Carter: Have You Solved Any Good Problems Lately?

Many firefighters and fire chiefs avoid decision-making because it is hard word, but it is also rewarding work.

Thanks to my many years of experience I am firmly convinced of the fact that there is one skill which is critical for all of us to possess. It is the ability to solve problems. Each and every one of you has faced a problem at one time or another. If you are more than one day old, you have faced a problem (or two or more). Most of us are veterans of the barrage of problems which each of us faces in any given year. 

Before going any further I think it is important to define what a problem is. I will offer a few for you to consider. They are:

  • A matter proposed for solution
  • A perplexing or difficult matter
  • A difficult person
  • Something about which you want to learn more
  • A roadblock to your success
  • Something you have to handle
  • A decision you must make
  • Something you would love to avoid but cannot

As you review the list, please reflect upon the degree to which you can influence the outcomes of any of these. One of the things which I have preached for many years now is the thought that you should not waste time and effort trying to control things which are beyond your ability to control. However, since there is so much to do let me suggest that you will need to focus your efforts on things you can influence.

It is important to stress that good leaders are always sensitive to their environment. They keep an eye on things and look out for the presence of storm clouds on the horizon. I say this because some really small things can suddenly grow out of control if you don’t pay attention to the world around you. You will then be required to act to solve the problems as they occur. 

I believe that it is also critically important to remember that you cannot simply ignore things. Problems don’t go away just because you ignore them. They tend to get worse. Sadly this is something I have seen up close and personal. Someone once told me I had a weight problem. I ignored their advice and the rest is history. A somewhat chubby history. 

What are the parts of a problem? There are the symptoms of the problem and then there are the actual causal factors. In many cases these could also be called the hints and the clues that something is amiss. Let me give an example of a symptom.

Your fire department conducts drills twice a month. Over the past couple of years you have seen a decrease in the level of participation by your department members. During your early years in the department people looked forward to these drills and they served as a central focus in your organization. This is no longer the case. What is wrong?

There are those who would say that the attendance drop is the problem. I say it is a symptom of something else, something deeper. Has the emphasis on the importance of the drills been changed? Do the current officers seem like they are just going through the motions of conducting the drills. Has the content of the drills changed? Are the drills boring and redundant? Do you see where I am headed here? When the emphasis on the drills comes from the top and the support is strong and positive from the top, attendance will be much better.

Heck I have been a training officer and I know the need to make things both educational and interesting. I can remember what one of my mentors told me many years ago that he and I were in the business of training the people who had grown up as part of the television generation. He and I decided that we had to spice up our standard, ongoing, training curriculum. A bit of humor here, a laugh there, and some real war stories to share what we had learned about the actual world of firefighting. I think that we headed off a lot of problems by taking a proactive approach to making our training courses interesting.

Back to the world of problems my friends. What are some of the things we try to use when it comes to problems? Here are a couple of things that I have seen on many different occasions:

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