By Dave Hargis
Most days in the firefighting profession are mundane and non-eventful. Then the alarm sounds, we move with purpose to our rigs, don our protective equipment, and dash of off into the unknown. We put ourselves into extremely dynamic situations, making life-altering decisions in time-compressed, high-stress environments. We sometimes lack all relevant information and any mistakes may turn fatal for our customers, ourselves, and our crew members. Specialized training is a requirement for all of our crews. We respond with a captain and crew. The captain is held responsible for the actions of his crew and the safety of our customers.
What other industry can we make most of these comparisons with? The aviation industry is similar in many ways to the fire service. Like us, they strive for all-around safety in their industry. Their decision-making processes in emergency situations are comparable to ours. To advance the safety of their operations, they instituted minimums. The aviation industry has weather minimums for visual flight operations, minimum runway length for different aircraft, minimum flight time for being hired as a pilot, etc. These minimums are the lowest standards that are acceptable for flight operations. When pilots or airlines operate below these minimums, it usually results in controlled flight into terrain or other such fatal circumstances.
Why doesn’t the fire service devote itself to making those things in a firefighter’s job description our minimums? Meeting the minimums means fulfilling the basics (or minimums) of your job description, not less than what it calls for or more. It means JUST DOING YOUR JOB. What a concept! Everybody (yes, even chief and company officers) just doing the minimum required of them.
Identifying the Minimums
Our organizational minimums are those things outlined in your organizations’ specific job descriptions. These usually include minimum qualifications–knowledge, skills, competencies, physical demands, and supervisory responsibilities relevant to your job classification. Most minimums also include the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) standards for professional qualifications. These documents outline our minimum job performance requirements. Are you expected to check the batteries in your handheld, initial the driver’s apparatus report, or dump the trash cans? Other organizational minimums also include assigned daily duties related to your specific rank, which may or may not exist in written form.
Almost all departments require some level of medical certification. These all require a minimum number of continuing education credits. Our technical rescue disciplines all require a minimum number of hours for certification and retention. Your chief or company officers can dictate minimums when it comes to house duties or completion of task books. Ensuring sure everyone’s accountability tags are on the rig would be another minimum. When you are at the scene and need to deliver your crews’ accountability tags to command or operations is not the time to discover yours is the only one there (or that it’s not there, at all). It should be a minimum for each member of the crew to attach their own tag. It should also be a minimum for the officer to check that is has been done.
Where are we really? What we need to understand as a whole is what meeting the minimums can mean in terms of performance. Sure, we all want to be outstanding in our jobs and profession, but to achieve excellence we first have to make sure we are meeting the minimums. I know what you are thinking right about now: Hey, I’m already above average at my job, and now you want me to just meet the minimums? There always are and always will be those people in your organization who are above average in their performance. But are you above average in all areas or are you missing some of your minimums? There are also those in our organization who are not meeting the minimums. To improve our agencies, we need to start somewhere–and that means making every person meet the minimums.
Where and how do we fall short? How many times have we started a shift to find that the fuel is low in the saw; the extinguisher has lost its charge; the radio isn’t in the charger; or flashlights and hand tools are left in the departing shift’s bunker gear? How many times have we discovered these things on an emergency call? How many of these problems would not have happened if everyone on those trucks had done what they were supposed to do? Look around throughout the day at your station. Chances are you will see things that haven’t been done because of someone forgetting, complacency, laziness, or lack of good leadership. How many firefighters have started their shift and just walked through the equipment check? Why didn’t you check the fuel in the generator or notice that the four-gas detector was missing?
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When we just walk through tasks or chores, we are being mindless (yes that is the formal terminology) in our behavior. When we do these things, we need to pay attention (be mindful) to the details of what we are doing. Do we let our crews sometimes get away with washing the apparatus then letting it air dry instead of wiping it down and getting rid of the water spots? It is easy to let things slide. At first it’s because we’ve been busy or tired; then we let it slide because its meal time and we want to start cooking; and then, if we are not careful, we develop a normalization of deviance. This is a phenomenon in which an organization accepts a lower standard of performance until that lower standard becomes the norm.
If you really sit down and take a hard look at what you are doing and what you are supposed to be doing on a daily basis, are there things you let slip, or just sometimes forget to do? When we look at National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports and firefighter close calls, how many times has the error chain started with just one person not doing something that was in their job description (meeting the minimums)? As officers (especially company officers), it is our job to help those we supervise to meet the minimums on a daily basis. We need to inspect what we expect. JUST DO YOUR JOB…no more, no less.
