Rule 4: Relentless Follow-Up

I am fortunate to be able visit a few different fire-EMS departments each year and check out how they operate. From departments on New York's Long Island to the West Coast, it is difficult for me not to stop in and say hello and, if the opportunity exists, to watch as members of the hosting department apply their trade skills.

Universally, I would say that the departments do a great job of following through with the tasks at hand. For instance, when "incident command" calls on the radio for "Division 2" working a hoseline fighting fire on the second floor and there is no response, the process is typically consistent from one agency to another. A second radio call is made in an attempt to raise the attention of the operating companies. Once that second attempt is made, usually a Mayday is transmitted and a long list of reactionary steps is taken to locate, protect and remove the companies that are in distress. Fortunately, the root cause of this Mayday rescue activity is a communications problem of one type or another and the operating units were not in too much distress.

The point of this story is that we are great at "relentlessly following up" at most emergency incidents, when our members lives are at risk. However, we get side tracked when less-interesting situations occur (perhaps the routine issues are the toughest) and follow-up is a lot more difficult, but still very important organizationally and professionally.

Follow-Up Has Its Rewards

At a seminar on quality improvement, a city manager mentioned that the city he worked for had received the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for being one of the world's best-run cities. It was obvious to see the pride in the face and voice of this public-sector executive.

After discussing the award for a few minutes, the manager joked and pointed out to the group that among the qualifications that his city possessed was the ability to return the one telephone call that the evaluation team placed to this large southwestern city's switchboard late on a hot summer afternoon. As the Baldrige evaluation team would tell this city manager much later in the evaluation process, 10 calls were placed to 10 major cities around the world in a way that would generate a return call. Only two cities were willing to follow up and learn of the opportunity to be declared one of the world's best-run cities — and his was one of the two. There were many, many more performance measures that were evaluated and the entire process took over six months to complete, but the very first step to be considered was to simply follow up and return a telephone call.

I had a similar experience when I worked in Atlanta, GA. The Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. had selected the greater Atlanta area to be the host region for the second phase of the nationwide kickoff of its now very popular Heritage Program. I received a telephone call from one of FFIC's vice presidents, Daryl Siry, who wanted to set up a meeting to discuss how his company would provide equipment and other resources for the department and other agencies in the metro area.

I was very skeptical about agreeing to hosting this vague planning meeting and the "too good to be true" opportunity caution lamp lit as Daryl described this event. In fact, Mr. Daryl had already set up a time and a date that he and his team would arrive at my office to review their plan. Very lucky for Atlanta Fire-Rescue that I was available and able to meet with the Heritage Team with little notice and little background information. Having met with dozens of sales folks, I was thinking that there had to be a "hook" of some type. Well, the FFIC Heritage Program was exactly what Daryl had described. The Atlanta metro area was awarded nearly $500,000 in various grants and Atlanta Fire-Rescue was the recipient of nearly a quarter of a million bucks, simply because we followed up on a request to meet.

When Follow-Up Slips

The reality of failing to follow up on a specific issue may have net results from "no harm, no foul" to total public trust breakdown. There are stories of failing to follow up on issues that are of epic proportion. When you make a commitment inside or outside your organization, there is always someone that is expecting you to perform the obligation on time and accurately. No excuses are acceptable and to regain the trust lost is difficult at best.

The District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department has a very aggressive smoke/carbon monoxide detector installation program. As fire chief, some of the worst news I can get is that we committed to installing a detector and failed to do so in the timeline agreed to with our customer. Concerns like liability, public trust and agency integrity all come into question when we failed to meet our obligation. The senior officers who oversee this program are regularly reminded of the importance and consequence of failing to meet the agreed schedule. Further, I conduct spot checks on our "Smoke Detector" hotline at least monthly. Finally, I attend many community and civic club meetings to sample the work effort first hand. You sure can learn a lot by just asking a few questions and listening to the answers.


In closing, consider using some type of structured tracking system to follow up on your projects. There is a project-management software package built into the Microsoft Outlook program. I am sure that there are dozens of other ones on the shelf at most computer stores as well as in-house developed systems and even paper forms. Our project-management tracking system helps us to guide the agendas of many meetings as well. The idea is that you have some way of tracking and accounting for everything that you have agreed to do either inside or outside your agency.

I am certain that most fire-EMS departments have large collections of checklists that allows for effective follow up at alarms of all types. If you need ideas with various incident checklists, please let us know to have our package e-mailed to you (e-mail us at The checklist will be discussed again in a future column that discusses consistent performance in a future edition of the magazine.

The key to any such system (electronic or paper) is to use it routinely and make the report available to as many folks inside the department as possible. And, of course, the person or group responsible for completing a task or project must have the access to the tracking form/system for it to be effective. The closing thought is an anonymous quote and that is, "Follow-up is the Breakfast of Champions."

DENNIS L. RUBIN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Previously, Rubin was chief of the Atlanta, GA, Fire and Rescue Department. He holds a bachelor of science degree in fire administration from the University of Maryland and an associate in applied science degree in fire science management from Northern Virginia Community College, and is enrolled in the Fire and Emergency Management Administration program at the graduate school of Oklahoma State University. Rubin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officers Program, is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and has obtained the Chief Fire Officer (CFO) designation from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He is an adjunct faculty member of the National Fire Academy author of the book Rube's Rules for Survival.