VOLUNTEERS CORNER ❘ By John R. Waters II
Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania, is a 23-square-mile suburb of Philadelphia with a population of 58,000. It poses a challenge for fire service delivery, as its building construction ranges from row homes to large balloon-frame single-family dwellings to sprawling multimillion-dollar mansions. Each section of town offers obstacles to overcome—from tight streets to half-mile driveways to a passenger railway to a commercial railway to large highways. The combination fire department has more than 250 members—85 percent are volunteer and 15 percent are full- or part-time career—responding from seven stations. In 2019, the department responded to more than 2,600 incidents. These challenges, coupled with a large municipality and such different sections of town, showcase the importance of effective communication.
The phrases “common operating picture” and “situational awareness” are always thrown around as necessities for a successful operation. Everyone always thinks of the operations as fireground operations. Fireground operations rely on a strong training program and standard operating guidelines, but they are only part of the foundation of a successful fire department. Successful departments maintain a common operating picture and situational awareness both on and off the fireground. We train heavily on interpreting fire conditions on arrival, conveying those conditions over the radio to responding apparatus with a solid size-up, developing a strategy, and implementing tactics to execute that strategy—resulting in firefighting operations to extinguish the fire efficiently and effectively. Few train on how to communicate within the department when we are not on the fireground.
Effective communication is the backbone of any successful organization. Everyone wants to feel a part of the organization and have input on the direction it is moving. Our volunteer firefighters have full-time or part-time jobs, a spouse who works, children, and educational commitments, among other obligations. Members are pulled in 10 different directions, with their family and career being their priorities. We value their time and could not effectively serve the citizens of the township without them. This is a common theme in predominantly volunteer departments. By understanding the time constraints and priorities, we must value all our members’ time but still be able to convey our message.
In years past, it was common for members to stop at the firehouse multiple times a week and check the bulletin board for any departmental updates. That is no longer the norm. Many members now obtain those departmental updates electronically and prioritize time at the firehouse for training and responding to incidents.
Leadership must adapt to the changing times and not rely on communication methods from the past. Two-way communication is paramount. Regular and transparent updates can open the membership’s eyes to the big picture by showcasing all the work department members are doing. People are more likely to participate when they are given regular updates and are recognized for their efforts in front of their peers. Keeping everyone on the same page eliminates duplication of effort by not allowing individual committees to operate in a vacuum, unaware of what other committees are doing.
Our Communication Evolution
Let’s look at the evolution of fire department communication. Fire department administrative communication started with typewriters and memos that would be posted in all the firehouses for the members to view. That evolved into using e-mails, text messages, and phone calls. Everyone has a cell phone on them 24/7. We need to capitalize on the fact that our members constantly look at their cell phones, scroll through social media, and expect their information instantly. Rather than writing lengthy e-mails that, quite frankly, no one reads in their entirety, Lower Merion Fire Department (LMFD) has started using YouTube to disseminate information.
Every month, the chief fire officer films a month in review video called “From the Chief’s Desk.” In an age where people expect their information at their fingertips, they receive a hyperlink that takes them to the department’s private YouTube page. You can’t find the videos by searching because of the privacy settings. To view the video, you must have the link. This offers a degree of security for any sensitive information that the department doesn’t want floating around the Internet. Members young and “seasoned” can figure out how to view the videos.
The LMFD has partnered with the township’s local television channel to help produce the videos. It’s staff dramatically improved the quality of the videos. Its facilities and equipment offer a full production quality studio complete with a green screen. The LMFD went from creating and editing the videos with a laptop to leaning on the township staff members who have an expertise in producing videos.
Using a video platform to update the membership has many advantages. Not every member sees the chief of the department every day, week, or even month. Making a video of the chief puts a face to the leadership and portrays the leadership as approachable. The members can listen to the chief and understand his point of view directly from him. This eliminates people passing on the information or trying to interpret what they’ve heard from others. Everyone sees the same thing and can even watch it again if they want. This direct line of communication is critical when there is a change in policy/procedure to address an emerging threat such as COVID-19. The videos eliminate lengthy e-mails and allow us to brief the members on department news, operations, and changes.
