Organizational Empowerment

By Jon E. Trent

“Organizational empowerment” requires a large investment in time and training targeted at company officers and instituting empowerment in the organization. There are three primary benefits to empowerment in an organization, which follow:

  • Delegating decisions to the people most directly providing services.
  • Developing an organizational brand through personal involvement.
  • Connecting with your community.

This discussion will address these three broad areas and steps to implement empowerment in an organization.

 

Step I—Developing a Baseline for Delegating Decisions

This first step introduces the steps to organizational empowerment from the perspective of delegating decisions to the people most directly providing services.

Empowering your crews to make decisions requires action from both the line and staff levels of your organization. The first key is to ensure that you have well-trained, educated, and experienced personnel. Minimum requirements for a position are just that—minimum requirements; they are not intended as an end-all, be-all goal. They are just the beginning steps in a professional growth curve. There are recommended national standards for every position in the fire service with training-, education-, and experience-based criteria. The concept is to master the skills, knowledge, and application at each level.

Example: Anyone can take huge steps forward in this avenue with the implementation of performance measurement through competency skill books for every position in the organization. In addition, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1410, Standard on Training for Emergency Scene Operations, drills; out-the-door drills; and outside training opportunities must be supported by the organization. Your part is to ensure that the competencies established remain solid and that you are mentoring and coaching your personnel as they move into new responsibilities within the organization.

(1) A crew performs a modified NFPA 1410 drill incorporating forcible entry and attack line advancement skills. (Photos by author.)

 

The second key is to provide a procedural framework for personnel in which to operate. You should work diligently to structure, institute, and maintain a good solid standard operating procedures (SOPs) manual. In today’s fire service, you can’t realistically anticipate the complex direction procedures may move in the future. Who would have guessed a few years ago that we would need to institute a social media policy for our organizations? To overcome the unknown, you can organizationally measure your decisions on day-to-day items against your vision, mission, core values, and beliefs. Is it in the best interest of your citizens? Is it in the best interest of your personnel? Is it legal? Is it ethical? Would you want your name associated with it on the front page of the newspaper? Your part in this is to provide input; feedback; and innovative, paradigm-busting thought for the direction of the organization.

The third key is to encourage and promote situational decision making. There was a time in the fire service when you could provide an officer with your SOPs manual and train him to the procedures. When you encounter situation “A,” you take action “B,” and you will anticipate outcome “C”; it was a very simple process.

In today’s fire service environment, change occurs at such a rapid pace that a procedure written today may be outdated tomorrow, and there are very few one-option decisions. The guard rails in which you operate are broader and more diverse than you have ever encountered previously. So, you now have to train your officers to analyze situation A and determine which of alternatives B, C, or D would have the greatest chance of leading to outcome E, ensuring that “everyone goes home.” And on top of that, if you face a critical, life-threatening situation where operating on the fringe of the SOP would likely result in a positive outcome, do that!

Figure 1. The Past and the Present of Predicting and Creating Outcomes in the Fire Service.  

 

These decisions have to be made with less information and much faster than they were in the past. The only way to process the information and make a decision quickly in an emergency situation is to have a solid base of skills, abilities, application, and experience. Your part in this is to prepare for and manage for the variance from the normal routine rather than the everyday routine of daily operations. In other words, act, train, and live like your life depends on your actions; for you and everyone you work with, it does.

When you put these three keys in place, you have established a baseline which will empower your people to make good decisions. As opportunities present themselves in the field, your crews can consider the baseline, and then take action as opportunities arise. You must continue to coach and mentor them when they miss the mark, because they will, occasionally. However, over time, as they build confidence and gain experience, they will make good decisions for the organization and the community they serve.

 

STEP II—Developing an “Organizational Brand” Through Personal Involvement

This second step builds on Step I’s concepts and focuses on developing an “organizational brand” through personal involvement.

As you develop a base set of knowledge and skills in your training programs and apply that learning to an emergency situation, you have achieved a productive level. However, there are two additional key components that are needed for members to become high level performers: experience and a passion for the organization. Experience is a multiplier of all of the knowledge and skills you bring to the table; it expands that knowledge and skills by broadening understanding and building a model set of actions which have proven successful under similar circumstances in the past.

Those with “everyday working knowledge” of the job bring experience that they can transfer into productivity and growth. Those who have been there must have personal involvement in the development of new firefighters and teach them the lessons of the past. They know the history of the profession, and they must pass that knowledge to the new firefighters. These people remember the “whys” of most of the decisions of yesterday that are today’s routine actions.

Example: You may have to look outside of your organization to find fire service professionals that can help you. Many times they can inject the history of the fire service into organizations that do not have hundreds of years of service. As your organization began to promote personal involvement, you identified a need to elevate the performance of truck company operations and select the best aerial apparatus for your operations and your community. One piece of that program was to bring in Fire Department of New York Captain (ret.) Mike Dugan to increase the skills levels of your organization and to discuss the importance of tradition and passion in the organization.

(2) FDNY Captain (Ret.) Mike Dugan instructs on ladder company operations.

 

As you empower your personnel, it is critical that you formalize these experiences and lessons into an “organizational brand.” The only way that we will carry our mission, values, and goals forward is for today’s new firefighters to be the people who carry the brand tomorrow. It identifies who you are organizationally and sets the pace for the firefighters. You should market this brand to your community and your recruits. If your recruit firefighters don’t believe in the essential elements of your brand, then they should look for an organization that more closely matches their beliefs.

Your brand should also recognize the history and accomplishments of your profession. After all, your organization is just one part of a dynamic profession with a rich history of tradition and honor. Remember, the most visible symbol of your brand is the department patch you wear daily. If you are delegating decisions to the people most directly providing services and establish your brand as being high-level performers with personal involvement in the organization, you are on the road to organizational empowerment at its finest.  Next, I will examine the final piece of organizational empowerment: connecting with our community.

 

Step III—Connecting with Your Community

This section will explore two types of benefits resulting from connecting with your community: organizational benefits and individual benefits.

The most powerful marketing tool you have for your organization is the people on the street that bring to life your organizational brand and deliver the services directly. Empowered employees are the lifeblood of the organization, and they will win the respect of your community. Every time you make contact with the community, you have an opportunity to deliver the message of your brand. When you are at the store picking up groceries, when you are at the senior center performing blood pressure checks, when you are in your local business district performing preplans and safety inspections, you are delivering the philosophy of your brand and your organization.

If you develop your brand to represent exceptional customer service from high-level performers with personnel involvement in the organization, then putting your words into action is the final step to achieving an empowered organization. Your members become walking, talking billboards for your organization. The next time you need additional revenue and you go to your community asking for financial support, if you have connected with the people who will place that vote, you have significantly increased your opportunity to be given the resources you request. Additional resources, when properly applied, can only make your organization safer and more efficient and capable. For far too long, you have known what a great organization and great profession you represent, but you have until recently never made your community aware of who you are.

Individually, your firefighters benefit from connecting with the community through the potential increase in funding and increased job satisfaction. I would suggest that most of the people in our profession view themselves as “protectors” of their community and the people who make up that community. If you have your pulse on the needs of the community, you have been empowered to meet those needs within the framework of your brand; you deliver on your words with actions, and it becomes a win-win for everyone involved. Job satisfaction will surely only increase as you meet the needs of your community, every day and every shift.

Example: In 2012, my organization implemented an outreach to my community called “Front Porch Fridays.” During the months of June and July, we opened the stations to the community on Fridays from 1900 to 2100. During those hours, if the station bays were open, the community knew they were welcome to stop by and visit the firefighters. The concept came from the thought that, in our community, no one sits on his or her front porch and visits with neighbors; in fact, most are on their back deck behind a privacy fence. We also offer the opportunity for local businesses to supply coupons to us through our Chamber of Commerce connections, which we hand out to the people who come by the station. Not every organization would be able to partner with businesses as we have because of  existing barriers of policy. However, in our community, there are no such issues. The program has been a huge success, both in terms of numbers of interactions with the community and in the quality of those interactions.

(3) Two visitors to Station One on a “Front Porch Friday” night.

 

Organizational empowerment is a lofty goal. The process takes time and effort to implement and realize all of the benefits both organizationally and individually. As you are able to delegate decisions to the people most directly providing services, thus developing an organizational brand through personal involvement and connecting with your community, you begin to achieve organizational empowerment. The benefits of all of the effort may come a little at a time, but in the end you will improve your organization today and leave a legacy that will carry us all on to continued success!

 

Jon E. Trent is the chief for the Nixa (MO) Fire Protection District. Trent is a 23+-year fire service veteran with a background in volunteer and career training program management as well as chief officer. He has an associate degree in fire service administration from Columbia (MO) College and is working on a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an concentration in management. Trent has been a long-time adjunct instructor with the University of Missouri Fire and Rescue Institute, an adjunct instructor in the Fire Science Technologies program for the Ozarks Technical Community College, an original “Lucky 13” member of the Ozark Mountain FOOLS, and a senior contributor to Hooks and Hooligans. He can be contacted at jtrent@nixafire.org.

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