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...


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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.