Fit For Duty the Emotional Component


For the past two columns, we have had an unplugged discussion about what it takes for us to deliver service using the human part of our inventory of response capabilities. We generally have the very historic feeling that we are prepared to go to Mrs. Smith’s place and help her if our basic array of our response hardware is in place and adequately maintained. This is a very critical physical part of our readiness. We have a structured and well-practiced system in place to ensure that the rig is okay, the fuel/water tank is full, the SCBA bottles are topped off, all the operational equipment is checked and in place, and the PPE for the crew is effectively laid out and ready. Our special EMS equipment receives its own review including a morning inventory of the entire medical and drug box.

Ensuring that our response hardware is okay sets the stage for when we will use equipment and apparatus to do critical tactical work in the hazard zone. We have all experienced the frustrating breakdown of some tool on the fireground; our pre-response check gives us the best chance to eliminate such breakdowns. Every minute we invest in getting ready will really pay off in critical time saving (seconds) when we need that operational equipment.

Doing the morning “mechanical/inventory check” is fairly straightforward and very routine. After we have done it for awhile, we almost feel as if we could do it with our eyes closed, but this is a critical part of our readiness routine, and this is when we should have our eyes really open and focused. The approach we take to ensuring our equipment is ready is much different because it is a lot easier and a whole lot more straightforward (and we are a lot better trained) to check and see if the booster tank is full than to evaluate if Firefighter Smith’s “emotional readiness tank is full.”

We have in the past two columns talked about how the biological and cognitive parts of humans influence the effectiveness of how we operate. These two areas (compared to emotional and social readiness) are probably the easiest for us to describe, understand, and evaluate. We can determine the physical condition of a firefighter particularly if we actually (and regularly) operate with that person tactically. Doing work (manual labor) on the fireground will quickly reflect how that person can physically handle the role as a performing member of the fire company team. We also will determine fairly quickly the brain power of someone we literally live with a third of the time and with whom we routinely deliver service where the situation tests one’s mental ability to react quickly.

The other two areas we must discuss are the emotional and social dimensions of human development and how those two capabilities critically influence how our humans (firefighters) deliver service to other humans (customers). I have repeatedly written in this column that from the beginning of my career I have had a very strong connection to the tactical part of what we do and how we do it. Like most firefighters, I was attracted to the active part of being involved in firefighting operations. I was assigned to a busy downtown engine company and served in every position on that same company. Early in my career, I began studying fire behavior and building construction and became actively involved in learning the operational methods we used on the fireground. I became an early student of the fundamental version of tactics and strategy taught in the 1960s (some are still unchanged; some changed a lot). This operational preoccupation served me very well, particularly as I became a company officer and battalion chief. During that period, we mostly engaged in structural firefighting-before the development of EMS and special operations; the delivery of medical services has dramatically expanded the need for emotional and social readiness.

As I was trying to make sense out of applying all the new firefighting information, part of my education involved eliminating any emotional distraction that might interfere with the personal ability to manage (command and control) firefighting operations. Being emotionally connected to the incident and personally involved (actually being sucked in) to the confusion/danger can become a huge distraction to developing and controlling the command decisions required to create and manage effective operational and tactical deployment and engagement.

Based on the command liability of becoming emotional, I practiced the conscious act of “disconnecting” from the confusion, stress, and compressed time that typically occurred on the fireground. Although practicing such a clinical (only) approach to being an effective tactical officer was (and still is) a very positive capability, my cool school “no feelings approach” completely disconnected me from understanding the emotional dynamics involved in emergency operations; I became so detached that I became, as a smart person (my beautiful wife) told me, “emotionally illiterate.”

I happily spent a significant time being really pretty oblivious to anything involving emotional stuff until I got promoted into a spot where I got to read the thank-you letters we routinely received from Mrs. Smith. I have written about this in past columns, and it took a while for her emotional language to finally displace the tactical lessons that kept going off in my head because my preoccupation with laying hose and raising ladders sounded so good to me and suited my needs.

Reading the customer’s language was a big wake-up call for me: Basically, everything Mrs. Smith related about her experience with us was stated in her own emotional terms, not in our tactical terms. If we wanted to both understand what was going on personally in her life when we got together and effectively communicate and connect with her, we had best communicate with her in her language-not ours. Someone called it “TLC” = talk the language of the customer (this easily connects to “tender loving care”).

The task that I had as a boss as we began to understand more about the emotional part of our work was to expand the discussion with the troops who directly delivered service to the customer. During those discussions, it seemed not only that the firefighters had a lot of experience and insight in dealing with the emotional part of incident dynamics but also that this was the very basic reason that the customers were generally very satisfied with the way they had been treated.

I quickly reflected that the result of this capability was more a function of what the firefighter’s Mom had taught him rather than a very conscious way we had up until then managed the organization. The really simple outcome of our effectively connecting to the emotional dynamics of the incident is that, in Mrs. Smith’s words, “The firefighters were very nice to me and my family.”

