Fireground Management: I Know It When I See It

by ALAN BRUNACINI

In our ongoing march through the vertically arranged performance activities that connect to a boss’s capability level, we have covered attendance, appearance, and maintenance. These functions form the very practical foundation for how we prepare to deliver service. As we stated last month, these necessary functions are not glamorous or sexy when we do them and are only exciting when we don’t do them; then the boss must exert personal authority/influence to cause them to come up to the standard. A lot of what we do operationally/tactically is exciting, and we should create an approach where we limit that excitement to the challenge of solving the incident problem and not to some flub where we didn’t effectively maintain a critical part of our system ahead of time and the mistake suddenly is discovered at showtime. We should always operate where the main action (like putting water on the fire) is the primary one instead of using self-contained breathing apparatus bottles that are half full when we put them on.

Early in my boss life, I was trying to figure out how to effectively connect to my crew. I engaged them in a conversation about being an effective boss. They were very practical, experienced, tough guys (all guys then). Finally, I asked them how they wanted to be managed. I loved their answer: (1) “Tell me what to do”; (2) “Give me the training and tools to do it”; (3) “Get out of my way”; and (4) “After I do it, tell me how I did.” Their list was simple enough that even I could understand it. For the next 40 years, whenever I had to act like a boss where work was being done and it required me to give directions, I tried to do all four (in order). During that same time while I was a boss, I was also a worker, and I had my own boss. The best bosses did those four basic functions (at a somewhat higher organizational level), and their doing that seemed to consistently bring out the best in everybody involved.

The role of an effective boss is to be certain that the troops understand what is expected, give them the resources to reach that standard level, provide a trust-based environment in which they can effectively operate, and continually provide feedback on how the job is being done. These basic functions generally necessitate only a “light hand” to manage. When the workers attend on time and they personally look okay and the physical details are taken care of as if we are proud of how well it works and looks, the boss should send an explicit message that he is happy with those efforts. Although those basic steps are pretty timeless, they all seem to still go together to effectively describe the boss’s role in connecting the work with the workers.

When I was a young worker, bosses generally and very typically would act out instruction/preparation/performance/feedback in a very straightforward manner. Workers expected and were accustomed to this, and most often they received this approach. The style of direction was very direct pretty much whenever and wherever it occurred. Looking back, that approach was very authoritarian. About halfway through my career (mostly as a boss), the participative movement happened. We were “reinstructed” that it was more effective if the bosses participated in a more human-centered way with their troops and everyone had the opportunity to be involved throughout the work process. We took advantage of everyone’s capability, creativity, and ownership, and the result was better.

Adjusting Personal Skills

The four items I received from my troops stayed the same, but participating with the workers required a somewhat different set of personal skills from the old-time boss. Before the participation movement, the boss could (and did) say, “Because I said so!” After participation, the boss had to engage the workers; participation requires a different set of personal skills than ordering. Today, we are recruiting, hiring, and now managing the latest generation of young firefighters who have been raised and conditioned by their parents, teachers, and colleagues in a way that makes them comfortable to be participants in the four steps. In fact, now when their boss gives an order, they will many times ask, “Why?” Sometimes a boss who is still connected to the old straightforward way will take the “why” question as a sign of disrespect.

The very natural asking “why” reaction of firefighters can be the logical and predictable result of the instruction they received from their parents/teachers since they were wee tads to ask why when they wonder about something. Generally, when young people ask “why,” it is very natural to them and is not meant in any way to be disrespectful or a challenge to the boss’s authority: They want to know the reason something is being done. I have noticed that a discussion about the reason for the order when there is time in the beginning makes the outcome of the order far more effective regardless of the age of the players. I also have observed that when we are involved in an event where time is critical (not a lot of time right then to explain why), the more we preplan and rehearse what we are going to do (standard action) ahead of time, the quicker, better, and safer the outcome of that situation is in the street.

It is very useful for the team to use this ahead-of-time preparation process in a way that builds trust among the members. We many times encounter new, unusual, and special circumstances where the boss does not have a lot of time to explain every detail of what needs to be done. When this occurs, the workers must be confident that the boss will explain, when the operation is over, the time-compressed beginning (why we quickly did what we did) as part of a regular review of the action that occurred and how it all turned out. In fact, when the boss is overly direct, it should serve as a signal to everyone that time is compressed and that we must now act quickly and we will thoroughly discuss the beginning at the end. This is the reason “tailboard critiques,” when we gather and debrief immediately after the fire, are so valuable. The discussion about tactical action that just occurred clarifies the reason and effectiveness of that action.

