Address Root Causes to Prevent Problems

BY RICHARD MARINUCCI

Almost daily, through the power of the Internet, news of firefighters behaving badly is broadcast for all to read. The swiftness of news traveling to all corners of the world and the frequency of the news items lead to a perception that problems are happening more often than ever before. I don’t know if this is the case. It seems that many veterans in the fire service have a load of stories to tell. Chiefs relate stories of problems they have faced throughout their career. The Internet has contributed to the perception that there are more problems because more people are aware of them.

Regardless, the potential for your problems to become known by many should be of concern and possibly motivate you to act to reduce the risk of having you, your organization, or your personnel become an unfavorable news story. The fire service also needs to recognize that many people do not make distinctions when they see these stories. They often develop perceptions about the entire profession based on what they read and lump everyone into the same category. People develop their biases based on the input they receive.

People create problems. It may be because of the makeup of an individual, group thinking (some may refer to this as a mob mentality), a failure to adequately prepare (train), or simple complacency. Think of some of the problems that you have faced. They probably would fit into one of these categories. People with bad attitudes certainly create problems. That is part of an individual’s makeup. Firefighters in a group setting with nothing to do can often find ways to get into trouble. Those who don’t get trained can make mistakes. And those who stop thinking (complacency) make mistakes they normally wouldn’t. To prevent problems, you need to address these root causes.

Selecting Employees

First, you need to hire and promote good people. Mistakes in hiring and promoting last a long time. Many chiefs can trace many problems back to a bad hire. If you don’t start with a good product, you cannot make a good final product. You need to have a sound hiring process. This would include an application; a testing process that includes a written, a physical, and an oral component; and a thorough background check. If a job offer is made, a physical examination that meets the National Fire Protection Association standards and a psychological test should be given. Finally, you must consider the probationary time as part of the selection process.

Your evaluation of a candidate begins with your review of the application. There is a lot to be learned if you have the right questions on the form. You can learn about education, work history, possible criminal activity, and general interest. Neatness and thoroughness tell you something about the applicant. Your experience and instincts may raise a question about things that appear to be exaggerations. Although few things on an application indicate the need for immediate disqualification, notes that you make can be useful as the individual continues through the selection process.

Many written tests are standardized, as are candidate physical ability tests (CPAT). If you believe you have a good battery of tests, then it would be logical that those who score better have a better chance of performing to a higher degree. Good talent leads to good employees. Great talent leads to great employees. What do you want? If you hire someone who barely passes the tests, then you can expect that they will barely meet your minimum standards.

Interviews are a key component of any selection process. There are skills that can be learned to become a good interviewer. Many people assume that they are good. Training and education in this area are important and will help to fine tune your skills and instincts so that you can better distinguish among candidates. Many candidates are well-schooled and are able to give answers that are basic and standard. A good interviewer will be able to get past this to learn more about what the candidate really believes and thinks.

Good background checks can be time consuming and costly. However, they may provide the most revealing information about an individual. Obviously, driving record and criminal background checks are essential. Reference checks can provide clues, but don’t rely only on the list the candidate provides. Rarely would someone give a reference that would provide a poor report. Previous employers can be a good source, but beware of potential pitfalls. Some are hesitant to provide negative information for fear of some type of backlash. However, good investigators can learn to “read through” some of the comments that are made. Fire departments are not always trained to do thorough background checks. Working with your police agency may be of benefit, as it has more experience with investigations.

A probationary period is the final step in the hiring process, and you need to view it this way. Although new employees will be lacking in some of the skills needed to do the job, there are some things that should be there from day one. Attitude and work ethic need to be demonstrated every day. I have never had an employee who has improved in either of these areas after completing probation. Behaviorwise, employees should be as near perfect as possible. Any deviations are warning signs of future problems.

Over the years, I have had some “problem children.” Looking back, there were clear warning signs during their probationary period. It is very difficult to terminate employment, but the alternative is a career of problems.

Establish Expectations

It is essential that you communicate your expectations of proper behavior to all employees. They need to hear it from the top of the organization and from all supervisors. The department needs sound policies that clearly communicate the desires of the organization. The policies must be understood and enforced. Discipline must be established, and each member must know the consequences of creating preventable problems. Because members come from diverse backgrounds, they may not always think the same way as you. It is a mistake to assume that common sense will prevail and everyone will agree on what is right and what is wrong. The more critical an issue is, the clearer the policy and direction must be.

Complacency, or a failure to think, is a contributing factor in many problems. Often, it is the result of group-think or boredom. This is why my Dad kept me busy in my youth—to keep me out of trouble! Many fire chiefs will tell you that they have the fewest problems from the stations, companies, or shifts that have the most activity. Busy people don’t have time to get into trouble.

Not every station or company can have a heavy run volume. If this is the case, the downtime should be used to better prepare for the core responsibilities. Officers and supervisors need to do their job to make sure that everyone is most capable. This means more training, good maintenance, and possibly physical fitness. When I read of some of the problems that are posted on the Internet, I often ask, “Where was the supervision?” There are reasons there are officers, and they need to do their job to keep everyone focused on the job at hand.

I don’t have the time and space in this article to delve deeply enough into any of these issues. Suffice to say that each preventive measure is important, and taking the time to prepare and do what is necessary will pay dividends in the future. Problems are not always avoidable, but they can be minimized by having great people who are focused on providing outstanding service. Too much spare time is not good.

Firefighters with good character rarely get into serious trouble. Great supervisors keep their crews focused. Our citizens and taxpayers want the best quality possible and do not want to hear about problems that should never have occurred. As Ben Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Richard Marinucci 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 USFA. He has bachelor’s degrees from Western Michigan University, Madonna University, and the University of Cincinnati. He teaches for Eastern Michigan University and Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute.

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