Improving Internal Communication
Joseph Kitchen, Bath Twp. Fire Department (Lima, Ohio)
Every fire chief has a pet peeve. For some its unpolished boots, for others its firefighters staring at their smart phones. Each of us has at least one thing that our personnel do that drives us crazy. For me, it’s when I ask a question and the response is “I don’t know” or “Don’t ask me.” It’s not that they don’t have the information I’m looking for as much as it’s that the response is almost gleeful and they are pleased to say they don’t know. I hate it. Not only does this occasionally happen within our department, but I sometimes see it when I speak with firefighters from other jurisdictions. I may ask about a new apparatus purchase or recent promotional exam, and the answer is, “Nobody tells us anything.” Sometimes I wonder if they enjoy being out of the loop just so they can complain about it. We work very hard in the fire service to improve communications on the fire ground. We teach, train, and drill on proper radio terminology and procedures. We practice transmitting scene size ups and mayday calls. But, often we lose sight of the importance of communicating information within our agencies. The following is a list of things we have done at our department that has helped close the gap and improve communication.
Weekly Newsletter: Every Monday we issue a two to three page newsletter with upcoming events and information for the current week. Included are training sessions, equipment issues, special events, announcements, and other data. Once the template is in place it really doesn’t take long to update it & send it out via e-mail. We also include stats such as run volume, days without injury, etc. (If you would like to see a copy, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Apparatus Room White Board: This is an easy place for department personnel to jot down equipment issues, etc. We often see road closings, out of service hydrants and related information posted here. The firefighters post announcements that are primarily maintenance and operations related.
Texting/Paging: With nearly everyone using smart phones, it’s easy to send a quick message out to all personnel via text. There are many software programs and applications available to serve this purpose. One caution: do not overuse this method of communication. Keep in mind that off duty personnel may not appreciate an abundance of notifications when they are not at work.
Private Facebook Page: Before you start sending hate mail, I know many fire department officials are anti-Facebook. I’ve certainly heard the “Facebook is the devil” comment many times. For our department, having a private, members only page, has really been an asset. The firefighters are generally on Facebook anyway so its accessible and easy for them to use. The cool thing is the ability to share photos and video to the group members. Our personnel have posted training information, and demonstrated new equipment etc. Like all other forms of communication, there needs to be policies in place to ensure that all postings are appropriate. This may not be for all fire departments, but we have had a lot of success with it.
Memos: We are issuing less and less memos, but when we do it’s primarily electronic via e-mail. Using a “read receipt” system is a good way to ensure it was opened, and (hopefully) read.
Shift Log: Each shift is responsible to sign off on the log from the day before. Listing issues, concerns, and problems in the daily log ensures that they are passed on the next day’s personnel. All employees should read the daily log.
Roll Call/Shift Change: Our department is small and does not hold a formal roll call. However, the shift personnel are encouraged to have a face to face exchange of information to ensure vital information is passed on. Even a very short conversation between shifts can be very helpful. Rushing out the door at shift change can leave the oncoming shift out of the loop on important issues from the shift before.
Bulletin Board: Yes, the good old fashioned fire department bulletin board. In order for this to serve as a place to disseminate information it must be neat, up to date, and organized. (A flyer for the 4th of July Parade and one for the Christmas Banquet both hanging up probably indicate that no one is looking at the board.)
Open Door Policy: Some days I leave the fire station feeling like I didn’t get everything done that I needed to accomplish because I had guys in and out discussing issues in my office. But, to me, this is valuable time spent talking to our personnel. I want our personnel to be engaged and often if they come and ask me questions it keeps them from guessing or feeling left out about what’s going on not only operationally, but administratively within our department.
Face to Face: The easiest and most important thing a chief officer or company officer can do to improve internal communications within their department is to just get out and TALK to the firefighters. Go out into the apparatus room and see what they are doing, attend training drill sessions with them, and go into the lounge and make yourself available. Once a week I try to eat lunch at the kitchen table with our crew. Most of the time the conversation is about family, kids, sports, etc. But sometimes, it’s a an opportunity for them to tell me about things that they are concerned about or get my opinion on department issues.
The bottom line is, if the general consensus within your organization is that no one knows what’s going on, you have the ability to change that. Poor communication leads to morale issues and confusion within the ranks. So, the next time you ask a firefighter a question and he or she shrugs their shoulders and replies “How would I know?” You now have at least ten ways answer them. Communicate with your firefighters, they want it and it truly will improve the entire organization. (Note to firefighters: the next time an officer asks you a question and you don't know the answer, please reply, "I'm not sure chief/captain, etc., but let me go find out for you.")
Joseph Kitchen, OFC, is the Chief of the Bath Twp. Fire Dept. (Lima, Ohio.) He began his career in 1990 and has served as fire chief since 2002. He holds degrees in EMS and fire science, and in 2012 was named “Fire Officer of the Year” by the Ohio Dept. of Public Safety. Follow Chief Kitchen on Twitter @bathtwpchief and visit his department’s website at www.bathtwpfd.com