BY DANIEL J. NEAL
Communication is an essential element of company officer leadership, but it is most often engaged in on a “need-to-know” basis. Many officers have been taught that information is proprietary. However, a morning briefing by the station officer can determine if a shift will be successful and productive. It is an essential component of company officer leadership. The inspirational writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote, “Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee and just as hard to sleep after.” The shift briefing (or morning briefing) is a formal meeting to organize operations at the beginning of the shift. In some departments, it may be called “roll call”; however, much more than taking attendance should be accomplished.
A wide array of information should be communicated to the firefighters on shift (Figure 1). Concerning apparatus, firefighters need to know which apparatus is out of service and which engine is missing a tool. Firefighters may also need to know which public education event is scheduled for the shift. New directives and policies should be relayed. Upcoming training and promotional opportunities can be shared with personnel. Firefighters will also need to know basic information such as “What time are we going to the gym?” and “When is the next union meeting?”
Poor communication leads to suspicion and inefficiency. In a volunteer/career combination department, statements such as “The career guys didn’t do it!” and “The volunteers didn’t do it!” may be heard. In a career department, statements such as “B shift didn’t do it!” may abound. When information is communicated at the shift briefing, everyone knows what happened. The answer to “The volunteers didn’t do it” may be that they were committed to a working fire for the previous shift. The answer to “B shift didn’t do it!” may be several hours of inspections during the previous shift. Whatever type of department, communication among varied shifts can be a challenge. Consistent, daily communication is essential to effective operations, informed motivated employees, and good interstation and departmental relations. The shift briefing is an excellent means for accomplishing solid internal station communication.
The shift officer should hold the briefing at the beginning of every shift. It helps to organize personnel and sets the tone for the remainder of the shift. It should also include an informal component to allow employees to ask questions and exchange information related to the department.
SHIFT BRIEFING COMPONENTS
Depending on your department and your shift schedule, you can develop your own components of a shift briefing. However, the following topics should be included in every department.
The first and most important section of the morning briefing answers questions such as: “Who is riding where?” “Who is the battalion chief today?” and “What apparatus are we riding today?” The shift officer lists the personnel and the position in which they are riding. The staffing of the apparatus can also be given. The officer can also remind the firefighters to account for the portable radios, medication bag, and keys.
Schedule and Appointments
A schedule for the shift is outlined. Personnel are advised of the prescheduled events throughout the shift. Table 1 outlines the potential schedule for a 12-hour day shift. Communicating prescheduled events to everyone on duty helps to ensure that the members will be prepared to make the inspection or visit a school or do whatever is scheduled.
Announcements for the Day
Next, announcements are relayed. They may include memorandums from the station officer or battalion chief; information about the upcoming promotional process, union activities, and future training opportunities; and reminders of deadlines that are approaching, such as the date by which personnel must turn in their uniform requests. Special information such as weather warnings and road closures could also be announced. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we also include current terrorist information and warnings.
To-Do List for the Day
The briefing is a good mechanism for informing members of completion times for station duties. It can include daily items, such as accounting for lockbox keys and inventory supplies, or chores such as washing the engine or turning in timesheets. Such reminders set the priorities and make everyone aware of what is expected of them. I post the list of tasks for each firefighter to check off as he completes a task. This also serves as a reminder throughout the shift.
Allot some time for “briefing questions” at the end of the session. Since you have the firefighters’ undivided attention, it is a good time to promote some skill and career development. Ask each firefighter a few questions to test their knowledge (Table 2). A firefighter in paramedic training, for example, might be given some EMS care questions, a firefighter taking the next Technician (apparatus operator) promotional test might be questioned on hydraulics and fire behavior, and a firefighter aspiring to become an officer might be questioned about standard operating procedures and station management. I often assign a firefighter to find questions to stump the rest of the crew. This approach has created some good-natured competition. Challenging your crew with a ropes and knots drill or an SCBA challenge would also be appropriate.
The traditional medium for the briefing is a dry erase board, which may focus on riding assignments and equipment issues. Another aid is a one-page “briefing sheet” (Figure 2). It can also be posted, giving firefighters a chance to reference it throughout the shift. Some software such as Microsoft Outlook® and Novell GroupWise® includes a daily calendar, notes (i.e., announcements), and a “to-do” list. All of these media are effective. I use a computer and digital projector to project Novell GroupWise®. This allows each aspect of the shift briefing to be reviewed with all on-duty firefighters simultaneously. It also allows immediate changes or adjustments to the to-do list. Documents can also be reviewed in an electronic format on the projection screen. This saves paper and also reduces preparation time because hard copies of important items are not needed. For briefing questions, I often attach Microsoft PowerPoint® presentations or links to firefighting educational Web sites. We have even developed our own Microsoft PowerPoint® presentations that mimic the television show Jeopardy.
A briefing should be held on every shift. It allows essential information to be disseminated to the firefighters. Informing your personnel empowers them to complete the daily business of the fire station. In a busy station, the briefing helps organize the chaos. In the 24-hour fire station, it helps fill in the information gaps that occur when members have several days off. In the combination fire-rescue system, it provides a mechanism to coordinate career and volunteer staff. The briefing helps everyone feel that they are part of the bigger team and ensures that no one is left out.
DANIEL J. NEAL is a captain in the Loudoun County (VA) Department of Fire, Rescue, and Emergency Management, where he has served for 11 years. He has a master’s degree in emergency health services and completed the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy.