Fire Department officers and other emergency services leaders are called to present a briefing at large-scale incidents or planned (multiagency) events as part of executing and deploying resources directed by the incident action plan. Administratively, briefings are critical for conveying ideas to improve and modernize your fire department. This article explains how you can increase your effectiveness in presenting briefings by applying leadership methods used by our military.
Written communication is more difficult than verbal communication, but it is also more effective. When you “put it in writing,” your ideas gain in substance. Writing provides advantages such as the ability to sequentially design and build your thought in rough form. During this phase, it is generally determined whether to proceed with or abandon the proposition. Seeing the idea on paper enables you to review it and to revise or expand it, if necessary. It may even lead you in a direction that you had not considered. You can then test the idea by giving it to a coworker, your boss, or your spouse for evaluation.
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The ultimate objective, of course, is to have your idea approved and adopted as a standard operating procedure (SOP) or a new tactic or technique.
Preplanning a Briefing
Successfully delivering a briefing depends mainly on how well-prepared you are. How do you prepare? You should begin preparing beforehand, which is akin to preplanning a structure before a fire occurs there. A briefing is a fact-filled show. The more you practice the skills involved, the more professional and effective the briefing will be. Failing to fully prepare for the event will cause your department leaders to lose trust in you.
Observe those around you who are experienced at giving briefings. Ask an expert presenter to evaluate your skills. Video one of your practice presentations and critique it. Do you convey confidence, knowledge, and enthusiasm?
Preparation should include researching the supervisors and officers to whom the briefing is addressed. When sitting in on briefings, note how they react to specific topics, methods, and graphics. Watch their facial features and body language. Listen for comments they make about the topic.
Early in my career, I was delivering a briefing, and the colonel in the audience asked what I thought would happen as we executed the plan. I replied, “Sir, I hope ….” Those were the only words I got out before he interrupted me: “Hope is not a plan, Mr. Knapp. Do you understand that? Never hope for an outcome again; your job is to plan for it!” I should have replied, “Colonel, I expect that as a result of this plan, the following will occur ….” Even if your boss disagrees, he will see a confident, well-thought-out plan that you expect to be successful.
Also, avoid statements that could be viewed from a negative perspective such as “Probies can do that” or calling truck firefighters “firefighters’ helpers” or engine company firefighters “hose draggers.” A briefing is not the place for firehouse humor.
Components of a Successful Briefing
Content and Delivery. Be an expert on your topic. Ensure that you have thoroughly researched the topic, practiced your presentation, and addressed any areas that could be contentious for audience members
Presentation Aids. If you are using a projector or other aids, set them up and test them at least an hour before. Have an alternate plan if the equipment is not available. If possible, have an aide run the projector or computer and move paper maps, charts, or models so that you can remain focused on the audience. A solid backup plan is to have printed copies of the slide deck that audience members can use if the projector or electricity fails.
Ensure that any photos, tables, or graphs can be seen from all areas of the room. If you will use a laser pointer, make sure it is in good working order. Consider using block arrows on the slide for clarity.
Prepare and distribute your handouts at table places or on chairs. Having handouts placed neatly on the table shows you are focused and pay attention to detail. Passing out papers during the briefing disrupts the flow and focus.
To facilitate the event, number your slides, handout pages, key points, courses of action, charts, maps, and so on. It is much more professional to ask your superiors to go to page 7 or map 3 rather than to go four pages from the back or behind the slide depicting the photo of your department’s last fire.
Photos can be very helpful in clarifying your message. Early on, I presented operations orders (a briefing of sorts) describing numerous missions and posts for emergency services personnel using the accepted standard—describing in writing the location of the post, the task and purpose, times of execution, radio frequency used, and assigned supervisor. This description would be passed down the chain of command to the soldier executing the mission. Often, my comments were misunderstood and resulted in operational errors.
I have found that when communicating a briefing of an operation to a unit, field supervisors, and post personnel, using an overhead photo with callouts depicting the locations of the numerous ground posts and critical information made my message much clearer and easier to execute than writing out a long convoluted description. Although the photos were not in exact compliance with briefing policies, they came to be known as “Knapp’s cartoons” (photo 1) and resulted in much better coordination and execution; they are still in use 15 years after their debut.
(1) This photo of an overhead view of the hoseline and apparatus positioning was used in a mission briefing (training) for a large-scale drill. (Photo by author.)