I wish I was smart or well trained enough to explain the scientific/academic realities of emotional intelligence, but I was a boss who finally (and really) read what she said and then was directed by those words. Paying attention to what she actually said connected being fit for duty as it relates to our emotional readiness-this is where we act out our emotional responsibility to Mrs. Smith if we are simply prepared to be nice. Whenever I had the opportunity to communicate with our troops, I connected the nonacademic but very critical behaviors that define nice-respect, kindness, patience, and consideration-as part of the discussion. Those discussions created the opportunity for the department to engage, authorize, and thank the firefighters for doing what their Mom taught them.

We discussed before the customer service role models (Captain Nice), and this was one of the many examples of the regular organization’s catching up with its outstanding members. During my time as a boss, I was along with everyone else, many times led by the people who actually did the work simply because they understood the work so well. Through the years of developing new programs and improving existing ones, we always looked to members of our department who “got it” before the rest of us in a particular area or activity. These individuals became the role models (idea pioneers and heroes) for whatever the improvement would be. We called on them to describe how they imagined their special interest (at that point) would be developed and expanded throughout the organization and recruited them to assist with the new program. Many of these people became authentic experts in their area of interest and created huge organizational improvements; Captain Nice was one of these leaders. Being around them caused me to refine my ability to take yes for an answer.

The expanded discussion about how we could more effectively connect with customers’ feelings caused the very emotionally literate pioneers to emerge and help the rest of us to better understand the techniques that made Mrs. Smith more comfortable and confident in how we delivered service to solve her problem. This conversation was a bit different from the conversations of the past in which we typically discussed the physical tools and techniques that made the fire go away. Now, we were discussing how we could behave personally to make Mrs. Smith’s anxiety go away. Before we centered our development on increasing what we knew; now we talked about how Mrs. Smith felt based on how we treated her. Actions and feelings both are absolutely critical, and dealing with both is highly complementary and necessary.

We used written, verbal, face-to-face contact, and survey responses we received from Mrs. Smith as the basis for improving our emotional service delivery performance. Her letter became a customer service lesson plan. She would describe in her words how she was served by firefighters and how she felt about that service and those firefighters. She was very articulate in describing the basic problem that was disrupting her life, how we solved that problem, and then how we added value (people, pets, pictures, pills) by doing kind, considerate acts that were the little extras that she wrote a page and a half about in her two-page letter. As I have repeatedly said, virtually all of her descriptions are stated in personal, emotional language that relates how she felt about the experience.

As we progressed with the program, we realized that our being able to meet the emotional needs of the humans connected to our incidents required us to better manage the support of the emotional needs of our members. Our ability to consistently provide emotional support was just as critical a fit for duty requirement as was our physical and mental condition. It did not take long before there was a discussion (particularly among bosses) about how the treatment of our members on the inside of our system directly connected to what type of service we delivered on the outside.

This inside/outside discussion reflected that our members were legitimate internal customers as Mrs. Smith was an external customer. We also began to understand that Firefighter Smith has just about the same internal needs from the organization as the external customer who calls us for help. Mrs. Smith remembers that we responded quickly, solved her problem, and were nice to her. Firefighter Smith has exactly the same needs (and memories) that Mrs. Smith has when calling on Chief Smith to help solve a personal problem.

We must understand that we had better be doing on the inside what we want our members to do on the outside. We give what we get. For many organizations (like ours), if we want to improve our emotional capability, we should, first, send the bosses to school to prepare them to manage the workers who deliver service in the street. I really don’t have to go much beyond looking in the mirror to understand this reality. When I look at how I approached my job as a boss, my career was kind of split in half.

I spent the first half with an almost exclusive focus on the fire, where I had the time of my life: lots of tough tests the fire gave us right before the lesson; lots of tactical, technical development stuff; lots of improvement in command and control; and a major focus on physical support and protection (biological) and mental development (cognitive). All this development was essential, and it still serves us every time we go out and manage a hazard zone.

The second career half was a bit different but just as much fun. It started with the transformation of my thinking of Mrs. Smith as a customer and not a victim. Before that halfway point, I can’t remember having a discussion involving customer service. After the halfway point, I can’t remember having any discussion where we didn’t talk about customer service in some way. Looking back at the whole thing, the second half was better balanced and more effectively directed, and it did not in any way take away from the importance of the operational aspect. Going through the second half required all of us bosses to attempt to expand all the very natural lessons the firefighters received from their Moms and then connect those lessons with how the troops could expand “Mom School” out in the street.

A major lesson for me was to realize how our “arrival” occurs. Really, nothing happens among humans unless or until an emotional exchange occurs between those humans. Mrs. Smith really does not know personally (and positively) that we have arrived until we connect with her and a supportive and personal emotional exchange occurs. I have read a ton of responses from her that described how she remembered the safety and security of a kind word, a warm touch, and the feeling she gets when Engine One eliminates the fire’s future and protects hers.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site

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