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5 fire department self-inflicted wounds

Fire chiefs who don't avoid these five traps will not succeed in having a top-performing department


This is the third of four articles Chief Gaines submitted shortly before his untimely death in April. Chief Gaines may no longer be with us, but his wisdom about and passion for the fire service lives on.

By Glenn Gaines

There are conditions outside the department or organization that can adversely impact the ability of a department to fulfill its mission and grow. Economic downturns, changes of political leadership and local agendas are just a few.

However, many of the deficiencies fire and EMS departments experience are self-inflicted. 

There are five key organizational wounds fire departments often inflict upon themselves. There are also steps fire chiefs can take to prevent this self-harm.

1. Failure to plan
Planning should come from the top. However, it should be formulated by and endorsed by the organization's frontline members.

Vibrate, growing governmental organizations constantly seek new opportunities, then put detailed and sound plans into place to leverage the opportunities that meet three criteria.

  • Be aligned with future demand for products or services.
  • Be something the organization can do well.
  • Be in line with current political direction.

A recent U.S. workforce poll asked, "What should you expect from your leaders in 2015?" After respect and being valued, they want leaders to have a vision of where the organization is headed and what role they will play in taking it there.

Planning is not separate from budgeting. It is in fact applying numbers to vision and goal development. Accordingly, planning becomes a vital part of organizational management and must include both short-term and long-term funding streams.

If we begin from the premise that planning is linked directly to budgeting, what should follow is the process of measuring return on investment.

Planning demands we answer two questions:

  • What conditions (technology, demographics, development or political landscape) will change in the near future?
  • How will these changes positively or negatively impact the department?

When drafting responses to the forecasted shifts include internal leadership, financial expertise, subject-matter experts, line force (union, association leadership) special interest groups and political leadership or staff. Identify what will change and if the new initiative is the right fit for the department.

Finally, measurable outcomes aligned with the department's vision and goals is critical to ensure the success of the initiative and to determine if the initiative is sustainable.

2. Whack-a-mole management
This is when a problem occurs, we deal with it as a one-time event and move on. For example, two firefighters are burned at a residential fire. The injuries are managed, the firefighters return to work and nothing more is done.

No one contemplates that there may be a training issue that is prevalent throughout the operations division. There may be personal protective equipment that fails to meet the specifications called for in the contract. Other contributing factors may be in play and need serious review. 

Many departments create a planning and research branch or division. Their purpose is to constantly scan the internal and external environment. For this to work, four conditions must be met.

  • It is a part of all critical decision making in regard to policy and procedure development.
  • It receives data from all segments of the department.
  • When bad things happen, it is included in the reporting and review to determine if current policies and procedures are in place to manage, mitigate or prevent a reoccurrence.
  • It is changed with constantly monitoring service quality.

The point is that individual accidents, personnel injuries, violation of ethics, mistakes or unique incident management failure may be a sign of a more intrinsic problem throughout the department or organization.

That is not to say each occurrence must be studied over weeks and months. The important step that must be taken is to ensure someone is watching and looking for trends in erosion of performance and quality of service.

3. We don't listen
Fire and rescue organizations are floating out there in a sea of change. These organizations are also in a high-risk and legally vulnerable position primarily due to the nature of their business.

Accordingly, paying close attention to and constant monitoring of the environment surrounding the organization is vital. People to listen to include the political leadership, civilians (especially those who have political influence), firefighters, mid-level command staff and front-line supervisors.

Winston Churchill said, "Listen to everyone, for even fools are correct occasionally." This means, of course, we will have to hear and sift through some remarkably bad opinions and advice.

Beneficial listening occurs when the chief is skilled in information triage. Not long ago, getting communications from the outside and from the line force was a challenge. Today the challenge is sorting through the immense amount of communications to draw the critical information the chief needs to manage and move the organization.

Shutting diversity out of policy development leads to group think and down a dangerous path toward gaps in rational for policy decisions. Finally, the organization is afloat in a sea of change. If we do not remain in tune with the outside environment we will fail.

4. Allowing mediocrity to prevail
Colin Powell said about success, "Any time you tolerate mediocrity in others, it increases your mediocrity." John Grubbs, owner of GCI consulting group, said, "Leaders understand that risk equals return. Mediocrity is following a policy blindly. Excellence is when we understanding exactly how to apply that policy to a particular situation."

I had the privilege of serving in a top performing organization for a long time (34 years), coming up through the ranks to become fire chief. I have been asked on many occasions, what made our organization great?

After contemplating and analyzing the organization and the people responsible for standing it up, I came to the following conclusion. The department was first organized by trainers and educators.

People who train work really hard at analyzing demands placed on individuals and organizations, then develop mechanisms to ensure the members of organization obtain and master the skills and knowledge necessary to successfully fulfill their mission. Those original few who stood up the organization had to constantly look forward.

Managing change isn't easy; however, if it is managed well, it becomes an inherent character of an organization and is expected by all the troops. The question then boils up from the troops 'why are we not using this new thinking or technology?' rather than 'why are we using this new thinking or technology?' 

Holding to high standards of behavior and performance leads to a culture that provides a safe, healthy, productive and non-hostile workplace environment.

5. Failure to provide the next generation of quality leaders and firefighters
Succession planning and programs prepare the organization for the future and insure against a loss of consistency in top-quality performance. Succession planning facilitates the ability to recruit, hire and promote top-quality people to fill critical positions.

It also must include a strong commitment to two critically important programs: a commitment to training at four levels and a mentor program to attract the best candidates.

The first training level is maintaining fundamental skills and knowledge at the front line level. The second is preparing those who aspire to hold a supervisory level position. The third is preparing this who desire to move on to senior management positions. The last is maintaining compliance with federal, state and local regulations and laws.

Mentor programs must be formal, closely managed and performance measured. Mentor programs can increase morale, motivation and productivity. It can also reduce turnover and absenteeism, as well as talent within the organization.

There are other associated benefits to mentoring including reduction or elimination of outside recruitment costs for senior manager position since most of the senior positions will be filled from within.

Included in the PricewaterhouseCoopers, 12th Annual Global CEO Survey, 2009 more than 1,000 CEOs were asked, "How important are the following sources of competitive advantage in sustaining your growth over the long term?"

The number-one response — chosen by 97 percent — was "access to, and retention of, key talent."

About the author

Glenn A. Gaines was the Federal Emergency Management Agency's deputy U.S. Fire Administrator for the United States Fire Administration. He began his tenure in March 2009 and was responsible for managing USFA programs and training activities conducted at the National Emergency Training Center. Chief Gaines began his fire service career as a member of the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department. He served in numerous capacities, including fire marshal, chief training officer, and chief of operations, culminating in his appointment as fire chief from August 1991 until December 1998. He was in charge of the nationally recognized Fairfax County Fire and Rescue urban search and rescue team that frequently deployed throughout the United States as well as internationally. Chief Gaines earned a degree in fire administration and has authored a fire service text, contributed to several other texts, and written numerous articles for several trade publications. He has served as a faculty member at the USFA's National Fire Academy, and was actively involved with organizations related to the professional development of the fire and emergency services.

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