Leading at the Slow Station

Station assignments have been made for the new year, and the news is not good. You have been assigned to the slowest station on the department, and to make matters worse, your new crew consists of one firefighter who is close to retirement, and another who was farmed out to the hinterlands for being a so-called "problem employee." As an officer in the prime of your career, this new assignment is depressing at best. How will you make the most of it?

Every department has at least one: the slow station, World of Sleep, "the eye of the hurricane." While some firefighters prefer to be at a station where nothing much happens and getting a good night's sleep is practically assured, the job of leading at such a station can present unique challenges. It may be tempting to just go with the flow and feel comfortable with doing the minimum required for the duration of your time there. This approach would be a big mistake, for you, for your crew, and for the department and community as a whole.

The fact is, leading at a slow station is often more difficult than leading at a station that runs all the time. At the busy station, each shift flies by, and there is a sense of purpose in doing the work you were hired to do. If a mistake is made, it's not such a big deal, because another call will soon come in to distract from the error and provide the opportunity to do better. Interpersonal relations are usually less of a problem when everyone is busy and feeling good about their work.

At the slow station, the days often drag, and there is plenty of opportunity for getting on one another's nerves. Slow stations may be geographically remote, which can lead to a feeling of not really being part of the department. Many departments use slow stations as places to put employees who are performing at less than peak capacity.

Boredom, a sense of alienation, too much time and not enough meaningful work, crew members with issues—all of these factors can lead to a situation that is not only unpleasant, but can become downright dangerous if strong leadership is not in place.

The leadership challenges are real: How can you keep people motivated and engaged when you go 24 hours without an emergency call? How do you make training and inspecting seem relevant when you haven't had a fire in nearly a year? How do you keep people focused on working as a team when that team never gets to do anything together?

Keeping the crew busy with work of any kind might look like a good strategy at the slow station, but be careful. Firefighters know when they are being given busy work and will rebel against it, making a morale problem even worse. A better approach is to focus on the mission at hand, and demonstrate commitment to the service you provide as well as keeping the crew safe.

In many ways, slow, remote stations are scarier places to work than busy stations. When the Big One finally happens (and it is only a matter of time before it does), the slow station crew will be all alone for much longer than crews from other stations, with less recent experience to help them handle the event. In this context, training becomes a critical aspect of safety and service, not something done to kill time.

Focus on real hazards when you train and pre-plan. If there is a railroad track in the district, train for a potential derailment or hazardous materials incident. If there is a warehouse, go find out what they store there and how you would access a fire in the furthest corner of the building. Experiment with new hose loads. Get to know the teachers at the school down the street. Doing something every day to prepare for eventual real emergencies will make the time at work meaningful, enhance teamwork, and build confidence among the crew.

But there is no need to go overboard either, training from dawn to dusk every shift. It's okay for the pace to be a bit more relaxed at the slow station, and for the focus to be as much on building relationships as performing tasks. If you have a soon-to-be-retiring firefighter on the crew, here is an opportunity to learn from that person—not just technical skills, but organizational history that will soon be lost when he or she leaves the department. If you have a "problem employee" on the crew, now you have the chance to give that person a clean slate and lots of personal attention to improve performance.

Your assignment at the quiet station is no less important or challenging than any other officer's on the department, so don't buy into jokes or teasing about how easy you have it. On the other hand, there is no need to overcompensate by running your crew into the ground with busy work. Accept this assignment as you would any other—facing the unique challenges and rewards that come with it. And once you achieve that balance and have developed a highly prepared, motivated team among your crew—well, it really isn't that bad sleeping through the night, is it?

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