People, Pets, Pictures, and Pills

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

For awhile in MY monthly column, I have been giving advice to young firefighters that has mostly been directed toward how to prepare for and then safely operate on the fireground. We have discussed various tactical subjects that relate to understanding what happens while we are fighting a fire and how to successfully fit into that process as the youngest and newest member of the company.

We are effective to the extent that we can keep our education ahead of the tactical hazards we face. Our effectiveness is directly connected to doing our assigned part in the overall operation and having the skill and knowledge to operate safely so that we do not require rescue ourselves. I have tried to describe that there is a lot (for all of us) to learn and that it is smarter and a lot less painful to get every lesson we can from a teacher ahead of time than it is to get it from the fire when we are attempting to somehow survive in the center of the hazard zone.

For us (the fire department), a fire is a very high-status tactical event. We will stop anything else we are doing to respond to a fire. We will race our neighboring companies to beat them into their first-due area, and it is a good day for us when we can “steal” a fire from that neighbor. A huge problem for the folks who manage fire station maintenance is the frequent collision between the top of a fire truck and the bottom section of an overhead door. This very common accident occurs simply because that company left the station before the door was all the way up (pretty much every time we bash a door, that company was in a hurry to go to a fire).

I feel that our firefighting enthusiasm is a huge asset to us and is the highest and finest tradition in our service. I would not want any part of trying to manage a timid fire department any more than I would want to manage one that was completely out of control. When I was four years old, I watched a firefight; at that moment, I decided that I wanted to be one of them because of the way they fought that fire. I have been blessed for the rest of my life to get to hang out with the ancestors of those firefighters.

About halfway through my life as a firefighter, I experienced a very simple, but for me, critical revelation: A fire for us is a rational/tactical/operational experience that provides an opportunity for us to act out our action-oriented identity. For the person/family that the fire is visiting, the event is an emotional/tragic/life-changing and sometimes (sadly) life-ending experience. On the day of my revelation, I began to refer to the person having the fire as “Mrs. Smith”—this caused, for me, having what we used to refer to as a fire victim become a real, live customer.

This change in my perspective caused me to redirect and better balance my attention between how critical it is for us to effectively apply both water on the fire and emotional support to Mrs. Smith. This simple-critical change also caused me to more carefully review all the feedback we received from the customers. As I got to read about, listen to, and observe how we were connecting to the Smith family, there was a recurring set of things they remembered and commented on. I developed a little summary that lumped a lot of what was in all those thank-you letters into the phrase “people, pets, pictures, and pills.”

I have read a ton of Mrs. Smith’s thank-you letters in which she describes the experience she had when she called us for help. Her first memory is how fast we arrived. Sometimes she says, “I dialed 911 and told them my kitchen was on fire, and you were here almost before I hung up the phone!” Our typical response time is surprising to most people (particularly when their kitchen is on fire), simply because they are used to the usual “sometime between 8 and 4” routine of most anyone who still makes house calls that involve fixing something that is broken.

The second thing she generally comments on is how quickly and directly we solved her problem (read: put out the fire). The beginning of most encounters involving applying for and actually receiving government service is slow and very administrative—lots of applications, forms, mindless bureaucrats, computer screens, and so on. All the red tape and administrative rigmarole take a long time and go on and on before anything really happens that solves a problem. Typically, government service is hard to get in the front end and hard to get rid of in the back end.

We are the very best form of government: When Mrs. Smith needs us, she dials three numbers. We answer on the first ring and ask her two questions: Where are you? What’s the problem? That’s all the information we need to dispatch the closest fire truck. We respond quickly; we arrive; we size it up and immediately go to work because everyone who shows up from the fire department is dressed, prepared, and anxious to go to work. We will use one company or call 10 more if that is what is needed to solve the problem. If we call 10, they all seamlessly work together. When the incident problem is solved and Mrs. Smith is stable, we thank her (!) and go back to where we started. No application, paperwork, interview, or waiting period.

The second thing the customer remembers is how effectively we solved the incident problem. Generally, based on the stress and confusion, she does not connect to the tactical technology, tools, or techniques we use. She recognizes and comments on how quickly we go to work and how that work brought the out-of-control situation under control. Customers say things (in their own terms) like: “You were so well organized,” “I felt better and safer because you were so calm,” and “Everything got better when you arrived.”

The absolute foundation of our relationship with the Smith Family on the day it calls us for help is our ability to effectively execute basic service delivery operations that solve its problem. There is no substitute for our being able to “lay hose and raise ladders”—when the fire goes out, life is a lot better for everyone involved.

The most critical way we define ourselves is by providing basic core service directed to firefighting, delivering EMS, providing special operations, and protecting the environment—this is why we are in business. These basic core services delivered in our terms are what get us in the door. How we add value to that core service (in Mrs. Smith’s terms) is what customizes that basic service to fit the customer’s needs. Customers have a general impression of our operational effectiveness; they many times have a lifelong, specific memory of the details of how we added value.

