Your Employees Are Your Greatest Asset

BY STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI

It is common to see ”Our Employees Are Our Greatest Asset” or a similar statement on fire department informational brochures, strategic plans, master plans, Web sites, and other places. I believe that our employees are our greatest asset. Without them, we would not be able to function and get the job done in a timely and efficient manner. There is no “I” in team, and we need to work together to get the job done and provide the best level of service possible to our customers, who are demanding more and more of their tax dollars and their public servants every day.

Do you agree that your employees are your greatest asset? If so, I challenge you to prove it! I have provided a checklist of items, in random order of importance, to help you evaluate how well the actions behind your words prove to your employees that they are your greatest asset.

1 Does your department (not just the firefighters’ association or union local) have an annual (or regularly sponsored) recognition ceremony to acknowledge the achievements of members going above and beyond the call of duty?

Since recognition ceremonies may occur only annually or biannually, another way to celebrate such achievements would be to send out a notice or a memo to all personnel, publish the information on your department Web site, include the information in a department newsletter, and provide a press release for the local media and fire service trade publications that publish such information.

2 Does your department (not just the firefighters’ association or union local) celebrate the retirement of employees with a dinner or ceremony?

For all of their years of hard work and effort, we should send off our retired members on a positive note, letting them know we care and that we are there for them if they need us. Don’t forget to send out a notice or memo to all personnel, publish the information on your department Web site, include the information in a department newsletter, and provide a press release to the local media and fire service trade publications that publish such information.

3 Does your department (not just the firefighters’ association or union local) welcome newly hired employees into the department with a preacademy/hiring family orientation ceremony to introduce the newly hired personnel and their family members to the department’s training staff and senior staff?

The families are going to be without their loved ones for months while they are in the academy, not to mention another year or more during probation. The typical probationary firefighter is going to be studying on days off and will have to miss important family events or milestones because of fire department responsibilities. Let the families know (in advance) what they should expect during the academy and the probationary period, to help set your newly hired employees up for success. If they do not have the support of their families, it is going to make it tougher for everyone. Have refreshments and show a video/DVD produced from a previous recruit academy to help motivate and inspire the newly hired recruits and prepare their family members for what is ahead. Don’t forget to send out a notice or memo to all personnel, publish the information on your department Web site, include the information in a department newsletter, and provide a press release to the appropriate media.

4 Does your department (not just the firefighters’ association or union local) provide an academy graduation ceremony during which badges are pinned on the newly hired personnel? Are family members, friends, and department members invited?

Just as it is important to thank the family members before the academy and let them know what their loved ones are getting into, it is also important to thank them at the end of the academy for what they have had to endure while their loved ones were in the academy. Take photos during the academy, and produce a video/DVD of “life in the academy” to show at the graduation ceremony. Serve refreshments. Invite the on-duty crews and apparatus (I remember my graduation—it was really impressive to see the two ladder trucks with their sticks raised in the sky and crossed as we made our way into the auditorium), the instructors who taught in the recruit academy, the retirees, the off-duty crews, and anyone else who may benefit from attending. Don’t forget to send a notice or memo to all personnel and publicize the event through the usual channels.

5 Does your department (not just the firefighters’ association or union local) offer a promotional/badge-pinning ceremony when members get promoted that family members, friends, and department members can attend?

Besides sending out a notice or memo announcing a promotion, schedule a ceremony, with refreshments, where the promoted members can be “pinned” in front of family and friends. Invite on- and off-duty crews to show their support, and adequately publicize the event.

6 Does your department send photos of all newly hired personnel out to the stations to allow people to put a name with a face?

This is especially important when you hire a recruit class, since there will be many new faces and names to learn. Besides the photo and the name, perhaps also submit information that the recruits provided in response to a few questions they were asked to respond to earlier. The questions might pertain to what they did prior to coming to your department, the type of formal education and training they bring with them, the experience they bring with them, and their expectations of the job.