Assumption. The function of this term, really a misnomer, is to acquaint the audience with the starting point for your presentation. For example, if you are briefing on a new tactic, the assumption at the start of your presentation might be as follows: There will be four firefighters on an engine and three on a truck. The assumption may go further: The first-alarm assignment will be two engines and one truck.
Know and plan for how much time is allotted for your briefing and follow-up discussion. A brief should be concise but should contain enough information to enable the individuals to whom it is directed to make informed decisions. Remember, it is a briefing, not a thesis. Include all critical information; details can be provided verbally if necessary.
Open with the purpose of your briefing: “Chief, the purpose of this briefing is to determine the color of our new pumper.” Everyone in the room now knows what the goal is. You may want to continue with something like, “I will provide you with pertinent background information, applicable research, and several courses of action.” There should be no surprises. This approach helps to avoid conflict and keep the brief focused.
Present at least three choices, your recommendation, and the reasons for your choice. After your briefing, be ready for questions and anticipate and plan for them: What might the boss ask? Have I left anything out? What are other units or fire departments doing about this issue? How did they resolve it? Questions on cost and safety are almost certain to be raised.
Ask your peers while preparing to give the briefing, “What do you think he will ask? If you don’t know the answer, do not try to fake it. The best response here is, “Chief, I do not know the answer, but I will get it.”
Bring your staff to the briefing for support. It is likely you did not do all the research or fact finding yourself; therefore, team members may be able to help round out the discussion or answer questions. Use your staff: “Chief, Lt. Smith is my expert on that; he can better answer that for you.” Obviously, to accomplish this, your subordinate or committee member must also be prepared for the briefing.
This may sound like overkill, but it is necessary. Sports teams practice plays over and over until they can’t get them wrong. During the game, the players are confident, and it shows. The same applies here. Rehearsal improves your brief and facilitates choosing your words. It improves your delivery timing and helps to establish the length of the briefing.
When You Are the Party Being Briefed
If you are the person to whom a subordinate’s briefing is directed, not only must you be a good listener, but also you must exercise active management. Set the tone for the briefing—for example, explain to the audience: “Lt. Jones is going to brief us (not me) on what his committee is proposing for the new SOP on lithium ion battery fires. Lt. Jones, whenever you are ready.”
This introduction projects to the others in the room that you all operate as a team and that the superior expects all in the room to be respectful to the briefer. They stop their side conversations and turn their attention to the speaker.
Your demeanor and words before, during, and after the briefing portray the type of leader and individual you are. Additionally, you will help the speaker to develop into a valuable team member. I have seen mid-level fire and military officers destroy their staff members in seconds with outbursts of anger, impatience, or crudeness, which erodes everyone’s focus on the mission and switches attendees’ mode from teamwork to individual survival. The synergy of the team is lost and sometimes the mission of the entire organization is set back into the Stone Age.
At briefings with higher-level officers, I saw high-ranking and very high-quality leaders change the course of the briefing while maintaining dignity and respect and keeping the group focused on teamwork. This can and should occur if the briefing was ineffective or not in the direction the officer wanted. It may not have been what the team delivering the briefing wanted to hear, but the commander was respectful and the team’s integrity and members’ individual motivation and pride were maintained.
Allow for errors, and don’t point out minor ones. You may ask the briefer to stop by your office to make minor corrections. If the briefer is inexperienced and one of your subordinates, he may be stressed and not perform smoothly.
Avoid a “Shooting Gallery”
Sometimes, someone in the group will want to impress the bosses with how “sharp” and how much “smarter” he is than the others in the room by asking questions and making the briefer look bad or unprepared. Do not let your briefing session become a shooting gallery. The shooter will immediately make personal enemies among your staff. This will destroy your team, pit staff member against staff member, and destroy your organization. Questions and discussion are good, but they must be focused on the topic and the mission, not self-aggrandizement.
Conducting and taking briefings are a part of all fire officers’ jobs. They may occur in operational or administrative settings. They are skills successful leaders must learn, practice, and master.
U.S. Army Command and Staff Officer Guide, U.S. Army, Knowledge online.
Commander and Staff Organization and Operations, https://armypubs.us.army.mil/doctrine/index.html/.
JERRY KNAPP is a 44-year veteran firefighter/emergency medical technician with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department; a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York; chief of the Rockland County Hazardous Materials Team; and a former nationally certified paramedic. He has a degree in fire protection, is the co-author with Chris Flatley of House Fires (Fire Engineering), wrote the “Fire Attack” chapter in Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering), and has authored numerous articles for fire service trade journals.