Having worked at several levels within the fire service from firefighter to strategic manager, I recognise that it was an operational watch manager (sub officer) role which excited me the most when I was first promoted.
From the start of my career that was the level I aspired to. As a firefighter I would observe the person sitting in the officer-in-charge seat of the appliance. I would wonder what they were thinking as they started to plan for the incident we were proceeding to.
Some appeared calm and confident that previous experience would enable them to deal effectively with the incident; whereas others would appear more nervous and on edge.
As I studied for the statutory promotion exams, I learnt about what incident commanders should be considering en-route to an incident. The logical sequence of considerations made perfect sense to me, which further confirmed my aspiration for promotion.
By the time I achieved promotion to sub officer after six years in the service I had become quite impatient. Reflecting on that experience, my advice to anyone with similar aspirations is; ‘if you have the capability for the role and you work hard, it is very likely to happen’.
The only variable is ‘when’ it will happen. If it doesn’t happen as quickly as you would like, be patient and don’t lose faith in your aspiration.
As both a middle and strategic manager I have recognised how important the watch manager role is to the effectiveness of the service. The watch managers lead and manage the majority of the staff in the organisation.
Whilst there may be managers in headquarters developing the service aims, priorities, policies, procedures and training materials etc; it is the watch manager who brings them to life by ensuring they are understood and implemented by the staff they lead.
Additionally, the watch manager is the front face of the service. The majority of incidents are managed at watch manager level and the watch manager is likely to lead teams in prevention, protection and community engagement activities.
Therefore the public is likely to judge the entire service on the performance of the watch manager and their team.
There are many aspects to the role including; preparing crews for operational response through gathering risk information, training and exercising.
There are also the pastoral roles to consider; ensuring that all staff are safe, have adequate welfare arrangements, are competent to perform their role; as well as coaching and mentoring staff for future promotion.
An important part of the role is to create and maintain a cohesive team, with all members having trust in everyone’s ability to perform their role.
This includes the team having trust in the ability of their leader.
Experience has taught me that the key elements for success in difficult situations are; teamwork, communications and leadership. Without effective leadership the team will never perform to its full potential.
An important point to remember is that being an effective leader is not the same as being a team member with a different coloured helmet. There will be times when you have to make decisions which may not be popular with all team members.
This does not mean the decision is wrong.
Such occasions can challenge your personal resilience, as there is no place to hide from the team. If you don’t possess high levels of personal resilience, then think carefully about whether you are suitable for the role. Everyone suffers when leadership is weak; the service, the team and the leader.
The watch manager is crucial to the success of the service and the role should be extremely rewarding and satisfying at a personal level. Whether you are using the role as a stepping-stone to middle and strategic management, or there for the long haul, it is important not to lose sight of your responsibilities.
If you are not fully ‘on your game’ every day, the team will not perform to their full potential. The importance of a ‘good’ watch manager can never be overstated. They really do make a difference.