Eat an Elephant, Choke on a Gnat


We recently have conducted an ongoing discussion about fire department customer service. Last month, we described how the combination of core service and added value creates the most complete way we can relate to the situation and the customer. We are typically called to deliver a service that somehow solves a basic fire or medical problem the customer is confronted with. We extend core service to solve that problem. The relationship we have with these basic disruptions in the customer’s life is what “gets us in the door.”

Once we have responded to and hopefully solved the problem, we then (once we are in the door) have the opportunity to look at the customer’s situation and decide if we can do something extra that would facilitate and support getting the customer back to normal or simply more comfortable. Many times, the things we can do are very simple (to us) and quick, but they can make a huge impression on the customer’s memory of us. Core service generally solves some physical problems and requires the coordinated effort of the team doing a set of tasks that intervene in the progress of the problem and then eliminate whatever is out of balance. We use standard operating procedure (SOP)-based action to convert out of control to under control.

Historically, our service has not evolved in most places to the point of writing procedures that describe adding value during service delivery. I hope we reach that point soon because having such directives (in written form) would give us the opportunity to plug those added-value actions into the regular performance management model (SOPs/ Train/Apply/Critique/Revise). We could then use the ongoing application of the model to cause “doing a little extra” to be a regular part of how we routinely operate.

Applying the regular performance model to doing added value would make it a necessary component of core service within the continuous improvement process. Today, adding value is more critical than ever before with all the challenges we face as a service; we need Mrs. Smith’s support now more than ever. We have described and then discussed how added value works mostly by telling stories that illustrate helping a customer in a special way. Having a boss very publicly describe the situation and then commend someone who helped Mrs. Smith in a special way sends a powerful message to everyone that this behavior is positive and highly approved. In fact, this column tells such an added-value story.

Most of the time when we add value, we do a little extra as part of a regular call. Other times, we come upon a person we have not been called to help but who is dealing with something that is out of balance at that moment and we can use our resources to help. I guess in this situation we act as good Samaritans (a kindly person who voluntarily helps another in difficulty or distress).

An Actual Situation

When I was gainfully employed (as a fire chief), I was visited by an old and close friend. He was employed as a senior fire service specialist by a national fire association and was, in my opinion, the smartest, most current and skillful person who at that time had the best grasp on understanding and effectively dealing with contemporary fire service issues. He had been directly involved in fire service operations since he was a teenager in his hometown on the East Coast, which is a very busy metro fire service area. Since he was a kid chasing fires, he had attended a huge number of routine and extra alarms throughout his life. He was visiting me for several days to discuss and decide on a number of projects in which we were mutually involved.

One of the mornings during his visit, we had attended a meeting (actually a fire critique) at our training academy adjacent to the downtown area of the city. We had finished the meeting and were in my (unmarked) car driving back into downtown to go to lunch. We were driving on a main arterial street that went through an industrial area and a depressed socioeconomic (ghetto) residential area. A few blocks ahead of us on the same street was an engine company that had attended the same meeting but had left just a few minutes ahead of us. They were returning to their fire station about a mile and a half ahead.

A crew of four staffed the engine. It was an advanced life support pumper and was probably one of the earliest paramedic pumpers in the United States (created in the early 1970s). Their response area included the neighborhood we were driving through and was among the busiest in the city from the standpoint of both working fires and very frequent medical calls. I am sure they were first due to the headquarters of the local chapter of the knife and gun club. The on-duty crew (with whom I was familiar) was experienced, capable, and very smart/tough/nice.

Their leader, a very experienced fire captain with whom I had worked throughout both of our careers, was a very competent and widely respected officer. He was personally an old school character but professionally very modern and current. He was one of the students in our original paramedic class, so he had been delivering advanced life support throughout most of his career. He operated in a highly empowered manner and regarded managing his response area much like an area franchise where he extended regular department service programs to the customers for whom he was responsible. He was a company officer’s dream for a fire chief.

As we continued down the street, we were a couple of blocks behind the engine when it started to rain—a bit unusual here in the desert. I turned on the wipers, and we kept going and talking. After we went a short distance, we noticed that the brake lights on the pumper went on and the truck slowed down, pulled over to the curb, and stopped at a bus stop where an older woman with two grocery bags was sitting on the bench waiting for the bus. We could see the captain leaning out the window and saying something to the lady. Then, the back door opened up and two burly-looking blue shirt firefighters got out of the truck. One took the lady by the arm and gently helped her in the truck; the other took her grocery bags and got in the cab. The door closed, and the truck pulled away from the curb and proceeded down the street. The brake lights went off, and once it got going, the rig belched a little puff of exhaust.

