Dealing with emotional issues can be challenging, especially for me. Almost all issues have an emotional component, but some are almost exclusively within that arena. In these cases, facts don’t always affect the outcome, nor do they sway opinions. The challenge is to break through the emotions, gather the facts, and change viewpoints based on these facts.

That brings us to this month’s problem. You receive a phone call from a woman who begins the conversation by stating that she is very upset with the actions of your firefighter/paramedics who had responded to a call to assist her father. In fact, she is so upset that it has taken her nearly five months to call you to register her complaint. She states that she has been so upset and emotionally affected that, until now, she has been unable to call.

The story and events presented to you are as follows. The woman’s father, age 92, had fallen in the parking lot of the senior housing center, where he resided. One of the other residents of the housing center called 911 to report the incident. Your personnel responded. On their arrival, they found a 92-year-old male who had fallen but was conscious. Treatment was provided, and the patient was transported.

None of this is in dispute. Further, the woman’s father subsequently died (within a short time of this incident). The woman was understandably distraught with the death of her father but in no way was implying that your responders contributed in any way. Her complaint was regarding hearsay from other residents in the housing project. The woman stated that the person who called 911 told her that the first question the dispatcher asked was whether or not the patient was “drunk.” Further, the same person or another bystander told the woman that the first question the paramedics asked was, “Is he drunk?” From the tone of the woman’s voice, you can tell she is livid. She is now demanding to know what you will do about it.

In spite of the emotional issue involved, your first responsibility is to gather the facts. Your initial reaction is that this probably did not happen. Of course, if you were to tell the woman this during the phone call, she would only get more upset, and it would make resolution of the issue more difficult. Your first actions are to calm the woman down enough so you can discuss the situation and explain your intended course of action. Explain to the woman that you would like the opportunity to investigate the allegations. Further, you will need time to do so. It may take longer than normal because of the time lapse between the actual event and the call of complaint. You also will need time to talk to the dispatcher and fire personnel. Their work schedules may be such that it may take a few days to talk to all the players. Explain to the woman your intentions to investigate and the time you expect it would take to completely investigate the allegations. Obtain the contact information (name, phone number, and so on), and tell the woman when she can expect to hear from you. Give a realistic timeframe, but allow enough time to do what you have to do given the circumstances. End the call as courteously as possible with the assurance that you will get back to her.

The two basic challenges to this incident investigation are the time lag from occurrence to complaint and the emotions of the complainant. First, pull your incident report to see if it contains anything that will help you. If it is typical, there will be nothing remarkable, just the standard information. In fact, if it is truly an unremarkable incident, it will be even more difficult to ascertain any specific facts as the firefighter/paramedics will have had no reason to remember specific relevant details. They more than likely will have responded to numerous calls since the event in question, making this incident very indistinguishable.

If possible, obtain a copy of the dispatch tape of the call. It will reveal a lot. Hopefully, your records are kept long enough. Some policies allow for disposal after 90 days. If you do not have the tape, your job will be more challenging. If you can determine the dispatcher who handled the call, try to gain some insight from that person. Other than reviewing the report and tape and talking to the employees involved, you have few options. More than likely, you will be inclined to believe that your employees did nothing wrong; but without something to back it up, your complainant will continue to press you for action. If this is the case, the only possible solution may be a face-to-face meeting with the woman. You may also need to include the responding firefighters or at minimum the officer in charge. In these types of situations, those emotionally involved will need something concrete to change their mind. In lieu of that, it might just be one of those circumstances that will never be resolved to the liking of the woman.

When presented with an emotional complaint, I suggest the following:

  • Do your best to gain control of the meeting or phone call while allowing the complainant the opportunity to “vent.”
  • Be empathetic to the person with the issue (do not discount the person’s feelings or appear uncaring or aloof).
  • Request an opportunity to investigate the incident and time to do it completely.
  • Support your personnel until it is proven otherwise.
  • Get as many facts as possible.
  • Report back to the individual within the timeframe you provided, earlier if possible.
  • If significant, advise your boss so there are no surprises (sometimes people don’t like your answer and will continue to “shop” for a better response).
  • Do what you can to remain focused on the issues, not the emotions.
  • Recognize the emotional component, and know that you may not always find a perfect solution or change everyone’s opinion, even if the facts are on your side.
  • If for some reason the complaint is valid, be prepared to offer a sincere apology (from you and those involved).
  • Always remember that “bedside” manner may be the most important thing we offer.

In the movie “A League of Their Own,” Tom Hanks, in response to an emotional outburst by one of the players said, “There is no crying in baseball!” Obviously, he had not been prepared. Many of us in the fire service are in the same boat. We don’t expect to face deep emotional complaints, so we don’t always know how to react. But in today’s world with the variety of services provided and the individual personalities of our personnel and our “customers,” they can present themselves at any time. Handling them properly from the beginning will lead to a quicker resolution.

RICHARD MARINUCCI has been chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department since 1984. He was president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs in 1997-98 and chair of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as senior advisor to Director James Lee Witt of FEMA and acting chief operating officer of the United States Fire Administration for seven months as part of a loan program between the City of Farmington Hills and FEMA. He received the Outstanding Public Service Award from the director for his efforts. Marinucci has three B.S. degrees: in secondary education from Western Michigan University, in fire science from Madonna College, and in fire administration from the University of Cincinnati. He was the first graduate of the Open Learning Fire Service Program at the University of Cincinnati (summa cum laude) and was named a Distinguished Alumnus in 1995.

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