BY DANE CARLEY
Businesses go through stages as they mature. A new business is lean and fighting to survive, so challenges are viewed as opportunities to adjust or expand in a different direction. There is no bureaucracy–no speed limit or directional signs–to control how the company moves forward as long as it is a move within its area of expertise. Such businesses are often successful. As time passes, the owners of the maturing business want to continue being successful, so they begin writing policies and procedures in an attempt to replicate the successful processes of the past for future employees.
The future employees who come into the organization see opportunities for growth but cannot take advantage of them because the rules designed to replicate success place limits on their ability to do so; the rules become a speed limit with too much direction.
Eventually, the matured organization accepts the status quo as the norm and focuses more on operating within its policies and procedures than it does on how to provide additional value to its customers. What the owners do not see is that a status quo organization is one that is becoming less relevant as its competitors continue growing by bringing more value to their customers through innovative products or services. The owners have a choice to continue focusing on what exists and eventually fail (e.g., Kodak’s focus on film photography during a digital uprising) or get out of the way and let the people in the organization be innovative so the company continues to be successful (e.g., Google’s ability to adapt to changing expectations, regulations, and technologies).1-2
OVERCOMING MATURITY IN FIRE DEPARTMENTS
Fire departments provide a service to the community. How mature is the typical fire department? For the most part, it is safe to say that the local fire department is one of the most mature establishments in the community. How do the department’s hierarchy, policies and guidelines, culture, and traditions influence it? Is the department responsive to the community’s expectations? Does the department seek out innovative ideas for current or potential problems?
On the other hand, does the department tend to view any change as a threat? Maybe it is typical to hear, “Why would we do that? We’ve been doing it this way for a hundred years!” Chances are good that your department falls somewhere between the two extremes, and it depends on the situation: Sometimes it pursues innovation and digs in its heels at other times.
What can we learn from the idea that the more mature a department becomes, the less likely it is to adapt to current expectations? We can learn that adaptation may be hindered by a feeling that the status quo is good enough, or it could be that an ineffective bureaucracy limits how ideas are exchanged.
Can a fire department overcome its maturity to avoid becoming irrelevant among its peers and community? Absolutely. However, it may take a cultural shift in how business is conducted. The fire service is proud of its traditions, and many of those traditions should be kept. However, those traditions should never be used as an excuse to limit a department’s adaptability. Just think of where we would be today if we still had horse-drawn chemical pumpers, leather hose, and wooden water mains? We can become better at what we do without sacrificing our values.
First and Foremost: A Provider of Public Service
Remember that the fire service exists to provide public safety. Demonstrate this in your department’s written values. We are not here to satisfy our yearning for leather helmets (as cool as they are) or to respond to working fires only. We are here to make the community in which we work safer. Suppression will always be a top priority because we are the only entity trained and equipped to do this. However, the question we should ask regularly is, “How can we improve the service we provide to our community?” Fire departments have already picked up emergency medical services, hazardous materials, technical rescue, and an assortment of other tasks. Therefore, the questions should be as follows:
• Which of our programs are most effective?
• Are we providing the right services for our community, or did we just do it because it sounded like fun?
• Does the level of the service match our community’s expectations, or are we holding onto the current service model to satisfy our own desires?
• Could our time be better spent doing something else if we had agreements with adjoining agencies to be sure the community still received quality services without having the same service duplicated by every agency?
Develop a Learning Culture
The learning culture developed should help members to match the department’s values. The learning culture is the foundation of providing effective public safety. The questions above are much easier to ask and answer much more honestly when we are open to discussion based on the premise that our department’s first priority is to provide the most effective service possible to the community.
A learning culture is one in which asking, “Why do we ….?” is expected instead of dreaded. A learning culture is one in which seeking out an answer based on data instead of gut feelings is the norm.
Create an Open Framework to Guide Learning
The framework should guide the department’s learning. Although any learning is beneficial, it is even more effective if it is guided by organizational principles. These principles, listed below, create a framework so that learning stays focused on innovation relevant to your department and community.