7 Does your senior staff (chief officers, starting with the chief and working downward) make the time to stop by the fire stations and other department work sites to just say hi, have a cup of coffee, and see what is going on and gauge the new personnel’s perceptions of the department?

Some chief officers may say they are too busy, but many of them find the time to do this. Everyone is busy, but having a positive can-do attitude, coupled with great time management and organizational skills, can help you find the time to make this happen. Be creative. Stop by in the morning on the way to work, arrange to have lunch, stop by on the way home, stop by on the way to or from a meeting or an event, or just schedule a time to stop by and make it happen. Some tips for when you do stop by the fire stations or work sites follow: Try to loosen up a bit; actively listen; do not get frustrated or angry when asked challenging or accusatory questions; attempt to answer questions or concerns in a genuine, noncondescending, and unpatronizing fashion; and do not get defensive, make excuses, or point fingers when things on the line are being perceived a certain way. Perception is the reality of the beholder. Your personnel may tell you more than you want to hear or things with which you do not agree, but you should be happy that they are willing to open up to you. Most importantly, before you leave, let your personnel know how much you care about them and how important they are to the success of the department and the service levels provided to the external customers.

8 Does your department have a great working relationship with the labor union or association?

A great working relationship does not mean one side bullies the other side or always caves to the requests of the other side. Is mutual respect shown and demonstrated on a day-to-day basis, including during labor-management meetings and negotiations? When one side does not respect or agree with the other side, things can get ugly, and performance and service levels will suffer. How do you expect your personnel to provide outstanding customer service when they feel that the senior staff/administration does not provide outstanding internal customer service to them? Some people judge the quality of the working relationship by the number of grievances and lawsuits filed against the department. Some departments have none; in others, they are common. Generally, nobody in the department wins from grievances or lawsuits.

9 Are there an inordinate number of personnel of all ranks leaving for positions in other fire departments?

There are some exceptions to this rule. Imagine yourself working as a chief officer with the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department when Alan Brunacini was still the chief, a position he held for about 28 years, longer than many people spend on the job. If you worked for Phoenix and had aspirations to become the chief, your chances would have been pretty limited within the department, primarily because of his tenure. However, that did not stop a large number of chief officers from going on to become chiefs of other departments outside of Phoenix, something Chief Brunacini was quite proud of. What I am getting at here is that if you have a large number of personnel regularly leaving for different reasons, such as better wages and benefits, working conditions, or better promotional or lateral opportunities (this one may be tough to solve, especially if you are a small department), you should be concerned about the reasons they are leaving and try to fix any real or perceived problems.

10 Does your department have to continuously recruit and hire from the outside for chief officer positions, including the position of chief?

Even worse, does your department have to hire company officers from the outside? Departments typically hire from (or at least open up their recruitment to) the outside because of any of the following reasons:

  • Not enough qualified personnel.
  • Not enough personnel wanting to actually do the job.
  • Civil service or internal rules or requirements.
  • They have always done it that way.
  • A poor relationship between the governing body and the department.
  • A poor relationship between the governing body and the union local/firefighters’ association.
  • A poor relationship between the department senior staff and the union local/firefighters’ association.

 

If there are not enough qualified or interested personnel able to take promotional examinations, shame on the senior staff for not mentoring or motivating sufficient numbers of personnel who are qualified and interested. The senior staff of a fire department should be continuously preparing, mentoring, and performing succession planning to ensure the long-term success of their department long after they have retired or moved on.

11 Does your department actively support, listen to, and encourage feedback and comments from personnel of all ranks?

Note: The key words here are “listen to.” Many departments encourage and support feedback to make the department better but have senior staff members who do not listen to the feedback simply because it was not their idea in the first place. Yes, these things still happen—and in more departments than I want to mention. Get over it. Who really cares about where the great ideas came from? True leaders will take input from people and also give credit where credit is due, putting others before themselves.

12 Does your department accept diversity and have a zero tolerance for sexual harassment, harassment in general, hazing, and alcohol or drug abuse?

