Command Post: Riding the Right-Front Seat: Tips for Solving Problems

Many of my columns are about problem-solving, usually at the organizational level. This month’s column is different. This time, I discuss problem-solving at the personal level, in situations where you don’t have the time or distance to shield you from the impact of your problem-solving decisions.

In the workaday world of your fire department, you interact continually with the small group of people with whom you are assigned. In a career department, those of you riding the right-front seat usually deal with the same firefighters on a continuing basis. This familiarity helps you become familiar with each person’s individual role in the success (or failure) of your unit. This knowledge can help you monitor people so that you may be able to head off problems before they grow to a disruptive level.

Volunteer fire departments present a different challenge. You never really know who will end up riding the right-front seat. In addition, you can never forecast who your crew will be if you end up riding the right-front seat on one of your department’s firefighting units. This means you are going to have to learn more about the people in your organization so you can assess the people with whom you end up serving.

This is not so great a problem in fire departments that operate from a single station. And if you think about it, even in those situations where there are two or more stations, the problems you face will be problems created by members of the units that are responding from your station. It is not common for members from one station to respond and ride the right-front seat of units assigned to another station. This is not to say that it cannot happen, but the chances of that are not all that great.

You need to be continually scanning the environment in your station or among the members of your group. You must assess the attitudes and motivation of your people on a continuing basis. Your environmental scan should take the occasional look at the world around you, for nothing you and your people do occurs in a vacuum, devoid of the influence of the outside world. Doing this lets you see the storm clouds of trouble as they begin to develop out there on the horizon.

Even at those times when you have a hunch that something may be wrong it could take you some time to put the pieces of the puzzle together. However, once you make your decision that something is amiss, it is then time to begin the process of solving the problem you have identified. Let me share an important piece of information with you here. I suggest that should you ignore it, you do so at your own peril. Regardless of the number of people living within your “right-front-seat” world, the process of problem-solving is the same as it is for situations on the major level. Whether there are two people or twelve people, you must still use the same process.

Your first step is to define the problem. Be sure that what you are looking at is an actual problem and not a symptom of a problem. Treat the pinched nerve that is causing the headache instead of just taking aspirin for the pain.

Perhaps the attitude among your team members suddenly takes a turn of the cold-shoulder variety. Let us say, for example, that your normally tight-knit group suddenly finds itself shunning one member of the team, excluding them from the coffee table conversations and generally doing what they can to stay away from that person. This is not out of the question. I have seen it happen.


Don’t ignore problems

As the right-front-seat leader, it is up to you to find out what’s going on. Let me assure you of one critical fact of life. If you choose to ignore a problem, it will not go away. I can almost promise you that it will get worse. In a situation like this you need to collect information that can help you in getting to the root cause of the problem. Until you do this, you will not be able to develop any sort of solution to the problem at hand. This is truly the first part of solving problems of any kind.

Something which seems to happen more often than I would like to see involves people trying to fit solutions to the symptoms of the problem rather than addressing the problem. Let me offer an example of what I mean. Suppose that your unit has had a number of occasions where it took a little too long to get out. Or how about if you continually face situations where you leave the station without having confirmed the address to which you are responding?

In this case the symptoms involve being beaten to your assignments by units that are more distant. Or, worse yet, you call “on location” at a place that is not the true location, but it is where you thought you were going. Is this an internal problem or an external problem? Regardless of which of these it is, when you are riding the right-front seat, it is your problem.

During your initial investigation, speak with every member of your company. First speak to each person privately and get their take on the problem that you have identified. Ask simple questions in a non-threatening manner, take notes and assemble your data.

You should ask questions about whether each person heard the dispatch message and their perception of what they believe they heard. Then ask them questions about their familiarity with your response district. It may be that people are not paying enough attention to the dispatch message or that they are not familiar with the street network in your area. Either can lead to the problem that you identified.

Are there problems in perceiving the dispatch message? Your investigation must find an answer to that question. Is the problem the lateness of your unit in arriving on location or is it possible that the people on your team have not fully learned (or been required by you to learn) the streets in their district? Remember, if you did not teach them or monitor their learning process then it is your fault. It could be that your investigation lays the blame at your feet. If so, stand up, take the blame and work to correct the problem.

I know of one fire department that had this problem, but on a somewhat larger scale. The problem started on the small scale when it was noted that there was an uneven response to department calls among the volunteer personnel. Many times, the person riding the right-front seat had to roll out the front door with less than a full complement of troops. This led to problems for the right-front-seat leader when called on to perform more tasks than there were crew members to deliver..

As the investigation went forward, it centered on the messages being sent through the paging system. In some cases, pagers were not activated by the dispatch signal. In other cases, people thought they were hearing one address when in fact it was another. Or in the more extreme cases, the message was completely garbled and unreadable. Responses were being delayed and members of the department, including the chief, were not being alerted to the department’s responses.

Unfortunately, the problem reached the level of finger-pointing between the fire department and the police dispatch center. The dispute could have become ugly, but cooler heads prevailed and a joint committee formed to conduct a total system review. The committee asked the company that was servicing the communications system for a full accounting. After the vendor proved unable to come up with a solution, it was decided that a house-cleaning was in order.

Look for alternatives

To get the right solution to a problem, it is critical for you to generate alternative options to use in solving the problem. In this case, it was quickly determined that a new vendor was needed. The original vendor lost the contract and a new one was hired.

Guess what? As part of its initial investigation of the system, the new vendor quickly came up with the cause of the problem and repaired the system within a week. The fact-finding mission identified problems that led to the hunt for a new vendor. The new vendor then solved the problem by correcting the problem the original vendor could not find.

As you work to solve problems, generate alternative options. Never jump at the first thought that pops into your mind as you develop alternatives. Evaluate the alternatives. Many people get hung up at this phase because they are so busy pondering all of the possibilities that they never make a decision. Pick the one that seems to be the best fit for the situation at hand, then do it.

The final stage of the process is simple. Check your feedback to see how the decision is working. If the problem seems to have gone away, pat yourself on the back, thank the members of your crew for their help and move on. However, if the situation does not improve, then use one of your other alternatives.

The object here is to evaluate the success of your choice. If it is getting the job done for you, then your decision is correct. If it does not solve your problem, choose another alternative and see how things go. If none of the alternatives work, you may have to start the process over. n