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Take Command of Your Personnel Problems

The firefighters that make a job the most fun to come to work are often the same people that drive you so bat crazy that the trip home each day seems like a summer vacation. Fortunately, the same familiar tools used for taking command of a fire scene can effectively be used in managing personnel issues before they grow to be unmanageable.

It’s true that a little cash in your pocket has the power to put a smile on your face for a day or two, and that there is nothing better than a good fire to get the adrenaline pumping, but a deposit slip and the pungent smell of creosote has little power overcome a room full of cantankerous firefighters.  What can be hard is that those fighters are often more than colleagues; they are friends. Worse yet, those friends occasionally cross a line of conduct blurred by interpersonal relationships, stress, and a lack of training.

Over the course of a career, company officers are sure to face a lot of these lines; some rooted in little more than bad taste; others may end a career. The challenge is that, even with a full measure of courage, these officers are not always provided the tools necessary to address these personnel issues before they become progressively unmanageable. Still, tools are not enough. While it’s important to have appropriate policies or a code of conduct, they are little substitute for the context that comes with experience. Unfortunately, those experiences can be dangerous; thus, it is necessary that officers prepare for the “big one” in the same way they would train for a structure fire: they have to practice.

Developing a training regimen for dealing with personnel issues begins with creating a series of short video simulations. While it’s not the focus of this article, the themes should range from simple counseling opportunities to the same career-threatening conditions that pepper the Internet on a too frequent basis.

Concurrently, a department should adopt a tool that provides a set of simple benchmarks for decision making. Once again, the Internet is saturated with colorful examples that can be applied to almost any industry. A number of “experts” have made a lot of cash authoring books full of theories and techniques on how to generate a constructive outcome. However, the familiar components listed on a fire ground tactical worksheet can be easily adapted to meet the threats rattling through the halls of our stations.

  • Size-up. A good size-up begins with asking, “What do I have?” Understanding situational awareness includes assessing:
    • Tone and body language
    • Safety concerns
    • Violations of rules, policies, and/or code of conduct
    • Legal, ethical, liability, and political ramifications
    • Whether the incident is confined or is occurring in public, and
    • How much time is available before something catastrophic may occur
  • Take Command. Regardless of rank or the anticipated outcome, an officer needs to take ownership in the moment, and have the flexibility to adapt as conditions change. Within this context, having command presence means selecting a demeanor that best fits a given situation:
    • Passive – let it play out
    • Indirect – work through others to achieve an objective
    • Direct – take a strong, decisive posture
  • The incident objectives should lead to a strategy that provides a clear understanding of what should be accomplished:
    • Offensive
      • Rescue – immediate action is required
      • Confine – limit the collateral damage
    • Transitional
      • Immediate action intentionally shifts to allow for a more thoughtful follow-up
    • Defensive
      • Exposure control
      • Time to reflect, research, consider options
      • Environment - long-term impact
    • Just as pulling a hoseline to the front door would support an offensive fire attack; specific tasks should support the personnel management strategy:
      • Deescalate the situation and contain within the immediate area
      • Remain in service or go out of service
      • Discuss as a company, or isolate personnel individually
      • Coach through experience
      • Council to correct
      • Document as necessary
    • Mutual aid. The fire service’s close knit culture can lend itself to a feeling that asking for help is either a sign of weakness or the equivalent of tattling on your brother. Each is ultimately misguided. In this case, requesting mutual aid is nothing more than selecting the most appropriate resource to lend a hand:
      • Supervisor/Battalion Chief
      • Fire association
      • Employee assistance
      • Phone a friend/mentor
      • Human Resources
      • City attorney
    • Salvage and overhaul. As is implied, once the initial actions have been addressed, it is important to leave the scene as clean and organized as practical, and preserve that which has value:
      • Make personal contact with agency witnesses
      • Check in with civilian by standers
      • Limit physical and emotional consequences
      • Provide due process
    • After-action. Coordinate with key stakeholders:
      • Assess what lessons can be learned from the incident
      • Instill hope for a better outcome
      • Provide training
      • Ensure accountability

While the names and faces may change, firefighters generally only deal with a few variations of the same core personnel issues. Using the incident command structure as a tool, these may be managed with a good measure of consistency. With that stated, success in dealing fairly with our fire department family will always begin with taking professional ownership in the process of reaching an appropriate outcome.


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