Applying the Perception Test

Sometimes what you think the troops think is nowhere close to what they really think.

You are working on something and are perplexed (high-tech term for normal fire department description of agitation). You have run into a problem and cannot find the answer. You try and try and try to no avail. Along comes the spousal unit. Looking over your shoulder, the statement is made, “Why don’t you try this?” You, the expert in this endeavor, are incensed that a suggestion even be made! You are in control over all you see! After an emotional ego-enhanced tantrum, you go ballistic because the suggestion worked.

Later that night, you are discussing a problem in your department with a friend from a neighboring department. When suggestions are offered, you respond, “Thanks, but not being in my department, you don’t understand.” The problem is not that your friend doesn’t understand; the problem is that you didn’t learn the lesson from earlier in the day. The main roadblock to solving the problem may be you. Yes, here comes the buzzword “perception.”


There are some great definitions of perception. I asked a group of firefighters to come up with one, which sometimes is similar to rolling a grenade into a room and closing the door. They came up with this definition: “Perception is what someone hears or reads regardless of what you originally and factually said or wrote.” A perfect example of this is the following honest-to-truth story.

Two birthday-enhanced males were walking in front of me at the local hospital. Both wore dual hearing-enhancement devices. One said to the other, with emotion, “I have a cataract.” The other replied, “When did you buy a Cadillac?”

“No,” he said a bit louder, “I have a Cadillac.”

“Okay!” replied the other man. “When did you buy it?”

Now at a volume just below a scream, the first man said, “No, you #$^%* idiot. I got a cataract!”

“Don’t call me an idiot,” the man replied indignantly. “I didn’t buy the darn thing. I drive a Ford. I used to have one, but I got rid of it.”

I don’t know how the rest of the conversation went because I had to sit down, I was laughing so hard.

Sometimes, we are impaired not only by physical limitations but also by our perceptions.

We may think that a condition, situation, or problem is caused by one thing when in reality it is the result of quite another. Many departments these days suffer from this perception issue. The sad thing is that until the problem is discovered, the perception differences that might exist in your department may lead to at least some of the existing difficulties. Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot. There are never problems at our own stations, so we talk about the problems in “that other department.”

I was asked to come in and conduct some officer training in a department experiencing some problems. After the second cup of coffee, the problem became recognizable and definable, and not one that I could solve because “I wouldn’t understand, since I was not from that department.”


I asked each officer to write down what he thought the troops would write about them, good and bad. I then had each firefighter write down what they thought of each officer, good and bad. I took the results, tabulated them, burned the raw data to protect the guilty, and presented the results. In each case, the officers were in tune with the good the troops saw in them. They were not even on the same planet, however, when it came to the negatives. Each officer related a negative pertaining to a technical skill: I don’t like ladders, I won’t go inside, I hate friction loss, and so on. In a rare total consensus, the firefighters all had interpersonal relation issues: “Always yells. If you do a good job, you get more work. If you don’t do anything, you’re not given anything. Treats us like slaves. Never gives a pat on the back. Uses language I find offensive.”


The problems facing “that other department” today may be based on a lack of training-not technical training, but training in humans skills. Twenty years ago, customer service was treating the customer as you would want to be treated. Today customer service is treating the customer and the employee as they want to be treated. I know. I felt the disturbance in the force and heard the shouts coming back: “We don’t have employees. We are not employers. We are volunteers.” Nice perception-if they’re not employees, are they free help, slaves, associates? There may be a better name. As a matter of fact, there is: the internal customers.

In delivering emergency services to the community, we strive to meet the needs of those we serve. Does it not make perfect sense to also strive to meet the needs of those who serve? Find out the needs, expectations, and concerns of your internal customers. The members of your department will truly soar with eagles. Ignore doing this, and you will be working with turkeys!

CHARLES F. BRUSH is a career deputy chief in the Lebanon (NH) Fire Department and a call firefighter in Hartford, Vermont. He chairs the Vermont Fire Service Training Council’s Curriculum Committee and is a member of the NFA adjunct faculty.

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