By Alan Brunacini
I was first attracted to a career as a firefighter when I was four years old. While riding with my mother, our car was first in the line of vehicles stopped at the intersection and trapped behind a supply line laid by an engine company right in front of us. The line extended to the front of a well-involved medium-sized commercial building full of tires, most of which had ignited and were now, along with the structure, rock and rolling. It was a very exciting visual scene.
We were stuck in that A+ spectator spot for at least 30 minutes – long enough for the whole tactical drama to thoroughly fry my young brain. Up until that point in my life, I had been aimless in planning my occupational future; that 30-minute firefighting show (front-row seat) set the hook on what I would do for the rest of my days.
The next 17 years, I was just stalling. I went to school and almost finished college. I did janitor work at night and worked as a construction worker during the day. I was mostly biding my time to join the fire circus. In those days, a candidate had to be 21 years old to get hired. I was able to start the process when I was 20 because I would be 21 after the testing process, when hiring would occur. I passed all stages of the obstacle course and joined about a month after I was 21. After that period, some smart guy figured if someone could go into the military at 18 and go to war, it made sense to apply that age limit to becoming a firefighter. I was irritated by the change because I missed three years of fires.
I joined the fire service in the late 1950s. We basically operated in a traditional, autocratic way that was a combination of the British Navy, San Quentin Penitentiary, and a loosely managed hockey team. Having been a construction worker whose job was to move very heavy things (every day) and a janitor whose job (every night) was to clean things made me a perfect fit for the majority of tasks we did then. I also was used to working for a smart/experienced boss who used simple, easy-to-understand sentences with mostly short, direct (and many times adult) words.
At that time, our department responded mostly to structural fires – that was our basic mission. It seemed to me as a new firefighter that we approached a structure being demolished by fire much as we approached that same building when I was a construction worker – hard work, basic trade journeyman, and specialists (engine/truck/squad/chiefs). The bosses looked just like workers, only they were older. There was a beginning, a middle, and an end – not many maybes, lots of clarity.
I spent the front end of being a firefighter struggling to basically understand the what, how, and where of tactical operations. After a couple of years, I evolved into wondering about the context and the techniques of the leadership part of commanding and controlling the fireground. Our department protected a city that was the fastest growing urban place in North America – for my career, the city developed an acre an hour 24/7/365. This expansion created a fast career path for anyone who got on the upward mobility train. I got on and fairly quickly went through the first three levels (engineer, captain, and battalion chief). Then, on a dark and windy day, the system slipped, and I became the operations chief (assistant chief) responsible for fire station management and company service delivery.
This was at the very beginning of the American Fire Service Renaissance period, which was the bridge between the Middle Ages and the modern period. My former life of picking up heavy things and cleaning had prepared me for structural firefighting – the smartest form of manual labor – but I did not have a clue as to what I was getting into. This was the beginning of the American Fire Service’s transition from delivering a single service, structural firefighting, to a full-service agency. This exciting, many times traumatic, expansion took the next 25 years.
In this new job, I had in effect chased a car and caught a bus. My new role as the operations guy was to basically drive the bus into the future. Up until then, none of us (especially me) could even imagine the bus trip. I was in an interesting position. I was a product of the Middle Ages from the age of four: I never rode on a fire truck with a roof, never wore a self-contained breathing apparatus or a piece of fire resistive gear, never talked on or even touched a portable radio, and never was dispatched on an emergency medical services (EMS) call. Now, I am the service delivery boss as we are embarking on the most active period of change since we were forcefully separated from our beautiful horses and had to live with and be propelled by an evil motor.
The Advent of EMS
As the operations chief, my first major adventure was to manage the adapting of our traditional department resources for delivering EMS. We had decentralized locations, an effective alarm and communications system, a century of experience in delivering emergency services, a trainable workforce, and the approval and trust of the community. EMS was an emerging fire service concept and idea and was being tested in some innovative places by vanguard fire departments. I traveled to three or four of those progressive places, hung out with the troops and bosses, asked about a thousand questions, recorded notes, and took it all back home
As we progressed with this new idea, we had to depend on existing community medical system resources and capabilities to assist us. I had pretty much spent my adult working life with firefighters and construction workers. The culture of both groups at that time was all male and very vocationally focused. My role was to go out into the medical world and interact with the medical folks who had never hooked a suction hose to a hydrant or dragged an attack line through the front door – the early meetings involved translating fire jargon into medical jargon.
On one of my lucky days, I met the head of a large, long-standing urban hospital. She was a six-foot, two-inch Catholic nun who was seven feet in her habit and was uniquely qualified medically and administratively. She was a towering figure, to say the least – no nonsense, a street-smart medical and social scientist with a very refined sense of humor. If you looked up “command presence” in the dictionary, you would see her picture. She had been in charge of the hospital for a long time.