(1) The standard opening scene for every “From the Chief’s Desk” video, created in video editing software. (Photos by author.) (2) The LMFD’s TV studio.
The LMFD plans to build on the success of monthly video updates and branch out to include periodic training videos called “The Five-Minute Drill.” These departmental training videos will focus on policy/procedure implementation and what changes they bring to operations.
Our department is heavily involved in the inspection process of buildings under construction. This provides an excellent opportunity to review modern building construction and the life safety systems, such as automatic fire sprinkler systems, that are installed in these buildings. A building’s most vulnerable state is when it is under construction. A review of the building, apparatus placement, and initial tactics/operations will make for an excellent training video so crews can remember important building information if dispatched there.
This platform can also be used to review existing preplans—not just the piece of paper that it is printed on—and also visit the building and review the preplan while on site. Often site visits are conducted on a company level basis and not a departmentwide basis. The first-due company will schedule a familiarization tour for themselves. The remainder of the companies that could potentially respond to an incident at a building often arrive on location and are unfamiliar with the building. A preplan review video would introduce the building to the entire department, not just the first-due company. Preplan videos certainly cannot replace in-person building familiarization tours, but they can start the thought process and spark conversation.
The LMFD is implementing a new personnel accountability and resource tracking system. Once the required equipment is purchased and delivered, an extensive training program will be disseminated to each of the companies to review the system. Implementing something new such as an accountability system is never easy. The training can be delivered on multiple occasions at multiple locations, but there will always be people who are not able to make it to the in-person training because of their work schedule, family life, etc. The LMFD training committee has been tasked with developing the training program to bolster the membership’s understanding of the new accountability system. Nothing replaces hands-on training, but if a member isn’t able to make the hands-on training, a video explaining the new system, how it works, and how it helps the incident commander track personnel and resources will give the member a basic understanding of the system; the rest he can learn on the job.
Continuing fire department operations through a global pandemic has not been an easy task for the fire service. At the beginning, we faced the unknown of what to do and how to protect ourselves, the additional personal protective equipment costs, reduced staffing because of exposures, and the list goes on.
The LMFD responded to a three-alarm fire in late May 2020. Following the fire, we conducted an after-action review (AAR) of the fire to share lessons learned. The AAR was conducted virtually to minimize the threat of spreading COVID-19, and YouTube was also used to help facilitate the AAR. The facilitators compiled fireground audio, 360° size-up pictures of the building, and helmet camera footage to remind participants of the firefighting operations. The video was streamed to all participants’ devices prior to conducting the actual review.
One of the initial challenges that many people experience is the awkwardness of talking to a video camera. It is not a natural feeling and takes time to get used to. With each video you will get more comfortable. The videos do not have to be scripted, either; bullet points allow for a more sincere delivery.
One of the benefits of using YouTube to communicate is that you can immediately see how many people have viewed the video and get an idea of the actual number of views. We have noticed an average drop of 37% in views when a controversial topic is discussed. This drop shows a break in the communication chain. Somewhere along the line the video was not forwarded, thus breaking its distribution. To overcome this hurdle, it is important to obtain a master e-mail list of all the members rather than relying on individuals to forward the video.
A full television studio isn’t required to make this program successful. All that you need is a cell phone with video capabilities and an inexpensive video editing software program. Someone must keep a running list of discussion topics in between videos so that you are not struggling for content or forgetting anything.
Once you start making videos and become comfortable with the process, you will need to come up with a consistent layout or format. This format professionalizes the video and allows you to differentiate between different videos, such as departmental updates and training videos.
Once you get used to making the videos, it will only take an hour or so to complete the video. This hour is an excellent investment of time for strengthening your department and keeping everyone informed.
John R. Waters II joined the fire service in early 2001 as a volunteer with the Brookline Fire Company in Haverford Township, Pennsylvania. He has a bachelor’s degree in emergency management from the University of Maryland—University College. Waters is a deputy fire marshal for Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania.