Do You Have a “Healthy” Fire Department?

BY KENNETH W. CLINE

A fire department is in many ways just like the human body. Unlike many other professions and organizations, a fire department is a living, breathing body; it does not stop at 5 p.m. or take weekends and holidays off. Fire departments are comprised of multiple body systems that must function as one to achieve the ultimate goal: preventing and safely mitigating emergencies. It is an organization that must work, play, eat, and rest as a whole.

Comparing a fire department to the human body shows the relevance among health, function, and understanding. Just as humans are unique, there are no identical fire departments. Each has its own personality, background, and dreams. Although almost everything from hemorrhoids (yes, all fire departments have a few) to hair loss can be compared by analogy, let’s focus on the essentials of the business—backbone, brains, blood, sweat, tears, and immunity.

THE SPINE

A department’s policies, rules, regulations, procedures, guidelines, and other forms of written structure form its backbone and foundation. Although there are some who feel that written structure is a hindrance or limitation, it is exactly what the body must have to support itself and survive. Creating and maintaining this structure are quite simple. A fire department should have two sets of written structure: policies and guidelines—a rigid and solid component (bone) and a flexible counterpart (cartilage). The fire department’s bone is its policies. These policies should be thorough and all-inclusive, covering all aspects of a fire department’s nonemergency management. Policies need to include the words “shall,” “will,” and “must” and should address all internal issues.

Standard operating guidelines (SOGs) form the department’s cartilage. SOGs should address emergency response only and should contain the words “could,” “should,” and “would.” Obviously, there will be many more policies and procedures than SOGs.

Policies must be firm; guidelines must be flexible. Policies and guidelines must be enforced and followed by all, period. Picking and choosing certain rules to follow will cause a “nagging backache” that will linger. The “spine” should also have an annual checkup in which all policies and guidelines are reviewed and modified as needs, practices, and technology change.

THE BRAIN

The department’s administration and senior management, of course, constitute the brain. The brain must think clearly at all times and resist the natural fight-or-flight urge (caused by adrenaline) when making decisions. Personal preferences or agendas must be put aside for the benefit of the whole department (body). You may prefer to overindulge at a buffet, stay out all night drinking and dancing, or go on a skiing trip, but in the long run, what risks and potential problems might you suffer? How will the whole body be affected? Will you have a constant heartburn, a lethargic hangover, or a debilitating broken leg? The “mind” should learn and remember its own past and history (heredity and injuries) and at the same time be able to predict and plan for the future. Planning should include everything from lunch (short term) to what is happening this weekend (midrange) all the way through retirement (long term). The mind should also have a clear understanding of all the body systems, including their needs and abilities.

THE RESPIRATORY SYSTEM

The fire department’s respiratory system is its training and education program. Training is as essential to a fire department as oxygen is to a human being. Education should be diverse and fresh. Training should range from a constant review of the basics and progress through leadership and management preparation. It should be specific to job duties and responsibilities and future needs. It should also contain a mix of internal and external influences. This influence (fresh air) should include not only the instruction and curriculum (including the instructors) but also the participants. Breathing the same air over and over (decreasing oxygen) will eventually cause systemic health problems and hinder growth and development. Breathing stagnant air will also lead to a dull and sluggish body. Training and education need to be carefully planned and scheduled; they should not be surprise events, which would be akin to a breath of hot air.

THE CARDIOVASCULAR SYSTEM

The heart and blood of a department are its personnel and human resources. The cardiovascular system has many components, but we will consider primarily the pump (heart), the blood, and the blood vessels. The blood pressure (morale) can be high or low; problems come with each. Low morale results in uncertainty and an ill-feeling body, while high blood pressure brings with it headaches and agitation. A healthy heart makes the whole body feel good; a heart full of blockages will prevent the body from performing as we want it to or as is required. The heart of the department also needs a checkup periodically to access its productivity and identify future problems and needs. Blood needs to be screened for impurities, and appropriate treatment (mentoring) may be needed to ensure the blood (people) flows well and carries the oxygen (training) to the muscles (action).

