“Nice” School, Part 5: Kindness, Kindness, and Kindness


We have been describing what we do when we deliver service using the process of being nice. Respect, consideration, kindness, and patience are the behaviors that Mrs. Smith describes when she remembers how we treated her and her family and her dog and cat, and how we took care of the pictures of her kids she had on the top of the coffee table in her living room on the day she had “her fire” and called us for help.

We have discussed how street respect occurs when we understand and effectively react to what is going on in the customer’s life when we are called for help. Many times we respond to solve a problem the customer caused—this is a very special time when that person is many times at a (very decided) disadvantage. Generally, it is not a happy day at the beach when you dial our three numbers and explain that you started to fry the potatoes and now you are French frying the inside of the kitchen. It can be pretty easy for us (as our Captain Nice explained to us) to “look down” on the fire setter who committed an honest (but very unsafe/dumb) act. We are in business to have the resources, skill, and understanding to assist, within our capabilities, whoever is currently at a physical/medical disadvantage.

We discussed in the last column the dynamics of treating others with consideration. We used the example of our very extensively trained and equipped paramedics asking a very simple initial question: “Where does it hurt?” listening critically to the customer’s answer, and then asking clearly, “What can I do to help?” It seems that in their very simplest forms these two questions provide a very considerate front end not only on what we can physically do for the customer but also for the (personal) relationship between Mrs. Smith and Paramedic Smith.

Although we are not set up to be in the business of being all things to all people, we do have a considerable ability, the basic resources, and the frequent opportunity to deliver added value to the basic core service we routinely deliver. Our service enables us to connect to Mrs. Smith, who calls us for help on what is many times her worst day. Having that access to her and her situation creates a chance for us to professionally solve her problem and then to support her personal situation. The professional part is “high tech” and tactical; the personal part is “high touch” and emotional.

The tactical part of what we do is based on our using our considerable resources to physically solve the fire/rescue/medical problem. This capability is the result of our firefighting teams using our tools, equipment, apparatus, technology, and water to apply standard procedures to solve the problem. Delivering that basic service is what “gets us in the door.” A lot of our operational stuff is really pretty mysterious to the customer. I never in all the years I read customers’ thank-you letters received a customer comment on a halligan tool or a four-way hydrant valve. I received a ton of response about the treatment our firefighters extended to the Smith Family. In fact, in most of the responses I reviewed, Mrs. Smith remembered mostly KINDNESS, our topic for this month.

We were established 250 years ago to quickly respond to customers who were threatened by physical problems they could not solve themselves. Because of that beginning and how we have evolved since that beginning, we have quietly become the “Kindness Department” in our community. American writer Kurt Vonnegut made the famous observation: “I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.” I believe the fire engine symbol signified to him respect, consideration, kindness, and patience.

We started out fighting fires in buildings. Since then, we have greatly expanded the “kindness” services we now extend to the Smith Family. Today, we deliver fire control, a full range of basic and advanced emergency medical services including transport, a complete menu of special operations, code enforcement, property conservation, public education, and environmental and homeland protection services.

The development of all of these additional services is based simply on the fact that we are present throughout the community and have the human, hardware, and system resources that create the capability to solve a full range of the events that physically disrupt our customers’ lives. The basis of our response is to deliver service that is “actively kind.” By combining active/kind, we take action to solve the tactical (core) problem, and we treat the customer in a way that considers how the customer relates (personally) to the incident problem.

We are the ideal problem solvers because we show up ready and willing to do the manual labor required to make the bad stuff stop doing bad stuff and our manual laborers (firefighters) are nice to the Smith Family. It’s not very complicated but pretty neat for us and the Smith Family. The family enjoys receiving service that solves the incident problem and addresses their personal situation. Being able to deliver effective customer-centered service creates the benefit for us to get to work in a well-managed organization that consistently produces well-managed incidents—combining these two things creates a positive outcome for both the workers and the bosses.

I am now going to tell my usual quirky story. A while back, I wrote a little doodle called Essentials of Fire Service Customer Service. In the book, I told a customer service story that created an interesting (!) reaction within our business. The story resonated with a lot of firefighters (some agreed/some disagreed), and everyone’s reaction produced a great deal of energetic discussion. We received a routine EMS call at a construction site. When we arrived, we found a middle-aged cement finisher who had a heart attack. Our paramedics started their advanced life support magic, stabilized and packaged him, loaded him in our ambulance, and bounced off to the nearest hospital.

