Are You a Coachable Firefighter?
Joseph Kitchen, Bath Twp. Fire Department (Lima, Ohio)
A few years ago I responded to the scene of an MVA on a busy interstate in our jurisdiction. I arrived in my chief’s vehicle and our fire and EMS units were already on scene. As I exited my car and was walking up to the crash area one of our firefighters (who was on probation with less than a year on the department) said, “Hey Chief, don’t forget to put on your traffic vest.” I loved it. He was right. I had spent the previous several weeks implementing new procedures for highway response. We purchased all new vests, issued memos, and conducted training for all personnel. I wasn’t doing what I had been teaching. I walked back to the car, put on my vest, and we handled the call. Back at the station nothing else was said. He didn’t gloat to the other firefighters that he had “caught” me or “got” me. This was just a simple case of one firefighter looking after another. My question is this. Would this scenario unfold the same way at all departments? Would the young firefighter have the courage to say something? Would the officer react the same way? Many firefighters have difficulty accepting criticism or feedback. As fire service leaders are we doing enough to ensure that our firefighters are coachable?
We have all heard the story of every kid on a sports team today gets a trophy at the end of the season for “participation.” It’s tougher for high school sports coaches to “push” kids and give them negative feedback. Parents are overly protective and quick to complain if they think their child’s feelings have been hurt. If this is truly the case then it may be an accurate assumption to believe that our newer generations of firefighters are not as coachable as those hired twenty years ago. Personally, I would have to challenge that hypothesis. I regularly see seasoned, experienced firefighters who get defensive and angry if anyone dares question their methodology or decision making. We should be able to review a call, or a report and point out areas to improve without worry that those involved will get upset and react negatively.
An effective fire department should have systems and programs in place to review all calls, reports, training logs, EMS operations, and other related activities. To ensure high quality standards we must create an environment where all personnel regardless of experience or rank, can be open and receptive to feedback on their performance and look at it as an opportunity to improve. This is a culture that should exist within the organization. In order for it to really be successful, there shall never be any use of “gotcha” tactics whereby one uses the opportunity to make the firefighter look bad or feel inferior. Meeting with employees or volunteers one on one to discuss better options or review protocols is not only acceptable, but necessary. If this coaching is done on a regular basis, the employees are more likely to be open and receptive to the feedback. To truly have a strong quality assurance program in place, be sure to also give positive reinforcement to the staff as well. We shouldn’t only be discussing calls where things didn’t go well.
The bottom line is, to be coachable, we can’t take feedback personally. Below is a self assessment quiz for you to determine if you are a coachable firefighter.
1. Are you truly committed to the department?
2. Do you really love your profession?
3. Do you respect the chief officers, company officers, and fellow firefighters?
4. Do you accept responsibility for outcomes? Both good and bad.
5. Do you make excuses and blame others
6. Do you work as hard during training as you do on actual emergencies?
7. Do you possess confidence vs. arrogance?
8. Can you control emotional responses under pressure?
9. Can you admit when you’ve made a mistake?
10. Do you appreciate the opportunity to have your work reviewed and critiqued?
If you answered no to these questions, you may not be a coachable firefighter. If you answered all or mostly yes then you are most likely coachable, which is the best way to continue to learn and grow in this awesome career of ours.
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