BY ALAN BRUNACINI
IN RECENT COLUMNS, WE HAVE been discussing some of the pieces and parts that make up how we deliver service to our customers. We have covered the four basic behaviors (respect/kindness/patience/consideration) that add up to being nice. It is always useful to examine the various behavioral components that add up to producing an effective service delivery system. Consistently being nice is the result of our engaging in the four behaviors. When these behaviors are effectively extended to a customer, they become as operational as any other system we use to deliver service. In fact, when we add customer care to other tactical functions like rescue, fire control, and property conservation (and really anything else we do), we greatly enhance how the internal or the external people receiving our service feel and remember what we did for them.
A set of standard parts constitutes being fit for duty. Understanding the details and dynamics of biologic, cognitive, emotional, and social fitness creates a balanced approach to dealing with the physical and mental components of tactically resolving the incident while providing a service that connects to the personal part of what the customer is going through emotionally. Supporting these four capabilities becomes a major organizational responsibility and function-simply, bosses on every level must continually evaluate how effectively those standard categories of customer support are actually being extended.
It is critical for us to focus on the basic parts required to deliver effective service as we have already discussed such as what does nice mean and how fit are we to deliver service? These capabilities and behaviors form the foundation of effective customer service, but there is a ton of related stuff we must apply to deliver that service. As I think about the application part, it involves both science and art-although I am neither a scientist nor an artist, I have a jumble of my own random thoughts about that application.
We can break down what we do for folks who call us for help into two basic areas: core service and added value. Core service involves the direct action we take to solve the incident problem. That tactical action is the fundamental reason we are in business. The magazine you are now reading has presented for 136 years a complete description of the most current accepted good fire service practices in delivering operations (core service) like fire control, medical support, special operations, and the many support activities that assist that service delivery.
Core service involves our using our human and system resources to physically interrupt whatever is wrecking the customer’s life at that moment. We operate the public sector response system that is the most decentralized with the highest number of permanent facilities-simply, we can get to the customer the quickest so we can take action to intervene as early as possible. Incident problems with a lot of seniority are the most difficult to control, so in our core service, (firefighting/rescue/medical) response time is always critical.
Once we stabilize and hopefully eliminate the basic incident problem, we then go into a different “time zone”-now we have uncompressed time creating the opportunity (as opposed to the rushed beginning) to perform some extra services to increase both the customer’s personal comfort and the convenience of recovery. We call this part of customer service “added value.” The American fire service really did not have much of a discussion about delivering added value until about 20 years ago.
I was raised in that system where, as a company officer and a battalion chief, I literally yelled (!) at the troops to get the firefighting stuff rolled up, picked up, and loaded so we could hop on the rig and return to service. We routinely did just that hurry-up-and-retreat routine, and when we got back to the station we hung the hose, cleaned the truck, and then sat and waited for 11½ hours for the next call (before EMS). It is odd looking back on it: Then, we even had a revolutionary invention on the truck, a two-way radio, and we could have done what we routinely do today and go in service, being available for the next call and taking the time to help finish the job for Mrs. Smith.
In the beginning, the added-value discussion was a bit awkward because most of us were raised in a system with this mentality (and approach) that we must quickly be available for the “next alarm.” This rush at the end of the incident created a traditional time-management perception and routine that when we finished doing core service, we were done! I can still remember my old battalion chief yelling at us using a new word (to me) to go home (i.e., to the fire station) and stop “lollygagging.” At the time, I really didn’t know what the word meant, but I figured out he wanted us off the scene. Now whenever I hear that somewhat unusual word, I think of good old Chief Powers. Later in life, at the beginning of the customer service “movement,” I had the opportunity to tell a new set of added-value stories about our helping the customer in very nontraditional ways (at the time) and firefighters, particularly the older ones, would just shake their heads in disbelief. Now, the former head shakers stop the fire truck and routinely change an old lady’s flat tire and never think a thing about it.
This bit of history shows two developments. One is that we have expanded the function of what we do for the customer; we have quietly and seamlessly redefined the job. I think that most fire departments now living in the modern age express this redefinition by not regarding their response to the incident as complete until they have finished short-term recovery for the customer whose life has been seriously disrupted by initiating the response of social services and community resources to assist with medium-term recovery. Some progressive fire departments provide crisis response units staffed by mental health specialists who transfer care of the customer from the firefighters and then provide social service recovery assistance to the Smith Family. It is an understatement to describe the feeling the customers have for the firefighters and these crisis responders as exceptional.
