PHILOSOPHIES I WISH I NEVER HEARD ABOUT
BY TOM BRENNAN
Last month we touched on some operations at fire scenes that could have been performed a little better with a more positive outcome. Following are some management practices that I wish I had never heard about or that I was forced to stand by and watch as they caused a breakdown of all fire service functions and chaos on the fire scene (with increased trauma to the structure, civilians, and firefighters). The sad fact is that the negative impact of these practices often cannot be measured or realized because of failure to properly analyze the efficiency of fireground operations and management and leadership problem costs in the department. What are these vague buzzwords that get confused, misunderstood, and easily misdirected?
You cannot manage people! Say it again to yourself. Management is a practice to manipulate, plan, coordinate, control, communicate, and change things like budgets, time, programs, and outcomes–not human beings. You certainly cannot manage people who are forced into life-and-death decisions based on rapid impact data that may only occur once in their careers. We have watched as would-be leaders have filled a void of information that would bring our fire service in line with great and successful business practices–the fire service that is truly the land of the blind in which a one-eyed man can be king! How can we ever say “You must manage your people” and expect to ever understand the complicated operations of business?
People operate by leadership practices–those methods, traits, procedures, and characteristics that get the things that are managed to be in place and use them to accomplish the organization`s goals through the efforts of human beings, firefighters. It is a function that is performed by leaders, both formal and informal, through strength of will and character that possesses all those intangible qualities such as trust, truth, integrity (how about that one, Chief?), professionalism, loyalty, honor, knowledge, compassion, and spirit.
President Eisenhower said it best when he served as general of all Allied forces: “You can pull a string anywhere, but you cannot push it a fraction of an inch!” Even a five-inch hawser will bend in the wrong direction when pushed.
You cannot abandon those leadership traits and practices no matter what! And that means even if the street activity level is virtually nonexistent. It is becoming easier and easier for the company officer to sit by and practice management techniques (paperwork, rating sheets, report writing) than it is to critique, rehearse, drill, communicate, care, observe, change, and lead! How can you expect great and positive results on the fireground if you don`t identify with the personnel for the 95 percent of the time that there is no emergency operation?
You cannot negotiate the number of personnel adequate for efficient operations on the fireground. Efficiency also means success in our mission of accounting for lives and property after arrival at the emergency scene. How can anyone debate the number of people needed on the fireground unless it is understood by all decision makers exactly what has to be done, when it has to be done, how it must be done, who must do it, and what the outcome is always expected to be? Leaders have abandoned us in most instances, and managers have taken over. That is fine if your output is checker games for store shelves but not if you are in the lifesaving business with your workers at severe risk in an uncontrolled environment.
We will never be successful on any fireground unless the environment in which we choose to operate is under our control–the fire building must behave. Without that simple process, injury and death on the fireground will increase and remain an uncontrollable event critiqued by people who don`t understand in the first place or we would have had sufficient personnel under expert leadership. See the connection?
Stop increasing the “boxes”! Every time we read many new incident management texts, the models change, and the boxes increase in number and move to one side or another of the page. (They have to; otherwise, why would we buy the new text? Old stuff in new wrappers.) Virtually no fireground in the country has enough people on it to perform all the things that must be done instantly, and we still “steal” them to sit in tightly confined boxes outside the fire operation. It is a cop-out to those who don`t want to be there anyway or who don`t know what to do besides identify their management box. We are getting management top-heavy with no “Indians” to perform for the “chiefs.”
Take the time to train firefighters and first-line supervisors to know their role in the game plan of simple strategies, and let them perform! Certainly the first two engine teams (two handlines) and the truck company personnel under effective leadership that shifts operations at a changing fire scene could operate initially by entering, searching, communicating, isolating, venting, examining, and rescuing and removing without a “triple” command function on arrival. We are loaded with space-age radios and still demand “face-to-face” relief or change of command. It is as if we believe that we can command the fire to go out!
I remember a time when the “powers on high” in the department in which I worked formed a procedure whereby the second-arriving truck company at top-floor fires in apartment houses was assigned to the roof position–the officer and all the firefighters! It was always a great place for the ducking officer! Well, we knew we–and anyone on the fire floor, for that matter–were in trouble. Now three people had to force open and search four to 10 apartments while others overloaded the roof structure, cut (lots of) holes where there was room, and caused unnatural fire behavior and spread while the people waited for assistance–down where they couldn`t breathe. Here was another example of management-of-people failure by managers who forgot their leadership role and identity within the workplace.
Stop putting safety into unsafe acts! Control the act and, if necessary, eliminate it!
Get water on the fire–it may go out! n
TOM BRENNAN has more than 35 years of fire service experience. His career spans more than 20 years with the City of New York (NY) Fire Department as well as four years as chief of the Waterbury (CT) Fire Department. He was the editor of Fire Engineering for eight years and currently is a technical editor. He is co-editor of The Fire Chief?s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995).