“Good” Problems

BY RICHARD MARINUCCI

Virtually all of the problems discussed in this column have been about issues that have a negative connotation: Something bad has happened or likely will. One thing that we do not often consider is what might be viewed as a “good” problem. Although this may seem like an oxymoron, there are situations where choices have to be made where the options are all good. So if this is the case, how can that be bad? As we will see with a few of the following examples, it is not the immediate effect but future concerns that require consideration.

Fire departments have positions or jobs that may be voluntary or extra. This would occur more frequently in smaller organizations where members are asked to perform various tasks that are necessary but probably not large enough to support a full-time position. Certain functions are part of every organization and need to be done by someone. Engaging the workforce has its advantages in establishing buy-in, acceptance, and cooperation.

Consider many small jobs that need to be accomplished to make a fire department run: Tools need to be maintained; turnout gear ordered, repaired and replaced; buildings maintained; repairs coordinated when performed by others outside the department; and a host of other small, but important, pieces of a properly functioning organization. Often, this work is performed by members who have other specific job duties. This seems like a good practice as it uses personnel to get things done.

So what would be a problem that could arise from this? Nothing bad for the organization, but there is nothing automatic about this, and good management and leadership are required to make sure a sound operating practice doesn’t go bad. One thing to consider is that many times the people taking on added responsibility have limited experience in some of the work. Although they may have enthusiasm, passion, specific knowledge, and the right attitude, they may be inexperienced and might not be prepared for political, financial, and other “big picture” concerns. They may be dealing with people outside the organization for the first time, people who don’t always think the same way a firefighter does.

A few years ago, I had a firefighter offer to repair some plumbing issues. In his previous occupation, he was a licensed plumber. This seemed like a good thing and, for the most part, it was. However, I learned that even the best intentions could go awry if everything is not considered. This firefighter took the assignment to heart and went about making the repairs. I was soon notified that everything was fixed. I was then handed a bill for the parts that were needed. The bill seemed reasonable to me. Unfortunately, the purchasing director for the city didn’t see it the same way. Since the cost of the materials needed exceeded the authorization level for the individual, the request was denied. Of course, I now had to defend the firefighter and fight for the money that he fronted the city. In the end, it was not about the money; it was about an employee outside the department trying to exert authority.

There are a couple of problems that arise that need attention in this otherwise “good” problem. First, the city saved money by doing the work in house. As such, the firefighter who made the repairs must not become a pawn in a power play. A good employee who did a good thing must be protected from the politics and other issues that are too often normal for chiefs and chief officers. Denying the firefighter reimbursement when he saved the department money will only serve to dissatisfy the employee and prevent his offering future services. Further, there is no doubt that he would express his opinion to others, some of whom might reconsider voluntary work in the future. This is now the chief’s issue and must be handled as such.

To help prevent future occurrences, consider some actions that you can take. First, communicate better with the firefighter regarding any purchasing policies or rules. Let him know that you will get the parts needed but that there is a process that needs to be followed. Be honest, and establish good trust with the employees so that they understand better how the system works. You do not need to explain all of the personalities involved, but you do need to let those volunteering know that you appreciate their efforts but you must also play by the rules.

Here is another example: A firefighter volunteers to assume responsibility for the department’s protective clothing. He has some basic knowledge and definite interest in the project. One of the first things suggested is to consider changing the gloves the department uses. Research is done, and the firefighter finds a glove that is different from what is being used, meets standards, and is less costly than the glove in use. The firefighter suggests a trial; you agree to let a couple of members on each shift run a test. After the test period is completed, those who did the trial are asked if they like the gloves. All say yes. With this, the firefighter recommends that the department change gloves. Because of your experience, you decide to ask one more question. Even though the members like the gloves, do they want to change from their current brand? The answer is no.

Here is another “good” problem: You have an employee willing to take on an extra assignment, and his first issue doesn’t work out as he thought it would. The fire chief must now work toward keeping the employee motivated and interested in continuing, even though it appears the effort was unsuccessful. Again, the key is communication. Talk and explain; use the opportunity to mentor what a good employee is. Don’t let this minor setback discourage the employee. Explain how experience helps in these situations and that almost everyone who has been in a similar situation can tell a similar story. From the chief’s perspective, a better job needs to be done explaining the parameters of the project up front so that the potential issues can be avoided.

Consider one last potential “good” problem: You are looking to fill a vacancy on a special response team. You post the position and get six interested people. All are qualified. This is the good part of the problem. You have personnel who want to get involved and take on extra assignments. They are people who have worked hard and attended various training programs to make them qualified. Having good people with the skills and training is very desirable. So what could be the problem? Only one will be chosen. The problem is not with the firefighter selected; it could be with those who were not chosen. They are obviously good employees, and you would like to keep it that way.

These firefighters need to understand the selection process and why the one individual was picked. It must be explained that it is not a reflection on those not selected but the individual was chosen because it was thought to be the best choice for the department. Of course, you may have other issues in the organization in that not everyone might agree with your selection. Again, you don’t want what should be a good thing to create other problems. You must close the loop and make sure that good communications are used to explain if this becomes necessary. One thing that would help at the beginning would be to establish a selection process that includes others in the department besides the chief. Perhaps a selection committee would be appropriate. If the makeup of this committee is appropriate, the organization as a whole will be more supportive of the selection.

This article only touches on the basics of “good” problems. It is important to recognize that what might seem as a totally positive issue can turn out differently. By looking at the big picture of all issues, chiefs, leaders, and managers can make sure that not only is the intended objective met but also that ancillary issues are not created. Good problems are created by people wanting to do the right thing, having enough talented people to choose from, and an organization continually looking to improve. When you say or hear, “That’s a good problem to have,” make sure it ends up that way.

RICHARD MARINUCCI has been a chief for more than 27 years and has been chief in Northville Township, Michigan, since January 2009. Previously, he was chief in Farmington Hills (1984–2008), president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration. He is a speaker at FDIC, a columnist for Fire Engineering and Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, and editor of the 7th edition of the Fire Chief’s Handbook. He is a faculty member at Eastern Michigan University and the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute.

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