Reevaluate Your Organizational Minimums
If, when you look at your minimums, you find things that you are consistently not doing, or you wonder why you are doing them (like washing clean vehicles and mopping clean floors), reevaluate these things and either focus on making sure they get done, or remove them as job or performance requirements. Nothing slows an organization that is trying to grow and move forward more than unnecessary busywork. There are enough necessary and relevant things to focus on without these distractions.
If someone inside (or outside) your organization asks the question “why do we (you) do something and your response is “Well, that’s just what we have always done,” you might want to reevaluate that organizational minimum. This is the perfect opportunity to inject common sense into your organization. I asked one of our staff why we were required to check the fluids in each of the staff vehicles daily even if they hadn’t been driven that day. We only do the fluid checks on our apparatus once a week or after a working fire. But we were placing undue emphasis on making sure someone made a check mark for checking the oil in a vehicle that hadn’t moved in two days. Fortunately this staff member agreed that the vehicles only needed to be checked once weekly or as indicated by a significant event or visible leak. By eliminating this organizational minimum, the members were shown that meeting and evaluating minimums could bring about good change. This is only one small example; I would wager that even while reading this article you are thinking of something that could be reevaluated in your organization.
Getting There as an Organization
So how do we get everyone to do their job? First, we have to take an introspective and honest look at our own performance. Step one: Accept the fact that you may not be meeting the minimums. Ask yourself, “Am I meeting what is in my job description? Do I frequently have trouble remembering some of the more mundane tasks (such as house supply inventory on the first Thursday of each month)? Am I letting my crews get by with below average performance?”
Make yourself a personal checklist of your duties. Look at it every day and follow it. Lead by example by meeting the minimums and make the people you supervise realize that it isn’t difficult once you set your sights there. Don’t make the transition punitive. Remind everyone that these goals are just the minimum expected of them; they can decide to do better. Help them make checklists to follow according to their job classification.
Tie everyone together as a team and ensure everyone understands how and why these things need to get done. Set your goal on helping everyone in your organization meet the minimums. Empower even the lowest seniority and rank to have input in helping to meet or change the minimums. They are the newest to the organization and often have a different perspective to help bring about change. They will be plank-holders in the change in organizational culture; you may be helping to steer but they are the ones who will be stepping on the gas. You will find that when you have everyone in your organization just doing the minimum, it will have an exponential effect on the efficiency and reliability of your organization.
Once you have begun to meet the organizational minimums, start to work on the component that will greatly enhance the effectiveness of your organization: raising your personal minimums. We know what the organizational minimums are. Can’t we just adopt them as our personal minimums? If we want to improve ourselves and further improve our organization, shouldn’t we raise our personal minimums above those of our organization?
As a firefighter, your job description says you need to participate in drills and training. That is your organizational minimum. Perhaps your personal minimum is to coordinate and instruct drill and training sessions on an ongoing basis. Basically, this means setting personal standards for yourself that are higher than those of your organization. Chief and company officers should lead the way, not only setting standards for you but by helping establish benchmarks for those you lead. Use your position as a leader, whether formal or informal, to show everybody you work with how rewarding it is to set and achieve goals above and beyond the minimums of your organization. Use your own behavior to set an example for those around you to follow. Be the person who raises the expectations inside your organization.
By raising your minimums you are constantly improving. If your department has rope training once a quarter, get your guys out there in the afternoon and do it once a month. Is it easy to keep raising your minimums? No, you have to be willing to sacrifice some of your rest and free time to raise your minimums. But if you raise your own, and thus cause those around you to see what it does for personal satisfaction and team building, what’s a few extra hours on the training ground each month?
As leaders in our organizations, we need to pay attention to the details. Those details are the minimums. We need to address making our organizational minimums a habit. There is no moral or ethical reason for all of us not to meet any of the minimums described in this article. By raising our personal minimums, we are pushing our skills and abilities forward on an ongoing basis. We owe it to the taxpayers and entities we serve, our brothers and sisters in service, and to ourselves to be able to state with conviction, ”I TRULY AM DOING MY JOB.”
Dave Hargis is a battalion chief with the North Kansas City (MO) Fire Department and an instructor with the Metropolitan Community College Public Safety Institute in Independence, Missouri. He holds an associates degree in fire science from Metropolitan Community College of Kansas City.