THE MUSCULOSKELETAL SYSTEM

A fire department’s strength and abilities revolve around staffing. Staffing is essentially how the delivery of service is carried out. Just as in the body, many muscle groups must work together to perform a common task. Shoulders and arms, abdomen and back, and legs and hips must work together as a company. Companies and work groups are the vehicles a department uses to function and achieve its goals.

Companies (staffing) must be consistent. Human beings are creatures of habit and work most proficiently when not subjected to frequent changes. Mixing companies and constant change will lead to awkward performance and injury. Develop companies with strengths and weaknesses in mind. Constant use of certain work groups to perform the same (menial) tasks can lead to favoring one group over another and ultimately make for an uneven body.

Consistent companies can be difficult to obtain. Career, combination, and volunteer fire departments each have their own challenges and struggles. Staffing should be done in a fair and balanced manner. An effortless process such as always using the same body part (we all have our “go to” people) will get the job done but may benefit only certain muscle groups, leading to favoritism and a very unbalanced body, ultimately causing other body parts to become unnecessarily strained and sore.

THE PSYCHOSOCIAL SYSTEM

Emotions can affect individual body parts and the body in general. Usually when dealing with emotion, when one system is affected, all systems share the effects. In a fire department, the strength of one system will help another grow and heal. Firefighters are tight and will share their pain and triumph with one another. Many times it is healthful for one system to carry another during the yo-yo of emotions commonly seen in the business. Unfortunately, if the psychosocial behaviors of the body are not routinely monitored, this imbalance can become draining on the body as a whole—for example, good companies can boost training, and strong policies can improve morale. Although keeping 100 percent of the body happy 100 percent of the time is nearly impossible, allowing the majority to be unhappy the majority of the time will only lead to systemic pain and suffering.

THE NERVOUS SYSTEM

The nervous system is the internal communication network of the body. It contains two critical components: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system is comprised of the brain stem and spinal cord; the peripheral system contains the nerves that branch to other systems.

The spinal cord of a department allows for the direct and almost autonomic flow of information and messages from the administration to the various other departments. The backbone protects this ability; or, in other words, policies and guidelines allow orders and direction to flow throughout the department (body) without thought automatically.

The peripheral system is within the heart, muscles, and skeleton, or the working branches of the department. It allows action to occur when it receives the message, but it also feels pain, warmth, cold, and wear and tear. Internal communication, whether written or verbal, relays the goals of the administration to the workforce, but it also must serve as a mechanism for the senses to relay their feelings, progress, and complications back to the brain.

THE IMMUNE SYSTEM

The immune system of a fire department is its internal labor organizations, employee associations, and cliques. Although the strengths and weakness and pros and cons of individual groups can be discussed ad nauseam, there is one principle to remember: A strong immune system will result in a strong and active body, and an immune system that has a virus will break the body down in many ways and lead to its failure.

Personnel-based special-interest groups should be concerned with three primary goals to protect all systems of the body. First, the safety, health, and wellness of the participants are essential. Next, striving for improved compensation, benefits, and rewards—or at least maintaining what has already been acquired—is important. The last critical goal should be ensuring the fair, equal, and nondiscriminate treatment of all fire department members.

•••

Managing a healthy fire department is as difficult as keeping a body healthy. It takes work, and sometimes intense will, to stay healthy and fend off illness and injury. Unfortunately, fire departments must also deal with their own heredity (culture), which can severely limit their health and, even worse, can make improved health much more difficult to obtain. Fire department leaders must strive to develop a strong foundation of written structure and communication, impart in personnel the latest information, ensure the heart and morale are within productive limits, develop workgroups that have proficient skills and abilities, provide a pleasant and satisfying environment, and work with all systems to stay fit and sound. We must work hard, play safe, eat right (with exercise), and rest ourselves accordingly to function as needed. No human body is perfect, and neither is the fire department. There are many variables, risks, and exposures, but we must constantly make every effort to stay in optimum health.

KENNETH W. CLINE, BA, EMT-P, is the EMS operations officer with the Charleston (WV) Fire Department. A former volunteer chief, he is also a West Virginia regional instructor and a member of the adjunct faculty at the National Fire Academy (NFA). He is a fourth-year participant in the NFA’s Executive Fire Officer Program.

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