"Going Big" Demands Focusing on Fundamentals

Top-performing fire and EMS organizations hold to very high standards. These standards range throughout the organization from the chief operating officer down to frontline personnel. More importantly, these core standards are enforced and enforced consistently.

Professional behavioral acquiescence, adherence to laws and codes along with moral and ethical character are all important components of organizational values and standards. They also do the little things right. They do these little, or basic, things perfectly every time they are called to do so.

In my experience, the demise of great organizations is born out of an erosion of fundamental, core capabilities and implementation of basic services “where the rubber meets the road.” Fire and EMS organizations must arrive at the scene of emergency calls for assistance quickly, safely and efficiently every time they are requested. An ambulance is lost while responding to the scene of a cardiac event and the patient dies. Several vehicles are placed out of service due to the lack of a comprehensive maintenance program and implementation of a sound rolling capital replacement plan. Failure to pull hose, raise ladders, extricate trapped victims efficiently and effectively or treat victims with respect regardless of their standing in the community or their religion or race erodes citizen creditability and confidence.


Pays big dividends

Let’s look at an example of how performing the basics pay big dividends. I believe one of the most underrated relationships in fire and EMS response deployment operations is the driver/operator and company officer. Some negative outcomes of poorly trained or prepared driver/operators and a lack of synergy between the two follow:

One of the top three causes of line-of-duty deaths of firefighters year after year occurs while firefighters are responding to, on the scene of or returning from incident responses. Numerous injuries occur while boarding, dismounting or accessing apparatus and EMS transport units. Poorly located or deployment of warning devices (cones, flares, lights, etc.) increase the likelihood of a vehicle crashing into operating units on scene.

Further, protracted response times due to drivers and front-line officers unfamiliar with streets, numbering systems and/or the lack of current mapping or Global Positioning System/geographic information system (GPS/GIS) technology create situations where unnecessary fire loss, fire deaths or injuries may occur. Embarrassments and an erosion of public trust and confidence in the local fire department can become the result of these failures to perform fundamental, core responsibilities effectively and efficiently. Driver/operators unfamiliar with the location or operation of equipment carried on their apparatus cause delays in completing critical tasks. Interruptions or failures in the fundamental operation of apparatus due to a lack of training, poor or inconsistent routine daily vehicle inspections and follow-up maintenance can create dangerous firefighter and civilian risks.


Awesome responsibility

Operating emergency apparatus enroute to a call for assistance is an awesome responsibility. Only the most trusted, well-trained and practiced individuals should be provided this opportunity and privilege.

We should realize that not only are the lives of those onboard the emergency vehicle dependent on the safe operation of the vehicle by our driver/operator, but those who may cross the path or operate in the vicinity of our responding vehicle. We have witnessed many tragic crashes where both first-response personnel and citizens lost their lives or were seriously injured as a result of collisions with responding vehicles.

An estimated 69,400 firefighter injuries occurred in the line of duty in 2012, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reported. While responding to or returning from incidents, 4,190 firefighters were injured and 20 firefighters were killed in the line of duty, accounting for 30% of firefighter line-of-duty deaths in 2012 (NFPA 2012). We have not discussed the impact of the cost of damage to a rolling capital investment will have on the budget or insurance rates, if not self-insured.

Understanding what we have discussed to this point, it is clear that vehicle operations bring significant risk to our personnel, our organization and the government we act as an agent for in providing public safety services.

The company officer is ultimately responsible for the safe and efficient operation, placement and ensuring that vehicles are properly maintained. Yes, it is the driver/operator behind the wheel; however, company officers must instill and insist on safe operation of vehicles and ensure the vehicles receive proper care and maintenance.


Building trust

So what does this all mean? What should it mean to leadership? It means that if we cannot perform the little things right, we will never accomplish the big things.

Why? We will not be viewed as an organization the political leadership or our constituents will support. When we propose new programs costing taxpayers additional funds, little support will be denied. Although we will not hear it, behind closed doors people in power or influence will be heard saying, “Those folks over in fire are a joke. The other day, they came up with this great scheme to create a USAR team and they can’t seem to get to an address without wrecking a vehicle or getting lost. How will they manage a sophisticated and complex operation like urban search and rescue?” This is a simple truth that spells stagnation for a local fire or EMS organization.

So, if we are thinking big, we must first ensure we do everything possible to see the troops do little things perfectly every time they are called to do so.