come through an officer training program that does not require (or even provide) prior-enlisted service in the U.S. Navy.
[Note: For the complete novice on all matters U.S. military, enlisted personnel do all of the actual work, while officers do all of the bossing around and bearing of the ultimate responsibility of command. That is simplifying it, to be sure, but the distinction is sufficient here as a baseline of knowledge to understand the difference.]
In contrast to how SEAL officers are selected, almost the exact opposite process occurs in the selection of fire service officers, at least in my department. Fire officers, at all levels—from Lieutenant to Chief of the Department—almost always and exclusively come through the firefighting ranks, having served in at least some capacity, for some length of time, on the front lines of firefighting. The same is not the case at all for most SEAL officers, most of whom never served in an enlisted capacity in the Navy, let alone as an operator in a SEAL platoon.
To this author, and based solely on my own personal experiences in each service, which is admittedly limited, the fire service officer selection process is far superior to that which selects Navy SEAL officers. I have gone through both processes and came out of the fire officer selection process far more prepared to command firefighters than I did coming out of NROTC and BUD/S training to command SEALs. I am not saying that those chosen to be SEAL officers are not of the highest quality as individuals (they are), but rather that the process does not work as well as it should to produce the most effective junior SEAL leaders.
Now, admittedly, some of the differences in my own personal experience can be attributed to my current age, maturity level, and life experiences. I was 23 years old when I finished BUD/S training and became a Navy SEAL officer, with only college, NROTC training, and SEAL training behind me. I was in no way a mature, fully-formed, knowledgeable SEAL platoon officer. Nor, to be fair, did the community expect me to be at that point. I had another junior officer above me, who had a few years of experience, and senior enlisted SEALs to guide me in all things operational.
Both of those backstops were fine, and they worked well enough, but really, it was like putting a rookie NFL linebacker in charge of the entire team’s defense. I had to learn my core job (being a SEAL) and learn to be an effective SEAL officer, all while commanding an elite operational military element. It is not ideal, to say the least.
In the fire service, on the other hand, I served as a front-line firefighter for five years, on both fire engines (pumpers) and ladder trucks, on the water rescue team, and operating out-of-title (performing one promoted position up) driving the fire apparatus, pumping them at fires, and operating the aerial ladders and other equipment—all while fighting dozens of fires and gaining years’ worth of experience in the process.
I then tested for, was selected, and was promoted to a Rescue Specialist position, in which I trained for and performed technical rescue operations for another three years, while also serving out-of-title as a company officer on engines, rescue trucks, and aerial ladder trucks, while continuing to fight fires. In other words, I gained almost eight years’ worth of experience doing the work of firefighting at all operational levels up to and including Lieutenant before I actually promoted to that position. Contrast that to the SEAL Teams, where I gained exactly zero years worth of experience operating as a SEAL before being put in command of other SEALs.
To me, that contrast is striking, both on paper and in how it has translated into being an effective fire service officer versus a less-effective (in my opinion) SEAL officer. Now, again, I have more life experiences as a 40-something fire captain than I did as a 20-something SEAL officer, which definitely helps. Still, all things considered, the fire service path seems far superior to the SEAL officer path, if one is looking to produce junior leaders who are competent, respected, effective, and successful in their roles—from day one.
I am not calling into question the quality of SEAL junior officers—I served with and know many who were and are outstanding leaders—but rather, I am only suggesting that there is perhaps a better way to cultivate and grow these junior leaders. Perhaps the military, and the SEAL community, in particular, should look to the fire service as a model to emulate when it comes to promoting capable and experienced junior officers.