Face it, if lawsuits are flying around a department because of these types of issues, you probably would not want to work there until the leadership of the department puts its foot down and starts to determine and solve the problems occurring. Open up any fire service trade publication, or do an Internet search, and you will find departments across the nation in legal trouble for not properly handling problems such as these in an expedient, impartial, and consistent fashion. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

13 Does your department allow the employees to be part of the long-term planning process when it comes time to put together the master plan, the strategic plan, or the business plan (assuming you have one)?

If you want buy-in from your personnel on how to best run the department, invite them to participate and actually listen to what they have to say. It’s easier to get them to buy in when they feel as if they had a chance to have their say and be a part of the decision-making process, as opposed to their feeling as if things were being shoved down their throats and they have no choice in the matter.

14 Does your department have standing or ad-hoc committees to make decisions on things such as uniforms, apparatus purchasing, station building/remodeling, safety items, and so on?

Also, if committees exist, does your senior staff listen to, respect, and value the opinions and feedback the committee members provide? Sometimes, a committee is put in place just so the department leadership can say it has a committee. In reality, the employees’ suggestions and input ultimately are vetoed by the chief or some other senior staff member because of a political or personal reason. If the members’ input is not going to count, don’t waste their time by inviting them to participate on a committee.

15 Does your department have a track record of getting sued by the union local or department members?

A lawsuit typically means that communication has broken down or has not occurred on one or both sides. Do what it takes to handle problems promptly, fairly, and impartially.Remember when dealing with personnel issues to separate the person from the behavior, and do not make judgments based on emotions—make them on rationality.

16 Does your department have a track record of having grievances filed by the union on behalf of its members?

A grievance, like a lawsuit, typically occurs when communication has broken down between two parties. We all need to learn to get along with each other—some line personnel with senior staff and some senior staff members with their line personnel.

17 Does your department encourage members to participate in career-development activities, including formal education and training events?

Most departments have very tight budgets, with limited training budgets, especially since personnel costs (wages and benefits) typically make up 90 percent or more of a fire department’s budget. However, there are still creative ways to encourage your personnel to go through career-development activities. Work with your local junior college fire technology program to develop a partnership that can provide training for both parties and maybe even reimbursement or cost sharing. Locate grant funding opportunities to better prepare your personnel. Send your personnel to the National Fire Academy, where the airfare and lodging are covered; the only expenses a department will incur are a small stipend for meals and any back-staffing costs to fill the empty seat on the apparatus. It won’t be easy, but if you have a can-do attitude, you can find ways to encourage your members to better prepare themselves for their current and future jobs.

18 Does your department provide promotional preparation classes and seminars for its members desiring to promote?

The goal is not to spoon-feed anyone but to help guide personnel in the right direction and also let them know what the senior staff is expecting of the promoted personnel. Send out surveys to your department members to find out what subjects on which they would like training. Also, get the results from the last promotional examinations, see where the major deficiencies are, and focus on those items. The promotional process should not be top secret; for those members who want to promote, this is a good way to give them an orientation to the process and the position they aspire to.

19 Does your department provide newly (or soon-to-be) promoted candidates with formal training programs to help them better perform in (or prepare for) the position to which they aspire?

In Santa Clara County (CA), we have a Company Officer Academy sponsored by the Santa Clara County Training Officers Association. It is 80 hours. Some departments send their newly promoted officers; some send their members who aspire to promote. Ideally, those aspiring to promote will have completed this academy prior to promotion, so they have a better idea of what they are expected to do and they have more tools with which to perform their job. Some of the topics taught at the academy include ethics, leadership, time management, strategy and tactics, incident command system, mutual aid, and documentation/writing skills for the company officer.

20 Does your department have an annual holiday party to get the family members together?

Since it may be tough to justify spending public taxpayer funds to put on such an event, it may be more appropriate for the union local or firefighters’ association to cosponsor this event. This is a great time to have the chief get up and talk about some of the year’s accomplishments and also thank the members and their family members for their support over the year. Also, it is a great time to have the union local/firefighters’ association president thank the members and recognize some significant accomplishments.