• A preoccupation with failure–the habit of looking for gaps that may lead to bigger problems.3
• A reluctance to simplify–avoiding oversimplifying things when performing each step repeatedly is beneficial. (3)
• A sensitivity to operations–remembering that what the people doing the work are telling you is important. (3)
• A commitment to resilience–making sure the necessary resources are available. (3)
• A deference to expertise–listening to those who know more about something than you do. (3)
Develop Behaviors in Members
The principles guide the department, but the people in the department make it all work. So, the next step is to develop beneficial behaviors in the people in your department. The following behaviors support a department’s learning culture that is guided by the above principles:
• Situational awareness. Besides being situationally aware on scene, we need to be situationally aware of what is going on around us in the community. Call it an administrative situational awareness.4
• Communication. Learning happens through communication. We need to understand how our culture and traditions affect communication. Something as simple as uniform insignia reinforces rank, which hinders communication. (4)
• Initiative. When people know the values of a department and understand the department’s priorities because they are situationally aware, they can show initiative by taking action when an opportunity arises. (4)
• Adaptability. Being able to adapt to a situation is characteristic of successful people. Knowing the department’s values and being situationally aware help people be adaptive because they know what is important to the department and can develop a better plan of action. (4)
• Collaboration. No one person knows everything. The best solutions usually come from the participation of several people who have relevant knowledge. People in the department must be willing to work with others when looking for a solution. (4)
• Improvising. It is important to improvise–to think outside of the box. Oftentimes, we model our services on what our peers are doing. But, is the manner in which our neighbors provide services necessarily the best way for us? Members should be comfortable trying something different. (4)
• Learning. No matter how many years you have been in the business, there is still more to learn. There are always new ideas or ways to look at things. It is important to stay informed about upcoming trends, technology, and science. However, it is also important to continue learning about your community’s ever-changing demographics, political positions, and expectations. (4)
• Education. It is important that people in your department want to continue training, continuing education, and formal education. Each provides a different type of knowledge, skills, or abilities. Each is also an opportunity to see something in your department or community from a different point of view. (4)
Teach leadership so that a leadership environment will exist to support the above initiatives. Good leaders provide guidance based on values. Once the department’s values are established, the rest becomes easy because the learning, the organizational framework, and the employee behaviors have direction. However, the learning culture can exist only in an environment created by leaders. Leaders are the most effective in applying and instilling the five principles discussed above. Likewise, people with strong leadership abilities are the most effective in developing beneficial behaviors in members. Rank does not make a person a leader. In fact, the combination of rank and strong management skills can overshadow the leadership ability in a person with weaker leadership skills. Good leaders do the following:
• Understand how their personality affects interactions with others. Those around leaders evaluate their words and actions within the context of their past words and actions. Leaders understand that their history and demeanor affect how others hear their words and observe their actions.6
• Are more interested in advancing the people around them than themselves. They know that being surrounded by other strong leaders is better for the department because it helps the department achieve its goal of providing a better service to the community. Since the leaders’ focus is on the department’s values and priorities, the surrounding strong leaders are not personal threats. (6)
• Treat team members (crew, battalion, shift, department) equally. Good leaders make a point of dropping the emphasis on rank because rank erodes trust, which hinders communication, and vice versa. Rank may still be used to delegate tasks, but it is not used to gain privilege. (6)
• Build pride in the team. A proud team becomes a high-performance team. A high-performance team becomes a cohesive team. A high-performance, cohesive team puts quality of service ahead of ego because the pride comes from the ability to provide the best service. To continue providing the best service, the team is willing to set aside ego in an effort to learn more. (6)
• Develop strong, honest communication. Minimizing rank and building pride also builds trust among the team members. This combination of attributes allows for strong communication. Team members are comfortable bringing their ideas forward or speaking up when something is amiss. Conversely, the other team members are not offended when someone proposes a way to do it better. (6)
• Are not afraid of constructive conflict. Leaders are adaptable people who want to affect change positively. Innovative ideas and opportunities arise from constructive conflict. Once the foundation for strong, honest communication is laid, it is possible to encourage constructive conflict. (6)
• Understand how change affects people on the team. Change is hard for everyone because it challenges long-held beliefs and values. Change also affects the playing field (e.g., a change in promotional requirements alters something with which people have shaped their career decisions). (6) Leaders address these aspects. In fact, a leader spends as much or more time on how to frame and present the change as on the change itself. 7
This is how a mature fire department strives for success. It is not an accident. Ironically, it is another system in the bureaucracy. However, it is a system that encourages forward movement, innovation, and constant improvement instead of limiting decision making by writing policies, putting tradition first, and relying on hierarchy. This system focuses on providing better service to the community it serves while emphasizing taking care of the people who provide the services.
DANE CARLEY entered the fire service in 1989 in Southern California. He is a battalion chief for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department. Since 1989, he has worked in structural, wildland-urban interface, and wildland firefighting capacities ranging from fire explorer to career battalion chief. He is a Commission on Professional Credentialing Fire Officer. He cowrites the Tailboard Talk column for fireengineering.com and co-hosts a monthly radio show by the same name on Fire Engineering Talk Radio. He teaches in various college fire programs and has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in fire related fields. He is a second-year student in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program.