Messages from the “Dark Side” Do What You Say

Nov. 1, 2003
About six years ago, I had a neat opportunity to be a part of a workshop panel at the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) annual conference. The session topic explored the fire chief's liability during incident operations. It was a treat to serve on this panel with two barred (certified) lawyers.

One counselor had been practicing law full time after serving for two years with a major metropolitan fire department (talk about a locker-room lawyer at the fire station). The other gentleman was the full-time director of public safety for a small southern town who also just happened to be trained and credentialed as an attorney at law. I, of course, sat with this distinguished (notice that since they are both attorneys, I avoided the cheap joke of calling them "extinguished") panel to discuss various laws, regulations and standards that must be followed to prevent a visit from a member of the local bar association.

The attorneys described my role as the "prescriptive" element of the program. My component was to discuss various standards that, when followed, would go a long way to avoid an operational tragedy. The "full timer" opened the workshop session with an interesting observation that I found to be painfully accurate and it has stuck with me. He said something like, "Fire departments are easy targets for lawsuits. They (the chiefs and departments) write most things (policies, procedures, training) down and then they fail to follow their own written procedures."

In a matter-of-fact tone, the articulate attorney pointed out that the argument is usually not on the facts of a civil claim against the fire department, but on how much payout will be required because we simply failed to follow our own written doctrine. This column will spend a little time expressing views from the city manager's chair on the importance of the fire chief/fire department handling job responsibilities correctly the first time.

Our business does a great job (in most cases) of developing and producing standard operating guidelines (SOGs), rules, regulations and policies. Typically, a new SOG is "born" because someone screwed up. In fact, that is how many of the old ones got there in the first place! When someone executes a dumb move, the SOG book is pulled out to help us to "write 'em up." Afterwards, the book is put back on the shelf to collect dust until the next dastardly act is committed. It would appear that the notion of always following our policies does not seem to be a concern.

At this point, I must get in a plug for our beloved paramedics. Simply put, they live and die by their protocols. They train on them, test on them and recertify by them, and the protocols will be part of the promotional system. In other words, EMS protocols are a "living, effective and well-used" collection of policies that are critical to proper patient care and outcome. Shouldn't SOGs hold the same level of esteem for fire rescue company operations?

Over the years, several departments that I worked for developed and implemented operational feedback systems that were effective and non-punitive. The basic premise was that any member could give another member safe, non-threatening and timely feedback. The form was designed to help the recipients celebrate their successes and redirect (perhaps retrain) them on their below-average performance. The form is simple and can be completed in a few minutes. Copies of the form are made only if the note described an "atta-boy" (celebrate). If the member missed the mark (failed to follow policy without justification), the form is given to the member and no copies are kept on file - anywhere. This is an important principle of the process if the desired effect is constant, on-going, positive improvement, and not punishment.

The goal of such a system should be to get the job completed in as safe, effective and efficient way as possible for the conditions the first time, every time. If a member consistently fails to meet the minimum performance of the position (extremely rare cases), the supervisor needs to take more corrective action than what this operational feedback system can provide. That issue is a different topic and exceeds the scope of what this form can do to improve performance.

The second item that I want to cover is the importance of feedback and follow-up toward the successful completion of a task assignment received from City Hall. As time gets compressed (busy with other activities), there is an unrealistic belief that because the city manager (or any boss) directed it to happen, the task or project was completed.

To save yourself embarrassment and to maintain your credibility, simply follow through on your assignments. Take time to let the boss know that each job has been completed and include a reasonable level of detail in your report. It is great when a task is completed as agreed upon by both parties, but let the boss know the final results. This sound advice should be taken to heart by all levels of the fire department, not just the chief.

If you have legitimate reasons for being unable to complete an assignment, do yourself a big favor and keep the boss informed of the details and barriers. Our local government has been experimenting with a computerized task-tracking system that includes completion timelines and is easily managed by administrative assistants. The notion is that the feedback loop should be simple to use by all involved in the process.

To close, I will leave you with a Tom Peters (author of In Search of Excellence) quote that is worth remembering: "Feedback is (and always has been) the breakfast of champions." By now, you can tell that I agree with this statement. Next, consider that we are obligated legally and morally to follow our very own policies, procedures and regulations. The best way to bring about positive results is with positive feedback.

Tell the truth about performance - don't sugarcoat it. Painful corrections are usually painful for everyone involved and should only be used when no other avenues of correction can be traveled. The use of the feedback form mentioned in this article speaks volumes about the corporate culture in an organization - getting the task correct and not bruising our good people.

Being a fire chief for nearly eight years has taught me that fixing long-term, chronic, poor-performance problems requires more significant interventions. For example, I have developed a name for chief officers who repeatedly and consistently refuse to implement and embrace the incident command system. The name for these dinosaurs is, of course, "Captain."

Finally, remember to ensure that task/project completion or failure is documented up the chain. Hopefully, you should be able to employ the simplest means to communicate the results. Generally, bosses don't care if the information is by memo, e-mail, voicemail, via secretary, etc. What does matter a lot is that the communication happens to complete the assignment. This is no different than your incident expectations of the "Exposure Sector" officer's responsibility to you, the incident commander. Without feedback, you would demand and need this vital information to conduct operations properly. The same drill happens at the "Ivory Tower" level. Until next time, be safe out there.

Dennis L. Rubin, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the city manager and public safety director for the City of Dothan, AL. He is a 30-year fire-rescue veteran, serving in many capacities and with several departments. Rubin holds an associate's degree in fire science from Northern Virginia Community College and a bachelor's degree in fire science from the University of Maryland, and he is enrolled in the Oklahoma State University Graduate School Fire Administration Program. Rubin is a 1993 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program and holds the national Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) certification and the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He serves on several IAFC committees, including a two-year term as the Health and Safety Committee chair. Rubin can be reached at [email protected].

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