At the point when our customer had his coronary crisis, he had poured about 12 yards of concrete that was a fairly long driveway, got the concrete in place, tamped it, and started to float the surface with a long-handled tool the firefighters found close to him. The concrete was all in place and was “setting up” in the warm afternoon temperature. The company officer recognized that unless the concrete was finished, it would have to be removed (jackhammered) and the whole process would have to be done again, which would produce a very expensive outcome.

The company officer called his battalion chief, who quickly responded; together, they decided that we could stop the loss if we did the finishing part of the process. They noted that an adjacent ladder company had two members who were (off duty) cement finishers. The chief called the station, talked with them, and they agreed to respond and help out their brother finisher. They quickly showed up and began the process from the point at which the heart attack had stopped it. They completed the job in a couple of hours.

The company was in service (on the radio) and available to respond if dispatched; they did not receive any calls while they were finishing the driveway. After they completed the job, they washed the tools, loaded them on the guy’s truck, and drove it back to their station and secured it. They told the ambulance crew when they were at the hospital (where they were frequently) to inform the finisher that his truck was at the station and he could pick it up when he was out of the hospital.

Within our system, I heard about how we had responded and helped. Later, I received a note from the cement finisher (who recovered); he said he was surprised at what we did and grateful for our kindness. Manual labor and kindness are always a fantastic combination. He also said that we employed excellent paramedics and cement finishers because he received excellent medical care and our guys were A+ finishers.

When he got out of the hospital, he inspected their work and complimented our guys, saying that they did a better job than he would have done. We commended everyone involved in our response. The company officer and battalion chief identified the problem, and the time frame within the problem could be solved. The bosses were aware of the capability of our firefighters and used their skill and experience; this is a critical skill for bosses.

Everyone involved behaved in an empowered way. We had developed the very simple mission statement: Prevent harm/survive/be nice. The teams all operated within what that statement really meant. Actual organizational empowerment occurs when workers closest to where the service is being delivered identify not only the way to solve the basic incident problem but also the opportunity to do some additional service that assists the customers within the context of their situation. The empowerment process works when bosses teach, encourage, commend, and organizationally celebrate empowered outcomes.

The wet concrete situation is a good example of how the effectiveness of “street empowerment” works: We were called for an emergency medical service we routinely deliver, the reason we showed up. After the medical part of the event was completed, the team identified an opportunity to use our resources to make the situation better; this added-value opportunity had an urgent time limit that was connected to the timeframe of hardening concrete—simply, the concrete would not wait. Our crew extended active, effective, very real, no-baloney kindness to both the worker and the concrete after they effectively resolved the basic incident problem (heart attack).

We had historically developed a basic organizational empowerment routine. It was very simple and straightforward.

Ask yourself the following:

  • Is it the right thing for the customer?
  • Is it the right thing for our department?
  • Is it legal, ethical, and nice?
  • Is it safe?
  • Is it on our organizational level?
  • Is it something we are willing to be accountable for?
  • Is it consistent with our department’s values and policies?
  • If the answer is yes to all of these questions, don’t ask for permission….


The concrete-finishing case is an excellent empowerment example. The officers did not ask for permission, write a report, appoint a committee, or develop a study group; they quickly used their authority and capability to get the job done. I was familiar with and responsible for managing the basic strategic level business plan for the department. Nowhere in that fairly hefty operational plan did we ever mention finishing concrete. I know that in the past 120 years (when we were organized) we never finished concrete and that in the next 120 years we will very probably not ever again finish concrete. On that day, we had a chance to add value, and our empowered bosses and troops went outside of the regular routine, used their skill to be kind to a customer, and then returned back inside the regular service delivery guidelines. When we commended the firefighters, they typically said, “Chief, it wasn’t a big deal. We were just doing our job.”

“Prevent Harm” is the front end of our mission statement. In the world of empowerment, we have broadened our approach to harm based on the needs of the customer. In the concrete-finishing case, we used the ability, attitude, and spirit of our ladder company members for a couple of hours. Their efforts saved a customer (general/concrete contractor) many thousands of dollars in demolition and removal of unfinished concrete, excavation/forming, pouring, and finishing. Although what we did was not in our basic routine, we created a process and relationship inside our department that converted two hours of efforts into a major kindness-based conservation outcome for our customer.

I once had an old guy who said he would tell me the only really important three things I needed to know about getting through life. I waited with bated breath for the lesson. He said very simply: “kindness, kindness, and kindness.” The day we finished concrete, we had a chance to treat the customer and the concrete with such kindness. As for the “nutty” old fire chief, whenever we can do that, it is a great day!

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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