We've all gone to calls where firefighters get off the rigs and they simply don't look like they're prepared. They aren't geared up, and quite frankly they look unprofessional. Now they may be the best firefighters in the department or even the entire area, because they train the most, and have the most experience. Think of their ability as the "message" (good message/good firefighters) and the "medium" as their appearance.
In this case the message was good, but the medium can drown out the value of the message. It shows how a really good message can be ruined by delivery in the wrong medium.
In today's world it's easy, and sometimes lazy, to use electronics as the medium we communicate with. But the ease of using mediums such as cell phones and e-mail does impact the message itself. A good example would be someone who needs to ask a favor of you; they are going on vacation and they need you to watch their dog. Not necessarily a big deal, but a little inconvenient. Now imagine the variety of ways they can ask this: directly on the phone, voice mail if you're away, e-mail, a hand written letter or stopping by to see you in person. Although the message is the same, the impact of the request is changed by the way it is delivered, its medium.
Not everyone would agree on the difference in value of each of those mediums, nor would each medium's relative value to each other remain the same for everyone. Some may find being left a phone message in this instance so offensive that they would say no to the request. Others might not find it offensive at all.
Some may see a huge difference between voice mail and a phone call; others may think they are basically the same thing. Regardless, how the receiver views and values the medium will clearly have a large impact on how well your message is received and whether you're going to get the outcome you wanted from it.
When it comes to safety, the medium we use also has a huge impact on those we are conveying our safety message to. You might draft an outstanding memo on using the chinstrap on firefighting helmets and send it out to the stations to be posted. The people in the stations may read the memo and say to themselves, 'Well if they really wanted us to wear the chinstraps, then they would come down and talk to us about it.'
Some choices of mediums in the fire service may include:
A posted memo
Integrations into drills/training, direct verbal (radio or face to face)
Exhibiting the message in our own actions
These mediums work for some messages, but not for others. The people (firefighters, general public, elected officials or the press) that you're trying to get your message to should also be a consideration when deciding the medium to use. Things such as reading ability, background, training and internal norms/rules all impact how the medium is valued and therefore how your message is received.
I'll always remember sending an e-mail to someone who was upset over an administrative decision I had made. I really valued my relationship with the individual and replied to an e-mail they sent me saying they were upset. In my response I wrote in capital letters, "DON'T BE MAD AT ME." What I meant was to convey how very much I didn’t want them to be upset with me. They took the use of capital letters as the equivalent of shouting on the phone. Let’s just say things went downhill from there.
In hindsight I could have given the person a call, or better yet driven the three hours to talk to them. And yes, driving three hours might seem extreme. But if you were mad at somebody and sent them an e-mail at 9 a.m. in the morning, then out of the blue they showed up and took you to lunch at noon that same day, the message might be the same, but you would likely receive it differently.
When dealing with firefighters, we must take the time to learn how each firefighter receives messages and which mediums work best. Many will say that firefighters need to learn how to listen to what we tell them, and not the other way around. Certainly anyone in an organization needs to know that organization’s rules about communications.
But when it comes down to it, you want the person to get the message because you want them to do something — your thing. Figuring out the best medium simply makes sense, not because it makes their lives easier, but because it gets them to do what we want them to.
Let's take a look at the chinstrap scenario again. How can we best convey that message? The organization likely requires something in writing to establish or reinforce the SOPs of the department. But that probably isn't enough. Having the line officers include it in their drills, discuss it with firefighters in the station or even sending out support information such as that found in Fire Fighter Near Miss reports all help establish the same message through different mediums.
As we continue to work on the message of safety to those in the fire service and outside our walls as well, we must keep an eye on both the best messages and mediums of how to stay safe.
Tom LaBelle serves as an assistant chief with the Wynantskill (N.Y.) Fire Department where he is responsible for training. He has been employed by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs since 1995. Prior to joining NYSAFC, Asst. Chief LaBelle served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. He provides support for career and volunteer departments from the nations largest to smallest. He currently sits as a voting member on the NFPA 1720 committee. He is a certified fire instructor and fire officer. Chief LaBelle can be reached via email at Tom.Labelle@FireRescue1.com.
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