Critiques = Keepin’ Score

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

This month we look at the critique part of the performance-management process. The critique provides a standard postincident review that asks and (hopefully) answers the most basic effectiveness question: How well did the people work, and how did the procedures work? This really simple, really important question is posed after we go out in the real world and use our local resources to apply the standard operating procedures (SOPs) in the street. Last month, we called the application phase “showtime.”

We also discussed how the five standard model parts (in order) connect and integrate to create an effective context among those interrelated system parts (SOPs/Train/Apply/Critique/Revise). The ongoing application of this context becomes the foundation for creating, maintaining, and continually improving our operational effectiveness.

Talking about “context” is a little bit of an unnatural act for us because it has a somewhat academic (egghead) “sound” to it. Our use of the model involves a very practical, nontheoretical approach that creates a regular operational routine where the order and connection of the system parts fit together (i.e., “context”) to support how we deliver service in the street. The five standard parts of the model create the need for us to get those before/during/after (the incident) model parts lined up in order so we can do effective and safe hazard zone work.

If we don’t routinely do a standard critique, how do we “keep score”? What “score” means in real simple terms is, did we actually do what we said we would do in the SOPs, and did we actually play in the street the way we agreed to play at the drill tower and in the classroom? The critique is a place where we also review how well the front end of our management model (SOPs and training) prepared us for the job of protecting and helping Mrs. Smith when she calls us for help.

When we review the work, we also automatically review how well the context of our system is aligned. If we are sending out troops to do work they are not adequately prepared to do, it will pop out pretty quickly when we do a standard review of how well they performed at the event. By the same token, goofy, unrealistic SOPs that sound good in the planning meeting but will not work in the street will not survive a standard review. The model creates an applied, not an academic, response—actual use (showtime) is the most effective way to evaluate the effectiveness of a local firefighting person, procedure, or piece of equipment.

In my travels, I hear fire officers say that we should not do postincident reviews (critiques) because they can be used against us. The work we do is done in a very open way (sirens, air horns, flashing lights) and typically is a very well-publicized, highly recorded, and electronically distributed public event. We are nuts if we believe that we can keep a fire a secret and then not do a critique so no one else will. A basic question for us is, Do we want to create our own accurate, objective description of the work we did or have some color-coordinated lawyer from 500 miles away create the only written and represented description of what (and how) we did that work?

This doesn’t mean that if we do a critique that no one else will; but if we do our own review and we get in a fight in the courthouse over what happened, at least it could end up ours vs. theirs. Speaking of context, the first question the handsome out-of-town lawyer asks is, “What is your SOP, and did you follow it?” Remember, Chief, you are now under oath! Going to court is never a day at the beach.

Structure an effective critique around the following areas:

1 Conditions: Creating a basic “picture” of the conditions we encountered becomes the foundation of the review.
2 Action: A description of our action outlines how we applied our SOPs, tactics, and standard deployment to solve the incident problems.
3 Outcome: Situation outcome reflects how our action affected conditions.
4 Lessons learned and reinforced: We must determine how the incident contributed to our education—how well our existing system worked (old lessons we have learned in the past and system improvements we have implemented) and the new lessons the incident taught us (lessons learned).
5 Action plan for improvement: Specific organizational assignments, with completion times, must be made to specific people based on the lessons learned, to be certain that what the incident taught us goes in the “bank” and is not lost.

 

As a department does critiques over time, it should develop a postincident standard review format that fits that organization’s profile using these standard categories. Everyone in the system must develop an expectation that all tactical activity will be reviewed. The basis of this awareness is an understanding that the organization is serious about performance. This means that your boss, no matter where you are on the food chain, is going to directly engage you after you deliver service and will ask a standard set of questions (#1 to #4 above) and then make a standard set of assignments (#5 above) that produce real, live, actual laying-hose, raising-ladders, taking-command, running-the-pump-in-the-street kind of improvements.

All incidents are not created equal, so all critiques should not be created equal. Company and battalion/district officers should review smaller events that occur repeatedly in the street (literally). These “local” critiques can create the most direct impact, because they are so closely connected to the action that took place and are done by bosses inside the operating team that just played together. There is no time to rehearse or get our stories together—a normal (and healthy) fire company reaction.

Larger incidents involving a lot of resources must be done in a more formal way. These big-deal reviews require a more structured approach and generally produce a written report. The report must be distributed to all department members and must become a permanent document. These reports collectively become a historic record of the organization’s operational experience.

Bosses must understand that they have a major responsibility to inspect completed work in a timely manner. They must not be distracted with the baloney of being a “micro manager,” particularly if that work was done in a hazard zone. Firefighters decide for themselves how serious the organization is by watching rather than by listening. They pay special attention to the investment the organization makes in follow-up. Postwork inspection is one of the most powerful influences a boss can have when it consistently reflects a nonpatronizing, sincere recognition of effective performance and sensible, human, no-punitive coaching that is directed to correcting problems.

The ongoing effect of consistently doing this review (every time) has an enormous organizational effect. Everyone knows at the end of the work cycle that the boss is going to do a standard review. That review will revolve around how the troops followed the department’s operational SOPs. Using the local SOPs as the critique outline eliminates any guessing games about what the IC is going to talk/ask about—the five-step agenda for the critique is standard and very well known. We are going to review conditions/action/outcome/lessons/revision.

Assistant Chief Larry Schultz, the highly experienced and very savvy operations chief in the District of Columbia Fire Department, conducts a hugely successful standard critique program. He calls it “Nobody Goes Home,” a clever play on words using another familiar and very valuable fire service phrase. His program involves an immediate meeting at the end of the incident with the troops who operated at the incident reviewing how well everyone performed the operational and safety SOPs in that particular situation. The IC leads the SOP-driven review in the street before anything or anybody is “cleaned up.” No delay, no e-mails, no disconnects—simply, you don’t go home until that review is done by your command boss.

I strongly believe that a lot more of us would go home at the end of the shift if none of us went home until the critique was done at the end of the incident.

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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  • ALAN BRUNACINI  was a fire service author and speaker, and a longtime contributor to Fire Engineering . He and his sons owned the fire service Web site bshifter.com. He passed away in 2017 .

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