“Rescue Me”

By: William Shouldis

“Rescue Me” is both a song and a television show. Both have been popular. Although episodes, of “Rescue Me” have received mixed reviews, the show’s controversy and drama does shed some insight into the emotional dilemma of an emergency responder. Every fire service organization has a mix of characters. Members can struggle to cope with on-duty and off-duty stressors.

I serve as the special investigation officer for the Philadelphia Fire Department. My principle duty is to sort out the facts after a potential infraction of an administrative policy or operating procedure and, when appropriate, suggest disciplinary penalties. Dealing with the dark side of a department can be a test. Firefighters, paramedics, and officers do get into hot water. Headline stories involving on-duty scandals in California and Texas; unethical use of training dollars in Arizona; and a criminal act in Tennessee have caused fire service leaders to focus on the concept of integrity. Working with professional performance issues is part of every fire department’s challenge. Discipline is a blending of acceptable and unacceptable actions. Training and safety are integral components to confronting human resource problems. Many times the rules and regulations are broken because of poor communication or a lack of consistency. Front-line supervisors can escalate or defuse a situation by the using the proper language, gestures, or tone of voice. Frustration and resentment are real issues faced by emergency responders. Making adjustments and managing change is the role of a leader. Establishing worthwhile programs like anger management, sensitivity awareness, member’s responsibilities, and personal accountability can close the gap on misunderstandings when internal or external conflicts need resolution.

As director of training, I had an opportunity to participate in my department’s post-promotional, officer development program. As the department’s safety officer, I had the chance to interview and intercede during the investigative process. As an on-scene incident safety officer, I have witnessed the value of a trained and equipped Rapid Intervention Team (RIT), a “stand-by” group that is deployed when a rescuer gets into fireground trouble. As a field commander, I examined operational effectiveness, firefighter safety, and, at times, called for additional help.

In special investigations, an unfortunate circumstance can require the “rescuer to be rescued” from a situation or a substance. Decisive decision-making is critical. Dealing with discipline requires an understanding of procedures and practices. Often, administrative regulations are a “knee-jerk” reaction to a past training and safety problem – a quick fix because someone acted improperly. Every department has a few policies of this type. However, correcting actions and behavior is often more complex than reprimands, suspensions, or termination. Uncovering the source of employee problems is fundamental to long-term human and organizational productivity. Quality service to the community and personnel safety cannot be compromised by disputes, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, favoritism, or an uncaring attitude, all of which can infect a station.

Labor and management can work together to support strong intervention measures. An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is needed in this extraordinary era of uncertainty, and is a tangible sign of a progressive department. Without a system of rules and regulations, there would be chaos. The same will happen if leaders do not apply care and consistency to all human resource troubles. Quickly addressing personnel problems will build trust and respect. Public confidence is more important than ever in this time of instant Internet access, hungry headline seekers, grapevines, and rumor central. Protecting reputations is essential. The fire service represents the very best of our nation; having a “first-class” EAP does have a price tag. But not having anyone trained to “rescue the rescuer” can be even more costly. In America, many people will live lifetimes and wonder if they really ever made a difference. Luckily, fire service leaders don’t have that problem.

William Shouldis is a deputy chief with the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, where he has served for 32 years. He is an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy’s resident and field programs, teaching courses in fireground operations, health and safety, and prevention. Shouldis has a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration and a master’s degree in public safety. He is a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board, and a frequent FDIC speaker.

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