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.


  • We deny that a problem exists. (Problem, I don’t got no stinking problems.)
  • We ignore the problem hoping that it will go away. (This has been my longstanding approach to weight control)
  • We seek to put the blame on someone else.
  • We blame ourselves. (mea culpa)

None of these things work. No they merely postpone the actual handling of the problem. 

Let me suggest that the first step in problem solving is to actually admit that a problem exists. You stare the problem in the eye and decide that something must be done. You must be honest with yourself and own up to the matter at hand. Done not hide from the problem and do not go into denial. 

Once you have owned up to the fact that there is a problem, you must then confirm that it really exists. Part of this is to define the problem in written form. You must then identify and define the actual causal factors which make up the heart of the problem. These are the things which form the root cause of the problem. It is important for you to remember:

  • Don’t get hung up on the individual symptoms
  • Use the symptoms as guideposts
  • Work your way back to the real problem

It is in part three of the problem-solving formula that you must work to target the actual things must be addressed. Once you have identified the actual problem it is important to remember that you don’t get hung up on the individual symptoms. Use them as guideposts. Work your way back to the real problem.

Once you have done this you can then begin to develop alternative solutions to what you have identified. Let me remind you not to jump at the first conclusion which comes to mind. You must work to get the whole story. Gather the facts as you find them and don’t embark on a witch hunt.

It is also important to review your department’s records and find out what rules and customs apply. There may be policies, procedures, and operational guidelines that can help you. It is important to speak with the people involved and gather the opinions, facts and feelings of those concerned.

Once you have identified all of the possible information on causes and symptoms you will need to decide the way in which to attack the problem and who will be responsible. The choices are:

  • Solve it yourself
  • Call a conference
  • Delegate to another person
  • Form a committee
  • Use an outside consultant

Regardless of the choice from the list above, there are a number of tasks which must be undertaken. You must work to fit the facts together. Consider their interaction and then review department policies and regulations to see if solutions exist within the framework of your existing policies. As you work to develop your alternative solutions you must consider the potential impacts upon your people as well as your organization. You do not want to make things worse. 

Now you are ready to begin the hunt for alternatives which might serve as solutions for the problem you have identified. Let me suggest that it is critical to bring people together to assist you in your hunt for a solution. Brainstorming among the people you have assembled is an excellent way to proceed. 

There is one critical question which must be answered in the affirmative. Are the alternatives realistic? Building a solution which does not bear on the problem is quite a bit like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. Once you have made the choice of an appropriate alternative, do it. Do not study it to death. Do not bury it in the midst of endless discussions. Just do it and then see what happens.

There are a few things which you must do to insure that you are properly evaluating the manner in which your alternative is working (or not). They are:

  • How soon should you follow up?
  • How often should you check?
  • Be sure to watch for changes in output, attitudes, and relationships

It is critical to monitor the way in which your alternative is being implemented. Once the feedback is in you can then answer the critical question of whether your alternative is working or not. If it is, then graciously accept a round of congratulations on a job well done. If not then go to one of the other alternatives you developed. If none of these work then you must begin to step one and insure that you are really looking at the right things. Then you get to go through the whole system again.