Stepping Up: Letters of Recognition

By Ron Hiraki

One of the most important qualities of leadership is motivating the people around you. Recognizing exceptional or good work is one way to motivate or keep people motivated. Recognition can be as simple as a sincere “thank you” or the presentation of the coffee mug or pen with your fire department’s name and insignia. For fellow fire department members, nothing is more rewarding than being recognized by their peers. Most of the time, acts of heroism or exceptional efforts at an emergency incident are recognized. However, many times we fail to formally recognize people for their extra efforts on a station/department project, or for creating and leading some new training drill or class. A simple way to do this is to present a letter of recognition to the department member and place a copy of the letter in his personnel file.  

The primary functions involved in getting that letter of recognition to the recipient are writing the recommendation or letter. Having it processed (approved, signed by the fire chief, for example) and presenting it to the recipient.  

Many people will know what the recipient did and the impact of his efforts. In reality, you are writing the letter for future readers so they can learn about the accomplishment and appreciate the recipient’s efforts. Whether you are writing a letter recommending the recipient for recognition or a draft of the actual letter of recognition, you should include the following components.
State the purpose or type of recognition.Are you expressing appreciation, saying thank you, recognizing, or commending the recipient? Be clear about this. After all, this is the crux of the letter. Some fire departments have a hierarchy for these types of letters. For example, a Letter of Commendation has a higher status than a Letter of Appreciation. A title that defines the type of letter may be placed in a heading. Include the common name of the project or training course and the encompassing dates.
State what the recipient did. I am always puzzled when I read recommendations or letters that say, “I recognize you for your hard work, professionalism, and dedication.” Aren’t most people hard workers, professional, and dedicated? Provide specific details about the recipient’s role and actions. Some examples include the following:
  • As chairperson of the Apparatus Committee, you established a schedule and solicited input from a cross-section of firefighters on the design of our next pumpers.
  • You read about a drill that other firefighters were doing, submitted a proposal, built the prop, created a lesson plan, trained other instructors, and conducted the drill for our firefighters.
  • You designed a new inspection form which makes it easier and faster for firefighters to complete inspections with fewer errors and increased quality.
State the impact of the recipient’s role or work. What made you say “wow” about the recipient’s work? Perhaps it made your job easier, allowed you to complete a task more efficiently, or just “looked nice.” Organizing and relabeling files may not seem like to have a great impact, but listen for and note the impact. One firefighter said, “I could actually find the document quickly and easily, and I wasn’t all stressed because it took me 15 minutes to find it. I updated the document and put it back for the next person, thanks to the files being organized and clearly labeled.” If people can say this about files, you can say this for other projects or a training course. Start with the training course objectives. Were they met? Was the training interesting and/or fun? Some examples include the following:
  • You used input from firefighters to increase safety and efficiency by properly storing equipment and tools in locations that were selected according to frequency of use.
  • The prop that you built and the drill that you conducted could not only save the lives of our firefighters, but it has also provided hands-on, realistic training that has increased our firefighters’ confidence.
  • You designed a new inspection formthat makes it easier and faster for firefighters to complete the inspection with fewer errors and increased quality.

Follow your fire department’s protocol or chain of command. Your department may have an awards or recognition committee and a process for submitting nominations. Use that process and follow the procedure.

Introduce the proposed letter in a brief cover letter or e-mail. It must be brief and should entice the reader into reading more and taking action. Try not to repeat all of the details of the recommendation. State your reputation or experience relevant to “selling” the recommendation. Perhaps you are known for your attention to detail or for your 15 years as a ladder company officer. These characteristics may be used to strengthen your ability to recognize and recommend exceptional work. 

Be clear about what the recipient did that was out of the ordinary. It is the out-of-the-ordinary work or activity that qualifies the recipient for the recognition. Even eight-year-olds know that everyone on the little league team got a ribbon for participating; but little Tommy or Mary got the ribbon for most valuable player. Clearly describe what the recipient did that was beyond the scope of what most firefighters do. The action does not have to be “superhuman,” just beyond the normal scope of most employees’ work. A person who does a very good job every shift for a few years may be good but not unusual. However, when the person does a very good job every shift for 25 years, it may be unusual.

Submit a draft the actual letter. You may end up writing nearly the entire letter of recognition; Therefore, submit a draft of the actual letter you compose for the fire chief’s signature. As the person making the recommendation, you are probably the best person to describe what the recipient did and the impact of the achievement. Even without some direct observation, you have the “heart” to carry the recommendation forward. In a larger fire department, or one where staff officers tend to “get stuck in their offices at headquarters,” a draft of the actual letter ensures that the proper recognition is given and that it is sincere. In your draft, you may want to include a direct quote from yourself in the copy the fire chief will sign—for example, “In her letter of recommendation, Captain Jones said, “As a former school teacher, Firefighter Smith applied educational principles to the lesson plan. She spent a great deal of her down time at the station gathering input from other firefighters and creating the lesson plan.”

Step up for the people around you. Look for and recognize the good work that they have done. Your leadership is important to them, and you will create a useful lasting point of pride for the recipient. 

Ron Hiraki began his career as a firefighter in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, working in a variety of operational and administrative positions leading to his final assignment as assistant chief of employee development. Completing his career as an assistant chief for a small combination fire department, Hiraki has nearly 30 years of fire service experience in urban and suburban settings. He has a master of science degree in human resources development and is a consultant to number of public safety agencies for their selection and performance evaluation programs. 

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