21 Does your department provide a formal post-incident analysis of significant events (first-alarm working incidents or greater)?

Notice that I did not say critiques. The goal is to discuss what worked well, what could be done differently next time, and what lessons can be learned or reinforced for the future. If done positively and in a nonthreatening manner, these events can be very valuable. Provide a positive learning environment, start with the audiotape of the incident from start to finish, ask those in attendance what went well and what could be done differently next time, and publish the findings for all to learn from.

22 Does your department encourage and support its members to get involved in the community?

Much of the success of a fire department can be traced to the support and perception of the public. Because of this, it is important for us to give something back to the community. This can be either on duty or off duty, and there are numerous ways department members (everyone from the fire chief down to the newest firefighter) can give something tangible back to the community, more than just showing up for work every day, collecting the paycheck, and performing the “eight to eight (8 a.m. to 8 a.m., a 24-hour shift)/out the gate” routine.

Not everyone can afford to live in the community they serve; some may not want to live in the community they serve. Regardless of which fits your situation, it is still important to give something back to the community both on and off duty and to show your support and keep the community on your good side for when the going gets tough, because we don’t always live in good times. Many fire departments and fire department association/union locals encourage their members to participate in waste cleanup days, senior care assistance, home-repair work for needy individuals, collecting toys for children during the holidays, and so on.

23 Does your department adequately maintain fire department facilities (fire stations) to ensure they meet applicable building and fire codes and to allow the members to live and work comfortably, securely, and safely?

At the bare minimum, fire stations should have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and appliances such as dishwashers. If your fire stations are run down and poorly maintained and the rodents (or pets, depending on what you want to call them) outnumber the on-duty personnel, you have a problem. Any place having multiple people on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year is going to get dirty and have things break or wear out. Many fire stations have also been burglarized because of poor or insufficient security measures. Make your fire stations safe and well maintained for your personnel. Think of it this way: If the living conditions of the fire stations are not what you would like at your own home, then it is time to do what it takes to get those fire stations up to a level of quality suitable for your personnel.

24 Does your senior staff openly break (or bend) the law or participate in or encourage unethical behavior or behavior that shows poor integrity?

Every now and then, a department’s senior staff member appears in the media because of an action that showed poor judgment or, worse, illegal or unethical behavior. Some departments have issues like this on a regular basis; others rarely (if ever) make the news for such issues. Some may say the latter is attributed to luck. I think it has something to do with the leadership of the department and the values and beliefs the senior staff share with their personnel. If the senior staff back up their talk with actions when it comes to demonstrating positive behavior, I think that behavior will travel downward through the chain of command.

25 Does your department maintain functioning and modern fire apparatus and provide the appropriate tools and equipment to get the job done?

This includes reserve apparatus that should be safe and roadworthy when they need to be pressed into service. I have heard stories that in some departments, members had to purchase parts for the apparatus or tools to get the job done with their own money because the department was too cheap or could not afford to do so. You can have the best trained personnel in the world operating out of the most extravagant and expensive fire stations, but if they cannot get into a reliable fire apparatus that will safely, efficiently, and effectively get them to the emergency scene, it really doesn’t matter.

26 Does your department take health and safety seriously?

Some ways a department can prove it takes health and safety seriously follow:

