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T-Shirt Management

by David Rhodes 

This Hump Day SOS is dedicated to my good friend MG, you know who you are. Enjoy!

I am always amazed at how many critically important issues there are to manage in the fire department. With any high-risk occupation, the day is filled with decisions that have long-lasting effects. At the station level, officers make decisions about what training will be done and how to handle the vast amount of maintenance issues that could potentially affect operations. At the battalion level, the chiefs make decisions on staffing and balancing the administrative demands with operational realities in a high-stakes balancing act. The shift commanders are busy coordinating departmentwide staffing and apparatus requests, scheduling department initiatives, and some are finalizing overtime numbers and payroll entries. In the midst of all this are those incident responses that often involve life-and-death decisions that seem to always get in the way of our management duties! (Oh wait, isn’t that what we are really there for? Delivering a service to the citizens?)

At headquarters, the chiefs are busy attending many meetings; trying to plan projected budget shortfalls; fielding special request from elected officials; and investigating and dealing with the aftermath of some of our special employees who could keep their jobs for 30 years if they would just get to work on time, stop driving drunk, or stop posting stupid pictures on social media and just wear the right damn T-shirt! (WHAT?)

With this entire circle of events, we are extremely busy. As managers, we must meet ridiculous deadlines: “I need this information by the close of business today!” When you scroll down on the e-mail, you find that the initial discussion and request for information is a month old, but today is the first you have heard about it. There is an old saying that I have quoted while assisting departments through some mostly self-imposed crises: “We never have the time to do things right, but we always have time to do them over.”

Focusing on the Lesser Problem

When a department’s crisis is at its height, we are reminded of our duty to ensure that everyone is wearing the correct T-shirt. What?!? Yep, it seems when things get tough, we sometimes have a tendency to spring into our comfort zone. It is easy to catch the ill-reputed wrong T-shirt wearer and scorn him with shame, but it is hard to tackle the fact that someone didn’t lay out when they should have, someone ran out of air on the fourth floor of an apartment after having a low-air alarm sounding for five minutes prior, or someone forgot to budget for air cylinders that reached their maximum life span this year. Oh how we love to dwell on the T-shirts that have changed designs three times in five years! New chief = new T-shirt, new patch, new name, new speak about changing the culture, and so forth. And then, like the most predictable line in a song or a movie, someone at some level brings up the illegal T-shirts.

I know that we are a uniformed service and that we need to look presentable, clean, and in some situations sharply dressed. During my 30 years in this business, we have gone from wearing patent leather as a station shoe to zip-up tactical boots. We’ve gone from all polyester to flame-resistant material or fire-rated cotton. During the entire time, the preferred station wear under the gear wear and the in-the-middle-of-the-night wear has been the T-shirt. So why is this little management toxin such a popular item with those who do the work? It’s actual pretty simple, it works, it’s comfortable, it’s easily changed, and it serves as a billboard of pride for a department or station or special unit. Another great advantage is that it’s cheap! This should be a management no brainer … hmmm, the guys like them, they are very functional, and they are cheap. (Ding, ding, ding. Winner, winner, chicken dinner!)

If your department is dealing with obsessed T-shirt managers, please know that the troops are overwhelming amazed that this would even take up two seconds of thought within our management circles. They question our ability to understand real issues. They question what is more important, looking like a uniform poster or being able to function competently, because they know a person who’s house is on fire is not assessing the uniform. The wife who is watching you do CPR on her husband is not worried that there are Station 52 and Station 39 shirts visible on the scene.

T-Shirt SOPs

I am going to try and put this long-time issue to rest by offering a boilerplate standard operating procedure (SOP) (just fill in the blank).

T-Shirt Standard Operating Procedure

_____________ Fire Department

  1. All members will be issued 10 fire department T-shirts.
  2. Any station that wishes to design and wear a company T-shirt must submit the design for approval. Once approved, the T-shirt is considered part of the uniform.
  3. Anyone assigned to a position that responds to incidents and does work may wear a T-shirt while doing so.
  4. Anyone assigned to a fire station can wear a T-shirt as duty wear while at the station.
  5. No member shall wear a T-shirt that is faded, has holes in it, stinks, or is stained.
  6. All members shall have a top shirt readily available at the station and on the apparatus.
  7. All members attending public meetings or apparatus requests and conducting building inspections/preplans shall wear their top shirt.
  8. Anyone who violates this policy will be assigned to headquarters for a period of 90 days for each violation and be required to wear a long-sleeved dress shirt, a tie, and dress pants with dress shoes and will not be allowed to respond to incidents.

Addressing the Issue

I think this is a fair compromise to this extremely complex issue that has plagued our fire service for years. Yet in the meantime, please keep in mind that no firefighter has ever been injured or killed as a result of having the “wrong” T-shirt on. So what are you spending your valuable time managing?

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