My friend got to watch through the windshield this pick-up-the-customer operation and instantly became animated. He breathlessly asked me, “Why did they do that?” I answered, “It’s her truck.” He said, “You people are crazy. Who gave them permission to do that?” I said, “I don’t think he asked anyone’s permission; it looks to me like he (the officer) is really in charge of his company.” Then my friend, after just watching this spontaneous added-value service example, asked two critical and probably predictable questions we now need to discuss. He asked, (1) “What if they ‘get a fire’?” and (2) “What is the liability?”

My friend reacted the way he did simply because he had never seen a fire truck do what he just witnessed and what he just saw was so far outside his normal frame of reference. He was conditioned the way he was because the fire service where he had spent his whole life would never do what he had just seen. I tried to react to his very legitimate questions even though I was accustomed to seeing our troops act like this before.

I explained that we had a well-established civilian ride-along program. We encouraged our customers to spend some time with a fire company as they delivered service. When we had a rider, that person more than anything else hoped to get to attend a fire. While the fire company got her onboard in an unusual way (saving her from the rain), she was nevertheless just as much a civilian rider as someone who signed up to do exactly what she was doing. I also told my friend that if the company was dispatched to a fire, she was going to get to (seated and belted) go to a fire. I was very familiar with the crew and their boss, and if there was a fire, they were going to go.

I then asked him what he meant by “What is the liability?” He said. “What if they get into a wreck?” I did not mean to be sarcastic, but I pointed out to him that she was riding on a fire truck staffed by two paramedics and two EMTs. If they had a wreck, they would have a zero response time to the wreck. I also commented to him that I felt that the most valuable part of the whole response process was the safety and welfare of the firefighters. If it were too dangerous for her to be riding on the truck, as far as I was concerned, it would be too dangerous for the crew to be riding on the truck. I would hope that riding in a seat with a seat belt on in that well-maintained truck driven by a competent driver who followed all the driving rules and who was assisted by an extremely experienced officer (who was kind of grumpy about safety) would be the safest ride she would ever take. In fact, she was waiting for a city-owned bus that was not nearly as safe as riding on the pumper.

We then had a long and energetic conversation throughout a long lunch during which we discussed fire department liability. I explained to him that I am not an attorney, a risk manager, or an auditor—that I am basically a firefighter and that when I consider the exposure we have as a service that manages uncontrolled hazards, dealing with danger, and attempting to save threatened people and stuff that we have naturally built into what we routinely do, there is a huge (!) helping of liability for breakfast every morning. If a person is adverse to risk, liability, and tactical uncertainty, that person probably should avoid being a senior fire department manager. We necessarily live with all these pieces and parts of liability every second of every day.

The fire truck we just saw pick up someone’s Grandma was responsible for protecting a high-hazard industrial area and also the lives of literally thousands of people (many who lived in pretty tough conditions) because their company can geographically get to them quickly. Their unit is equipped with the hydraulic/pumping capability to literally wash away a significant number of people, places, and things. It carries Frankenstein tools that have the power to damage/destroy almost anything they encounter. They respond in an apparatus that is the biggest vehicle on the road (by a lot) with warning devices (and laws) that clear the way for their unimpeded response. They deliver advanced life support where they can and routinely do invasive procedures on customers (IV needles, intubation tubes, powerful drugs, electronically start the heart).

I pointed out to my friend the old time expression that warns us that we “can eat an elephant and choke on a gnat.” I reflected on the built-in liability of managing a fire department: We automatically take on the most absolutely severe level of liability, and it basically doesn’t routinely produce even a blip in our ongoing conversation …. Yet, my friend and I have had a two-hour discussion about giving an old lady a ride in the rain. I think our conversation might have fallen into the gnat/elephant admonition.

I did not mean to be cavalier or careless about liability. I believe that we should manage everything we do in a capable, standard, and responsible way. During our mutual careers, I have had the honor of hanging a medal of valor on the captain for delivering exemplary service. Based on that experience and being familiar with the performance of his company, it seemed that if I trusted the captain and the crew to perform the critical tactical and operational functions that all came with an incredible level of potential liability, it was not high risk for me to trust them to give an old lady a ride in the rain.


I realize that this story might not fit into the operating limitations of some systems. Every department must understand and then operate within local standards. I hope the story makes the point that on that day an empowered officer used his added-value resources to assist someone he encountered. I later saw him at a meeting and thanked him for helping the woman. He responded, “Where were you?” I told him I was everywhere and could always see what he was doing (which he did not believe).

He then told me the lady was Mrs. Gonzales who lived next door to the fire station. He said, “We give her rides all the time.” He explained that while I was a regal fire chief character (?), I was not anywhere as important as his Mom, who would have “tanned his hide” (as he put it) if she caught him driving by the next-door neighbor sitting in the rain.

I wonder if the effect of adding value, as the company routinely does, to its customers will be that in the toughest neighborhood in any urban place in the middle of the night that company will be able to park its truck in the street with all the doors open and no one will ever bother the rig or the troops. It seems that if the firefighters add value to the community, the community will add value back to the company.

● Retired chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site

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