Role Model for All Times

As a young firefighter, I worked for an excellent company officer (my role model hero) who was way ahead of his time. He was calm, smart, and soft spoken and never hurried. He was very articulate and had a very conversational approach to his crew. We generally engaged in an energetic (and very interesting) shift-long discussion about how we would do the work of our company. Generally, when we were on the fireground, his demeanor didn’t change. Lots of times, he would ask, “Whadaya think?” before we went to work. We would then spend the next 15 seconds in a huddle; he would listen and then give an order, and off we would go to do what we had to do. The ask/talk/decide/order process based on his personal approach created an under-control, collective, and cohesive beginning to our action. After a while I noticed that his doing this in the beginning caused us to ultimately be quicker (and a lot safer) than just about any other company. His natural coaching approach (patiently explaining why) for young firefighters caused him to be a “kid magnet.” If you wanted to be promoted, you transferred into his company (long waiting list). He was accused of running a “puppy mill.”

Very rarely would he do an initial size-up and immediately give an order in a voice that was slightly higher than normal. To me, it was a profound signal that something urgent necessitated that we take action at that moment. I also noticed that in such a situation he also physically moved a little more quickly than at his normal pace. The longer I was with him and the more I watched his personal mannerisms when we had to get on with what we had to do right now (!), I came to view that approach as a “controlled hustle.” I worked for him and with him for a long time (and eventually became his boss), and I never saw him change his basic approach (or speed).

As I became more experienced, observant, and perhaps a bit more philosophical (and slightly less vocational), I came to understand that a lot of his personal and positional effectiveness (read: power) was that he never gave up his approach to the situation no matter how serious or how urgent the conditions were. He had the professional capability and personal cool to outperform whatever it was that was going on. He consistently showed that by adjusting his personal technique in a minor way he could send a set of enormously effective signals to his troops that would almost instantly direct them to perform in a way that created effective action. While other officers (many of whom talked a good game) were running down the street with their hair on fire screaming like suffocating hyenas, he just raised his voice a half an octave and started going six miles an hour instead of his normal four miles an hour, and it was almost as if he were sending an obscene very personal signal to the situation that he was in control of himself and his crew even though the fire could be (and many times was) out of control. He never let the situation define him; he was always in control of that personal definition.

As I watched him operate, although he was quietly competent (and then some), I never had the feeling that he was arrogant. I was with him a lot when he was very effective at evaluating and managing the risk to his crew. As we as a company would discuss our approach-where we would go, what we would do, and the action we would take-he did a really good job of separating and managing the difference between fear and respect. I never saw him put his company in the way of defensive conditions, and, basically, none of us ever got hurt under his direction. I heard him describe in a very poetic way where he held us back in a safe tactical position, where we were going to stay out of the way of, as he called it, “a freight train full of thermal pain!” Such a reference stayed with me for the next 52 years.

Through the years, whenever I read about, hear about, or discuss “command presence,” I instantly think about my old company boss. I don’t think you can evaluate that command capability until and unless you have actually gone to battle with a person and saw how he behaved over and over when the icky stuff was coming through the fan at a high rate of speed. I also have learned that command stature or presence is not how noisy, but how effectively quiet, a person is when the chips are down. He had the understated capability to create the most powerful action right where it needed to be at exactly the right time and not expend 15 calories of effort to do it. If you were a casual observer, you would not even notice what he was doing; but if you were one of his crew members, you would remember it and try to imitate him for the rest of your life. He was an ideal example of “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

A major lesson you learned from him when you watched him operate is that the only thing you can really control is yourself. The way bosses can influence an operational response that causes a tactical outcome is by managing the message their personal behavior sends to the workers. I guess this could be either a very practical component or a mysterious element involved in command presence. Some special people seem to get the relationship “math” that connects that person acting in a certain functional way to others reacting in a related functional way. Although the process is fairly simple, not many bosses ever master that critical connection, and it occurs rarely.

I apologize for going off on a bit of a tangent from our hierarchy discussion by writing about my old boss. Sometimes I mentally chase around and then write about “nonscheduled” thoughts sailing through my memory. That’s why the column is titled “Unplugged.” We will be back on track next month.

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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