“Nice” School, Part 2


I really should have titled this month’s column “Before You Send the Workers to School, You Should Train the Boss.” I have been describing in my past couple of columns my experience in adding a customer service element to our traditional tactical (mostly firefighting) approach. I had spent essentially my whole career up until Mrs. Smith came into my life concentrating on everything that was involved in effectively putting water on the fire.

The importance of water was in no way reduced by adding a customer support component to the overall plan, but I discovered that I had not developed a very refined set of skills that created the capability to describe to the troops what was involved in the new things we were going to do for Mrs. Smith. I quickly learned that any discussion about dealing with her personally required me to use the word “nice” a lot. I had always measured our service in gallons per minute (gpm), not in the exchange of positive emotional units.

It didn’t take long for someone in my first customer service pep rally with the troops to ask what I meant by being “nice.” In a morning B-Shift class (in the morning, they had a lot of energy), a firefighter said, “Chief, what do you want us to do that is nice?” I was used to participating in a robust discussion about all things “water,” so I did not have a frame of reference to answer the question. As I described last month, this pretty basic question sent us out to where we actually did the business of our business to take a picture of how our own personnel who were naturally nice to Mrs. Smith acted when they were delivering service to her.

I mentioned that our positive customer service model became Captain Nice and his Engine (E) 14 crew. I use the name “Captain Nice” because that was the reference I adopted to describe the company commanders who GOT IT as we continued the project. They were typically characters who were put together at the human assembly plant on a Wednesday morning when everything was running perfectly. Based on how they were assembled, they ran really well and didn’t have many “rattles.” When you engaged them about the details of how they approached and served customers, you got a consistently lucid response in which you could clearly hear their Moms talking somewhere in the background.

It became a very interesting no-brainer that a positive and an effective response followed Captain Nice wherever he went, regardless of the crew for that day or how difficult the customer or the problem was. Really paying attention to the effectiveness of a fire company in how it treated humans was (and still is) a direct result of what the boss of that company stands for and won’t stand for. Using company resources to take good care of all of Mrs. Smith’s needs is the difference between her being a victim and being a customer.

Sometimes, we receive service from others simply because the difficulty or danger of our situation requires the services of a “specialist” who, based on his resources, can do for us what we can’t do for ourselves; receiving this service when we are at such a disadvantage is a necessity. In other cases, we use a service to do something that we just don’t want to do for ourselves—in this case, that service is a convenience. In either case, the relationship between the person receiving the service and the person giving the service is highly dependent on mutual respect.

Our customers typically call us because they are having a problem they do not have the resources to solve. They are at that moment in a disadvantaged position—or they wouldn’t be calling us. As an example: Mrs. Smith was talking on the phone and forgot she left a pan cooking on the stove. The stove continues to do what stoves do and destroys the pan. Now the fire in the pan does what fires do and is extending to the contents and interior finish of the kitchen. She looks up and suddenly discovers Mr. Fire is about to flash over (my term, not hers) in her favorite kitchen. She runs next door and calls 911; we hop on Big Red, and here we come to do fire extermination.

Take a look at us when we arrive. We ride on a modern air-conditioned firefighting machine that has a 500-horsepower engine, a turbo blast automatic transmission, a 1,500-gpm pump, an onboard computer hooked up to a global positioning system (GPS) that is continually connected to Mars (or wherever GPSs are hooked up to). We have every imaginable piece of firefighting and emergency medical equipment that ranges from Frankenstein crude (halligan tool) to space age technological (thermal imaging camera).

Every crew member is well trained and has a portable radio, a full set of personal protective equipment, and a self-contained breathing apparatus. The crew is a high-performance team that has a much practiced routine on how to operate together and is commanded by a company officer empowered to call for and use the entire inventory of department resources to solve the incident problem. That officer can summon literally an army of responders who will quickly arrive and fit into an overall command and control system. Those arriving responders will instantly go to work on their assigned part of the incident action plan. We show up with a high degree of operational, problem-solving fitness. At this moment, Mr. Fire is overpowering Mrs. Smith and has pretty much eliminated her capability (fitness) to solve her own problem.