I explained the basic plan to train firefighters to be paramedics because they can physically get to Mrs. Smith more quickly than anyone. Mrs. Smith trusts them, so she will let them in to stabilize her medical bad day and transport her to the hospital. After I explained the grand plan to her, I expected a long, painful conversation. Sister simply said, “That makes sense. What do you need?”
I quickly said, “I don’t know. If you smell smoke, I know exactly what to do – but EMS … not so much.”
She said, “I already figured that out. We were made for each other.”
My uneducated response was, “Can you tell us what you want us to do before we package up Mrs. Smith and send her to you?”
She quickly answered, “Treat her so she is warm, pink, and sweet. Bring her in, and we will take it from there.”
Sister’s answer created basic EMS program direction almost for the next 50 years. My medical mentor patiently explained that if we deliver Mrs. Smith to her emergency room cold, blue, and sour, she may not be able to save her.
Patient Care Plan = Worker Care Plan
Sister’s instructions for taking care of the patient basically sum up what a boss must do to take care of his workers: Keep them warm, pink, and sweet. The “temperature, color, and flavor” of the boss are directly transmitted to the workers and then are delivered personally by the workers to the customer. If the opposite conditions exist (cold/blue/sour), we may not be able to help or save all three: boss, worker, and Mrs. Smith.
In our recently developed “Death by Boss” seminar, the class discussions are highly informal and interactive. We talk about a full range of organizational issues that relate to how the boss connects to the workers and then how that relationship gets acted out with the customer. I think the grim class title scares away most young folks, so we generally have older firefighters and officers attending. After we get warmed up, they seem to have a lot to say about their personal work-related experiences. Hanging out in the class listening to the feelings our troops harbor about how they were treated by a boss caused me to have a warm/pink/sweet flashback. The words were used as a metaphor in a medical treatment context.
Sister, my tall, smart program shepherd, explained in basic medical terms the prehospital treatments that produced pink, warm, and sweet. It didn’t take her long to figure out that I was trying to adapt our human and physical capabilities to deliver EMS and that I was not going to do IV therapy on Mrs. Smith. She also had the administrative and leadership experience to describe how our organization must support delivering warm, pink, and sweet in the street. When I explained to our administrative and political bosses the basic details and resource requirements for a brand new program, most of my breathtaking presentations were a restatement of what she had taught me.
Boss Behaviors and Warm, Pink, and Sweet
We could attach a gazillion characteristics and capabilities to critical boss behaviors that organizationally relate to warm, pink, and sweet. These words could help a boss to connect these characteristics to worker treatment and customer care.
Pink could directly connect to the effect of a leader’s being positive and being aware that the only behavior that displaces negative behavior is well-directed, realistic, human-centered kindness. Pink teaches us that the best that negative energy will produce (on a good day) is breaking even. Genuine pink is not “fluffy.” It is strong, tough, and determined – in fact, what test positive in the real world are those things that stand up to the negatives. Think about a boss who lives and operates in a gloomy, unemotional, indifferent blue world. When this boss walks into the room, he instantly sucks the positive energy out of every human in attendance. The test of pink is the direct result of the quality of that boss’s character.
Warm could be directed to a boss who understands and likes humans and is not afraid to show he is human. We continually hear the word “nice” from Mrs. Smith when she shares the memory of how we treated her. We have attached respect, kindness, patience, and consideration to the word “nice”; those words and actions can also define “warm.” These behaviors get acted out by a boss when he builds capability and confidence in workers progressively (more all the time). Functional leaders continually communicate and include those workers in the team, and they value their efforts by extending authentic recognition and appreciation for the contribution they make.
Mrs. Smith describes the treatment she received that caused her to feel Engine 1 valued her as a customer. The Engine 1 boss sends exactly the same message to the troops when they feel the same value of his regard for them.
Sweet is probably the best flavor there is (may people like ice cream and chocolate). “Sweet” brings people together; it has a very powerful social value. Put a dozen donuts on a fire station kitchen table and watch the social effect it creates.
A major dimension of doing work is how critical the social connection inside the team is. A major part of how the boss treats the workers is based on his social skill. Using sweet to define this social capability means that the boss understands how to use personal and positional power to bring individual members together and get them to positively play their part (reread pink). Many times, the “buddy to boss” problem exists because a new boss lacks the social skills to separate popularity from functionality. Evaluate the social effectiveness of a boss in basic donut terms: Watch how the workers react to the magnetism of sweet and reject and avoid sour.
The pink/warm/sweet advice I received a long time ago has basically worked for our external customers a long, long time. It may be more effective for how our bosses should treat the inside customers than the mumbo-jumbo leadership advice we get from a coach who has won three soccer games and has written the latest and greatest book on motivation and management.
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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