BY JEFF SIMPSON
Ask anyone in your department, “What do we do in emergency services, and why?” and you would get a consistent answer, “We save lives and protect property to support the community.” But if you asked, “Who are we, and what do we stand for in the fire and EMS service?” you would get answers ranging from no response to a variety of definitions of brotherhood and sisterhood. The lesson here is that we must recognize that our image may be distorted and unclear and that it is essential that we work on putting it back in focus.
As a result of 9/11, emergency responders were thrust into the hearts and minds of the citizens we serve. Instantly, there was an overwhelming appreciation of what we do and the passion behind our calling. Bestselling books, television shows, and blockbuster movies trying to convey to the public what 200 years of tradition and our extended family mean to us came to the forefront. But now, we have slipped out of the mainstream and into the background, just as before 9/11. Let’s look at what may be blurring our image.
First, we must recognize that powerful human emotions exist anytime people are involved and that individuals will strive to establish themselves within any organization. Carrying that a step further, competing groups-different shifts, stations, shifts within stations, groups within a division, and divisions in a department-are all angling to gain dominance and increase their visibility on the supervisor’s or chief’s radar screen.
Identifying the changing social landscape of your department is the key to comprehending the effects of such behavior. Most notably, your rank and file, once generally motivated by the great work ethic of the baby boomer generation, is being supplanted by the entitlement generation. This is not to simplistically stereotype generations, but it seems that there has been an increase in the attitude reflected by comments such as “I deserve…” and “What’s in it for me?”
The challenge for leaders is to develop an environment that funnels all this energy of individuals and factions toward the common good of the organization’s goals and the traditions of the fire and EMS services. Develop a unifying vision that everyone can buy into, and zero in on delivering that message so the outcome is achievable. Energize the members, and instill confidence in them; get them involved, and encourage them to create and take ownership of the positive image the department wants to portray. Plant your flag, and give members a focal point to rally around. Get your troops to buy into the notion that it’s your overall organizational colors that matter-the last thing they want to do is drag those colors through the mud. If the competitive disunity is left unchecked, the individual subcultures will continue to push their particular agendas forward, pulling your department in different directions and causing continued struggles.
Uncoordinated efforts typically lead to ineffective results and frustrated personnel at all levels, within and outside our “family.” When it’s “game on,” in our profession, we will all put self aside for the sake of our brothers, sisters, and the community. Shouldn’t we do this all the time, and not just during the adrenalin rush when our eyes get big and our hearts race?
How can you make your department more successful? By asking this question and following through on identifying and addressing the needs, you will send a strong message that you want your organization, your co-workers, and yourself to succeed.
MOTTO OR MISSION STATEMENT?
Since the 1990s, it has been popular to create mission statements describing the organization’s goal. Such declarations feature catchy buzzwords that attempt to define the purpose. Typically, they fall short and offer no central theme that focuses on “the main thing.”
In contrast, consider the following identifying mottos: Semper Fi (U.S. Marines), Quality Is Job One (Ford Motor Company), Don’t Think, Have Fun (The 2006 Detroit Tigers), or To Serve the Most Vulnerable (Red Cross). These simple battle cries embody the consistent principles and focus of the organization and its members in rapidly changing times. They tell why you do what you do and what you want to be remembered for in the end.
A great example of this occurred this past week when I asked several emergency communications officers how they viewed themselves as a group. They immediately answered, “We are 911 Dispatchers-The Nation’s FIRST-first responders!’” This internal mantra defines their purpose and gives them a sense of pride while cementing their place in a long line of public safety professionals. In addition, many recruit classes foster team spirit by developing their own motto that represents the collective personality of a host of individuals united as one cohesive group. Brevity is simplicity and power, as demonstrated by honed phrases such as Failure is Not an Option or Proud, Proficient, and Professional. The challenge is to align these pockets of forged identities with the department’s overall beliefs.
We can learn other lessons from law enforcement, which has done a superb job marketing itself to the community and the politicians who support its capability and existence. If you have seen the Los Angeles (CA) Police Department Web site, watched any of the 1970s or 1980s TV police shows, or observed one of its patrol cars, you would recognize its motto To Protect and Serve. This is a strong display of purpose and necessity emblazoned on every police cruiser, motorcycle, and SWAT van traveling the highways and in the neighborhoods they protect. Maybe our ambulances and fire apparatus should also display our message to our constituents.
PUBLIC OR DEPARTMENT INFORMATION OFFICER?
Unquestionably, we need to take every opportunity to communicate through the media to the public and to our employees internally who we are and what we stand for. We need to reinforce our purpose when making presentations, attending civic functions, and speaking at recruit graduations or public education events. Train your people so that they are prepared and well versed in delivering the message to the people with whom they interact during their everyday duties. This approach will also reinforce the organization’s beliefs in your workforce and gives them ownership in representing the positive.
Are your members receiving e-mails, correspondence, and communications that reflect and reinforce the vision and direction the department is striving to achieve? Is your motto printed on your department’s letterhead, brochures, and handouts for home safety inspections and smoke detector installations? Developing a monthly safety tip or article for the newspaper or other media outlet will benefit the public and elevate your standing in the community.
Like clockwork, my local newspaper prints an article and photo about the Sheriff’s Deputy or Police Officer of the Month on page 3. Are you publicly recognizing your brothers and sisters who represent the best in your organization? Who received your department’s Vision and Values Award last year?
Giving your people a sense of belonging will pay substantial dividends for your organization in many ways. Instilling a small dose of pride will encourage your members to be committed to themselves, their fire and EMS family, the department, and the community. Develop a defining motto that reflects the heart and soul of your department, and dovetail that meaning into everything you do. Before you know it, you and your team will be starring in your own real-life movie across the neighborhoods and business districts where you live and work.
JEFF SIMPSON, a 24-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief of operations with Hanover (VA) Fire and EMS. He has a degree in engineering and is certified as a Virginia state fire instructor and officer. He has been teaching leadership, engineering, and strategy courses to departments and businesses for the past 19 years. Simpson teaches regularly at the Hanover County Fire Academy and assisted as a Firefighter Survival H.O.T. instructor at FDIC in Indianapolis in 2005 and 2006.