  • Provide a portable radio for every riding position on the apparatus.
  • Provide a critical incident stress debriefing team when personnel are injured or killed in the line of duty or when significant incidents occur.
  • Provide diesel exhaust-removal systems for the fire station apparatus rooms.
  • Provide headsets for each riding member to drown out the sound of the siren, allow the crews to communicate, and reduce hearing loss claims.
  • Provide two sets of turnouts for each member so that when one set gets dirty or contaminated, it can be cleaned and members will have a spare set to use.
  • Have zero tolerance for safety violations.
  • Provide safety bulletins and messages to the members so they can learn from the mistakes and misfortunes of others.
  • Upgrade older apparatus to conform to current safety standards as is reasonably possible.
  • Assign a department safety officer at training events and significant emergency incidents (first alarms or greater).
  • Provide annual physical/medical (as well as physical fitness) examinations for members to ensure their long-term health and welfare.
  • Provide retirement planning seminars.
  • Provide ongoing safety-related training.
  • Provide employee assistance programs.
  • Follow and abide by as well as train on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) two-in/two-out rule.
  • Perform fire station and workplace facility inspections at least annually to identify health and safety violations.
  • Provide physical fitness equipment or capabilities at each fire station or workplace location. Remember, if you provide the equipment, you also need to allow time to use the equipment.
  • Provide health and wellness newsletters or seminars.
  • Provide ergonomically correct office furniture.
  • Provide sufficient staffing to first-alarm (or greater) incidents. This is not meant to be an argument for numbers of personnel on an apparatus or on duty within a department. Every department will ultimately decide what it feels is appropriate staffing on apparatus and at fire stations. Regardless of how you provide the personnel and apparatus (within the department or by using automatic aid or boundary drops from a regional dispatch center), you should have the ability to provide at least 15 personnel on a first-alarm incident and within a reasonable time frame. Some departments have fewer than 10 personnel on duty; some have fewer than five personnel on duty. A working structure fire is still going to require at least 15 personnel (based on National Fire Protection Association statistics). How you get those 15 personnel to the emergency scene does not matter as much as how fast and safely you can get them there.

 

27 Does your senior staff have a tendency to let anger-management issues get the best of them, say inappropriate things on a regular basis, and basically treat personnel poorly?

I remember hearing the story about a department that was considering the purchase of a new engine to replace an older engine. The chief who was in charge of purchasing the engine did not like the idea of having to pay for air-conditioning in the new engine; he felt it was a luxury. Well, wake up and smell the coffee. In today’s world, especially in many parts of the country, air-conditioning is not a luxury—it is a minimum standard. That was an inappropriate comment and did not show that the department’s personnel was its greatest asset. If the chief of a department allows such inappropriate behavior to occur, he is basically saying the behavior is acceptable. Unfortunately, it sends a poor message to the department personnel and makes it look like the chief is just covering for “one of his own.”

I realize many of the above items cost money. What doesn’t cost money these days? Nobody said running a fire department was going to be cheap or easy. If you have a positive, can-do attitude, you can accomplish almost anything. You can have the fanciest tools or apparatus, but if your personnel are not motivated or feel as if they are not valued or appreciated, they will not perform to the best of their abilities when the bell goes off and the customer is in need of assistance.

The most important thing to remember is that there is no perfect workplace or fire department. Every fire department has its issues (good and bad), strengths, and weaknesses. Also, we all have the opportunity to make our department better and to strive to have the best possible work environment.

We all (including our senior staff) need to remember that we work for the customer. Customers may be internal (our personnel) or external (the folks who pay their taxes to support our existence). If the senior staff of a fire department does not take care of the internal customers and make them feel valued and important, how do they expect these internal customers to take care of the external customers when the bell goes off?

Our personnel are our greatest asset. Making your personnel feel valued and important will pay dividends in the long run in the form of excellent customer service and a high level of department morale.

STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI, a veteran of the fire service for more than 18 years, is a battalion chief for the Santa Clara County (CA) Fire Department. He is an adjunct faculty member in the Chabot College (Hayward, CA) Fire Technology Program, where he has been teaching fire technology and EMS classes since 1993. At Chabot, he served as the fire technology coordinator for almost five years and as the EMT program director and primary instructor for seven years. He is a past president of the Northern California Training Officers Association and was named the 2008 Ed Bent California Fire Instructor of the year. He is a state-certified chief officer and master instructor and has earned an associate degree in fire technology, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and a master’s degree in emergency services administration. He is in the final year of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and has received Chief Fire Officer Designation through the Commission on Professional Credentialing.

 

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