The other change we have made is that we have redefined our perception of our time. Our time is a major asset, and how we use it is directly connected to our major function: to deliver service that uses our resources to stabilize and complete the customer’s needs. How we spend that time will determine our effectiveness. I know that time management can be a delicate subject. During my life as a fire chief, I continually struggled to compete for and try to capture fire company time to complete “my programs.” The challenge for me was that up and down the hall in our office there were six or seven other senior officers who were also trying to get that same time for their programs.
Although the struggle for company time among the big bosses continued, the person who always went to the head of that line (who actually owns Engine 1’s time) was Mrs. Smith. Simply, when she called, Engine 1 stopped doing anything and everything in which the members were involved and responded to help her. As we all evolved in expanding EMS, our customers (we hope different customers) many times call Engine One 15 times a day as opposed to the one or two calls we ran on in the old firefighting-only days. As we got busier delivering a full range of services, I had to adjust my program development plan to fit into a much smaller space simply because all the Mrs. Smiths took up so much more of that space that there was never anything in my earth-shaking plan that took or should have taken time away from protecting her. I hope my plan did just the opposite.
As we developed a more refined approach to customer service, we learned that the program did not mean that we were trying to be (or could be) all things to all people. We recognized that there was a sensible set of added-value services that we could attach to what we normally did responding to regular incidents using our regular resources, and we refined our plan accordingly. For example, as we refined this added-value approach, we began to do a better job of loss control both from the standpoint of the damage we did in firefighting to the tools and techniques we used to sort out recoverable possessions in overhaul operations and to use more delicate ways to be certain the fire was out. In an earlier time, we would sometimes virtually destroy the structure and the interior and exterior finishes “checking for extension.” We learned that we could be more refined and still do complete fire control, and we shifted from vandalism to property conservation.
We also began to develop better ways to support the humans who came with the incident. We created and trained all the officers to serve as an Owner/Occupant Support Sector, a regular part of the incident command organization, that coordinated the resources and response to assist the customer. As the project continued, it seemed that the added-value part of our core service response was integrated into every other part of the response. Our troops began to naturally limit loss, do a better job of cleanup, provide comfort and support for the humans, and provide a more effective structure recovery; this is where the axiom “people, pets, pictures, and pills” came from.
Many of these customer service changes were connected to a new definition of organizational empowerment. We had and still do structure tactical operations around department procedures, policy directives, guidelines, standing orders, rules, and regulations. They were and are the foundation of delivering core service. This structured performance management approach is critical because when we deliver response service, we must quickly involve and integrate teams of fire companies who collectively operate in difficult, dangerous operations that absolutely require us to quickly and seamlessly do business in the same way all the time. The structured material creates an outcome where we all operate, as we often say, “on the same sheet of music.”
Using organizational procedures to create a consistent operational response is smart and safe and works really well when we must orchestrate tactical plays to solve physical problems. That approach does not fit (or work) when we must serve the personal needs of the humans attached to those physical situations. The way we find our customers who have experienced or been victimized by some situation where they call us to help them has great variation. Almost every human and his situation that we encounter are special in some way, and the organization must create an internal response customized to that person’s very individual profile, condition, and current need. The very simple (and very effective) way we do this is to equip every one of our department members with the authority to use organizational resources to help the customer. We call this process “empowerment.”
We apply a very structured performance model to manage our operational response and, as we have discussed in this column from time to time, the model has a set of simple basic steps that describe and integrate standard operating procedures/training/application/critique/revision. Doing the steps (in order) produces the result of consistent, standard, and safe operational behaviors and outcomes. The model we use to produce empowered behavior is also very basic and simple. It communicates to the members that we give them permission and encourage them to develop a response to the customer’s needs right where and when the firefighter and Mrs. Smith come together. No one in the organization knows more about the very current status and needs of her situation than the firefighter, so we give that member access to all the department resources to solve that problem.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is it the right thing for the customer?
- Is it the right thing for our department?
- Is it legal, ethical, and nice?
- Is it on my organizational level?
- Is it something I am willing to be accountable for?
- Is it consistent with our department’s values and policies?
If you answer yes to all of these questions, don’t ask for permission; JUST DO IT!
A closely related value/mission statement supports this empowerment routine:
- Prevent harm. Wherever and whenever you can, prevent harm. If harm is underway, stop it. If someone has already been harmed, help him recover from that harm.
- Survive. You promise Mrs. Smith that you will put your body in between the incident problem and her. The organization promises you a safety system that ensures that you survive delivering on that promise.
- Be nice. Be patient, considerate, kind, and respectful.
Even though the statement is short and simple, it seemed to effectively provide a clear and very understandable organizational operational and cultural foundation for a large, very busy metro fire department for more than 30 years.
● 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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