Closely connected (actually integrated) to our basic ability to effectively deliver tactical services in our professional way is the opportunity to relate to the customer who is going through a difficult emotional experience and to do that in a way that matches and supports the customer’s personal situation at that time. The system works best when we use our professional resources in the most effective (operational) way and at the very same time consider, understand, and respond to the personal (emotional) needs of Mrs. Smith. We hit a service delivery home run when we effectively balance being really nasty to the fire and at the very same time being really nice to Mrs. Smith.

I have had the opportunity to participate in the development of incident command in our service since the mid-’60s. I continue to be a student of the command system and process. A major part of how the incident command system (ICS) works is driven and directed by the behavior, performance, and profile of the incident commander (IC). I have written, lectured, and taught that the IC must operate in a cool, calm, nonemotional manner. It is not effective (to say the least) to have the strategic level hazard zone boss (IC) blubbering and sobbing in the command car because he can’t believe how the fire is making the building go away.

I continue to believe that the command process should be calm and rational and if it is emotionalized by the IC, that reaction will destroy our ability to effectively deploy; BUT, about halfway through my boss time, I actually read and really paid attention to what Mrs. Smith said in her letter and what she didn’t say. I read her letters for 35 years, and she never said a word about ICS. I do not mean in any way to diminish how critical effective command and control are to what we do for her, BUT (again) our command system, particularly if it works as it is designed, is absolutely transparent to Mrs. Smith.

On kitchen fire day, she is not having a tactical experience; she is having an emotional experience. If our service delivery system cannot “speak” in a bilingual way (rational/emotional), we will miss the opportunity to effectively and actually communicate and connect with her. We must develop the ability to become fluent in speaking emotional language and delivering emotional support while we continue to do all the tactical stuff that solves the problem she called us for.

The operational outcome of the discussion of how to better serve the customer was to use the regular ICS structure that was already in place to simultaneously provide for and balance the tactical/emotional needs of the typical incident in a way that connected and complemented both. Based on the natural capability to plug activities and functions into the regular ICS, we developed a set of basic standard operational standards for what we called the Owner/Occupant (O/O) Support Sector.

That tactical level sector was assigned by the IC to an arriving responder as quickly as possible; they made contact with the Smiths and began to immediately provide short- and medium-range recovery support right at the scene. All of our troops and officers were trained in the procedures so the IC could make the assignment to a variety of responders, depending on their arrival time and the status of the event. As we actually used the O/O Sector, everyone became more skillful in using department resources, community assets, and social services to support and facilitate the customer’s recovery.

I have discussed in this column the incredible opportunity I have had to participate in a number of fire service changes and developments. Some of them were pretty simple and easy; others were difficult and painful. We all got through them and, by doing so, we have caused our service to match the current state of the world we protect. In all of my experience, the shift to adding value that was directed to providing emotional support along with the regular tactical services we deliver was the simplest, easiest, and quickest change I was ever involved in.

We got everybody together and explained that we wanted to increase the support we delivered in the community, particularly to those who were going through a difficult, confusing, and very personal experience. We talked with everyone about developing a more balanced “rescue response” that connected our traditional physical rescue to a new consideration of the emotional dynamics that are a natural part of what is many times the worst day of their lives. We continued to do the regular life safety operations we had always done. We just added providing “emotional rescue” as a standard part of the incident action plan. As we presented this new idea, the consistent response of the troops was simply “OK.”

I was accustomed to a robust, knock-down discussion that came with the introduction of anything new. I had no experience in a short, quick “OK” response. We continued developing and discussing the customer care project as we added parts to what we did for the Smith Family. As we actually extended the program, we had the normal spirited discussion where ideas and opinions collide with each other, but I cannot remember a firefighter ever saying that we should not deliver whatever support we could throughout the community or that, based on what I was “selling,” I should be sent to a team of critical care psychotherapists, which was the normal reaction to which I was accustomed.

I visited with my trusted team of advisors about the lack of soft, spoiled fruit being thrown at the change agent (me) who delivered the stirring customer service sermon. They told me that the troops’ well-behaved response was in no way connected to my great leadership (actually thrilling in some cases). My organizational therapists said the response was because of what the firefighters’ mothers had taught them way before they had to somehow survive their crazy fire chief boss.

As I pondered the credit they gave to Firefighter Smith’s Mom, the more it made sense. The troops really did not have to change very much; they just kept doing what their Moms taught them every time they went out the door. That conclusion caused me to imitate the firefighters’ moms as they left the room. I yelled after them, “BE NICE.”

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the quarterly fire service magazine BSHIFTER.com and the Blue Card hazard zone training and certification system. He can be reached at alanbrunacini@cox.net.

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