Showtime

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

Our journey through the basic five-step performance model has so far described how standard operating procedures (SOPs) outline how a particular operational activity is performed and then translated into the training component that prepares the players for doing what is described in the procedure. We discussed how the SOP-training connection creates a very practical organizational context that supports the capability to perform the work required to deliver effective and safe service. The SOP-training combination occurs in the front end of the model and serves as the launching pad for the application part, which is the objective of the whole process.

The strength of our service is the natural inclination of firefighters to do the physical parts of the job. We become firefighters because we are attracted to doing work (combat) that is episodic, exciting, and action oriented. We want a job where they ring the bell and we slide the pole, get on Big Red, haul ourselves to Mrs. Smith’s place, and submerge her burning kitchen. No waiting around to fill out forms, no applications, no mindless bureaucrats or stupid time-wasting committees. We don’t do double-blind, seasonally adjusted studies on the medium-range effects of elevated temperatures—we make those elevated temperatures go away as quickly as possible. We (thankfully) have a very vocational approach to how we do our job; there are not a lot of maybes in how we operate.

Our action-oriented strength (like many other strengths) can create a weakness when it causes us to skip the preparation part of the performance process. Sitting in a planning meeting discussing, arguing, and trying to decide on the details of an operational procedure generally causes our troops to mentally wish for a working fire that will save them from an another hour and a half of committee blab.

Developing effective, realistic procedures requires the participation of the street guys/gals. It’s one of those “pay me now or pay me later” deals. It is a lot better to get the input of the folks who must execute the procedure while it is being developed than to hear how messed up it is in the critique after the workers try to somehow make it work in the street.

The training component (the second part of the model) is another place where we get to refine the procedure by explaining the details that create understanding and then physically training/drilling on those details so the students develop the capability to execute the procedure. Trainers must be aware that drilling creates an excellent practice-based chance to “debug” procedural details that we missed in the development process—sometimes, writing and doing can be very different. Doing all the development involved in producing procedures and then managing the initial and ongoing application of those directives inside the department is a big part of how real leaders lead.

Since the beginning of time, there has been enough material produced in the pursuit of teaching, learning, selling, packaging, understanding, creating, and doing what we call leadership that it would overfill Yankee Stadium. Some of it is beef; a lot of it is baloney. In spite of all this effort, there is not even a universally agreed on definition of leadership (a smart guy said, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it!”).

We have a special opportunity to create our own understanding of (and reaction to) leadership. Bosses (read leaders) on every level must understand that our existence as an organization revolves around our consistent readiness to deliver fast, effective, caring service to Mrs. Smith when she needs us. For us, doing whatever it takes organizationally and operationally to maintain this street-response capability becomes the essence of leadership. The application part of the model is “showtime”—this is where we get to do what we do, and doing this defines what we are.

If the essence of leadership is the performance required to serve Mrs. Smith, then the model creates and integrates the context of performance with the context of leadership. This leadership-performance context is expressed in very practical terms in the physical work we do to solve Mrs. Smith’s problem. This must become the focus of bosses; it separates the baloney from the beef.

The most important reason bosses come to work is to create a continual fit-for-duty readiness in the workers. Although the organization must do a gazillion things to get ready (to deliver service), effective leaders must send the never-ending message throughout the organization that the “moment of truth” is when Engine 1 pulls up in front of the Smith residence with smoke showing.

This moment of organizational “truth” creates a critical challenge for every fire service boss. Can you and the people under your command perform the most difficult parts of the job? Too many fire officers have defined themselves by inspecting the length of a firefighter’s mustache, chasing down dust bunnies in the day room, or lecturing on the evils of tattoos. They then cannot effectively take command of a room-and-contents fire in a 1,200-square-foot house, much less manage going from offense to defense in a fast-moving interior fire in an actively burning commercial building.

In our business, showtime is very unforgiving, and it does not take long when watching firefighting operations to see how far along that system is in the five-step model.

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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