This public fire protection and emergency medical system is typically supported by taxes that are collectively paid for by the Smith family (families). The customers provide the support for the resources to quickly respond when Mrs. Smith has her kitchen fire. Simply, the government creates a system with a high degree of response and operational capability to help customers (citizens) having an emergency (to them) that has at that terrible moment (for them) taken away their capability to solve the problem wrecking their life.

When we become so impressed with the great beauty of our capability, we can lose sight of the reason all those dandy things are provided to us. If we lose that sensible focus on the real source of all the resources we have and the reason we have them, we can do what Captain Nice warned us about and start looking down on someone who called us because he/she is having a really lousy day—and at that moment, that person is not nearly as pretty as we all are. We are in business to deliver service, not to make a judgment about a 62-year-old grandma who paid taxes her entire life and today she accidentally set her kitchen on fire and now has called us to use that prepaid service. Our role is to respond quickly, solve the problem, and be nice. Many times, the incident problem was caused by a dumb act—that is why we are in business—in fact, folks very seldom call us for help because they did something smart.

I really should have used an EMS call to make my point instead of a fire call (for all the reasons everyone reading this knows very well). Let’s make the call a 2:30 a.m. “check welfare” call. When the crew hears the call, they recognize the address—here we go again! Crazy old Fred is having his twice-a-week 2:30 a.m. hallucination where he imagines he is a spaceship and describes his situation in a semimedical way. Based on that information, we dispatch the closest engine company to help Crazy Fred. This company is as fit and as capable as the responding fire company described a couple of paragraphs ago. The crew hops on Big Red and heads out to Fred’s place. It is now in its full service, cross-trained, dual-role mode. What this means is that all four are firefighters—two members are paramedics and the other two are EMTs. The company seamlessly delivers both firefighting and medical service, and that capability creates the very sensible ability for the system to dispatch the closest company to the customer. I use the word “sensible” because I sincerely believe it is very dumb to not send the closest unit.

The crew members are trained, equipped, and highly persuaded to effectively deliver the highest level of prehospital care; they can pretty much do anything in Mrs. Smith’s living room that can be done in an emergency room. Now, our modern deployment system has awakened them and has them responding with all their training, resources, and system support at 2:30 a.m. to what is basically a mental health call. Simply, they are packaged up and prepared to go bear hunting, and now we have dispatched them to a lonely, frightened, confused hamster.

Now it is showtime for Captain Nice’s definition of respect: Don’t look down on anyone. This is the place where our discussion (and definition) of respect goes from a ho-hum academic definition to an actual 2:30 a.m. test for E-14. Old Fred is having a bad night and calls us simply because there isn’t anyone else to call who will physically respond and help him. The situation is not complicated but is highly profound for Fred. The act of being nice at that moment is also not complicated but is highly profound. The situation does not come up anywhere near the capability of E-14, so this becomes the very challenging place where we must remember that if we immediately dismiss the customer in the short run, he will eventually get the opportunity to dismiss us in the long run.

When Captain Nice gets in the rig, he verifies that everyone is onboard—belted—and says something like “Everybody, listen up! We are all going to be at Fred’s place pretty soon! Let’s take good care of him.” While the crew is helping Fred, they know that if they don’t treat the old guy like he is the prime minister, they will be getting “The Look” from Captain Nice. On the way back to the station after the call, the captain compliments and thanks the crew for how nice they were.

Two shifts later, the same crew gets the same 2:30 a.m. call and finds Fred in real medical trouble. They do the whole advanced life support routine and stabilize, package, and transport him to the local hospital. Two weeks later, a very attractive, 40-something lady, who is Fred’s daughter, stops by the station to thank the crew for being so nice to her Dad. She relates to the crew how much her father has depended on E-14 and how much he admired the way they treated him. She also says that before her Dad retired, he was the customer service manager of a major corporation, and that he felt that if he could have created the level of service that he received from Engine 14, his company would have made a lot more money than it did (this is a true story).

The community has made a major investment in our response capability. We do not use the upper level of that capability very often, but we use the bottom end a lot. We make a huge mistake when we disrespect a customer whose situation does not come up to our qualification, capability, or expectation. I can relate to this very personally because I am rapidly becoming Old Fred. Many nights, I imagine Marilyn Monroe and I are sailing along on our spaceship, and I really hope Captain Nice is on duty and first due when we have our 2:30 a.m. crash.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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