When a fire chief needs to go to all-hands, in-person communication

In-person communication can be a logistics nightmare, but there are times it is the only way for a chief to get important messages to the entire department

In response to hazing scandals resulting in lawsuits, FDNY Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro recently announced that he would meet in person with every fire officer on the New York City Fire Department, over 900 of them. Groups of officers would attend meetings at the Randall’s Island training facility.

According to a department source that spoke to the New York Daily News, Commissioner Nigro “decided it was important to make his position forcefully known to key supervisors and the entire FDNY leadership that hazing is unacceptable, it’s prohibited and it will not be tolerated.”

The decision to bring in every department officer for a face-to-face meeting with the fire commissioner is unprecedented. It is one example of how such meetings can reinforce policy and support organizational cultural change.

But there is a cost involved with getting people together in this way. And in an age of wide choices with communications technology, does it really make sense to go to the trouble of holding such meetings or training sessions?

It does, for several reasons.

Virtual classrooms, online videos, remote interactive sessions – all these formats work well for some topics. But in-person sessions have some key advantages, especially for difficult topics. Here are five of those reasons.

1. Logistic challenge message

Bringing people together in the same physical space is difficult, no matter how big your fire department is. The logistics are challenging, and making it happen requires an investment of time and money.

Yet these barriers are exactly why in-person meetings can better emphasize the importance of the message being delivered. Department leaders make a clear statement with their actions: this topic is important enough for us to spend time and money on, and we demand everyone’s attention to it.

2. Complete communication

Face-to-face meetings or training sessions allow for more complete communication than can happen through a virtual format. The same words can be conveyed through a video training or teleconference, but such media make it much more difficult to assess things like tone of voice, body language, gesture and inflection.

These non-verbal cues in many cases contain more of the true substance of any communication. And, technology can distort or garble messages, or simply not work at all.

3. Better consistency

Consistency is much more controllable within a face-to-face format. Consistency plays a role in several ways.

In the example above, the fire commissioner plans to present the information personally to every group. Not only does he have the authority of position in conveying the information, but the message will be the same for every meeting.

The presentation setting will also be consistent, which is usually not the case for virtual learning where some crews might watch a video together while others might do it individually. In a virtual format, multitasking among participants is common, diminishing the focus on the presentation.

4. Better questions

In-person meetings allow for questions to be asked and answered in a way not possible within a virtual format. Of course, technology often allows for interaction and questions during a presentation. But it’s different.

Many people watching a training video do not ask questions even if they can. They may be unaware that others watching might also be confused or want clarification, something that can be sensed and addressed by a skilled presenter.

And if others do ask questions, all participants might not always hear or understand the interchange.

5. Better accountability

Finally, accountability is enhanced through live training and meetings. People see each other in the same room, hearing the same message.

There is no ambiguity about the intention. Questions can be answered. Key points are emphasized. The take-away is clear, and everyone is on the same page with what it is.

It is logistically difficult to get large numbers of firefighters together in the same place for any reason. With existing and developing technologies, it is tempting to just go virtual for all training needs.

There is no question that technology can enhance many fire service training efforts.

But when I hear about departments using canned videos to combat bullying, or using an online PowerPoint presentation to meet sexual harassment training requirements, I worry. These are topics that demand discussion, that require skilled facilitation, and for which poor training can actually do more harm than good.

If an issue is difficult and challenging, it is likely that virtual communication will not address all concerns or questions with it. If leadership wants to clearly make the point about the urgency and priority of the topic, then there is really only one way to go.

People have to show up, in person, and have the conversation. 

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