I was attending my first-ever staff meeting in the U.S. Army; Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Bill MacKinnon, our boss, presided over them. Up to that point, I had never served on a staff other than to plan how to build the beer wall in our college dorm from freshly emptied beer cans after Monday Night Football.
“So, Jerry, you’re first; what do you have for us?” LTC Mac, a very professional, pleasant combat veteran, asked respectfully. I’m pretty sure my mouth fell open since I did not know what to say. Captain Stan, a well-seasoned engineer branch officer and a fellow staff member, gave me the “You are an idiot” look, and our secretary giggled. My 33-year career working for the U.S. Army as a staffer, always for a military boss, taught me a lot about the value and mechanics of staff meetings.
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How does this relate to the volunteer fire department? As you ascended the ranks, you likely have been trained to higher technical skill levels: fire attack, extrication, hazmat (HM), and advanced scene management. You may not have been trained to run a staff of subordinates or a simple but effective staff meeting. The staff meeting is the most common and most effective tool you will use to run daily operations and improve your organization and its fireground effectiveness.
Purpose of Staff Meeting
The best organized and most effective leaders conduct staff meetings regularly, efficiently, and fairly. The operational expression “Make time to save time” applies here 100%. The time you invest in communicating with (to and from) your staff on a regular basis will pay you back at least tenfold; a hundredfold may be more accurate. In the fire service, this staff meeting could be at many levels: lieutenant or captain in charge of the company, battalion chief (in charge of several companies), or deputy or chief of full department staff.
The purpose and value of staff meetings include the following:
- Set goals—long and short term.
- Check progress of projects and assignments.
- Establish/adjust priorities for the organization.
- Provide/adjust subordinates’ guidance.
- Brainstorm creative solutions with subordinates.
- Provide assistance/advice/resources to subordinates so they can achieve established goals/projects.
- Facilitate coordination among staff members.
- Reduce organizational friction and personal friction.
- Make decisions so the entire staff knows the commander’s (boss’s) intent.
- Opportunity to make employees feel like they are key members by letting them express ideas and concerns, receive support, and so on.
- Share information from higher levels, intent, and goals from superiors.
A very personal but hugely important result of a productive staff meeting was that I felt good about my job for the following reasons: I knew exactly what was expected of me, I knew my own and my organization’s short-/long-term goals, I knew where I could get assistance if needed, and I knew exactly what my boss did and did not want. In short, my mission was clear.
Priorities and Friction
One of the major benefits of a staff meeting is that it ensures all your staff members (subordinates) are focused and understand the organization’s short- and long-term goals. Typically, on a staff there are a boss and subordinates with equal or varying ranks of subordinates under the boss. These staff members may not be in each other’s chain of command; they may all report to the same boss. Each of these folks has a job that may be a piece of the overall mission of the department the boss heads. Although each subordinate has a slightly different main task, they all must work together, either constantly or occasionally, to assist each other.
This situation can create problems that a staff meeting should fix. Here is a simple example: Your department has a logistics person (Loggy) or, for a larger department, a logistics section. The HM chief needs to routinely order sensors to keep a variety of instruments calibrated and functional. Previously, the logistician (Loggy) has been tasked by the boss to spec three new engines and turnout gear for the entire department. The Loggy sees this as his major task and prioritizes it as number one and spends all his time on it but does not order the HM sensors. The HM chief gets frustrated because he perceives the Loggy is not supporting him. Left unchecked, well, we all know the results: organizational friction, personal friction, and loss of efficiency.
So, at the next staff meeting, a conversation like this takes place:
HM Chief: “I really need those sensors I ordered last week. All our four-gas monitors will be out of service next week. We will be severely limited during carbon monoxide and natural gas emergencies. We did 10 of these calls last week alone.”
Loggy: “Well, sorry, but I’m totally tied up with the new engines and turnout gear purchases. That is my priority now.”
Boss: “HM, you need sensors on a regular basis, correct?”
HM Chief: “Yes, about once every two months.”
Boss: “So, you can predict when you need them?”
HM: “Yes, they have a known life expectancy, so I could do better at predicting the need to order and that would help.”
Boss to Loggy: “Please get HM his sensors, and HM will provide you an annual schedule with approximate replacement time frames. I understand that it will take some time away from your effort to write the specs, but specs are a longer-term goal. We need to keep our special operations missions operational.”
Loggy: “OK, great. I’ll get it done this afternoon. I did not realize I had some time on the specs.”
Other Staffer: “Purchasing just started a new contract provision that allows multiyear contracts. This would save a lot of time on all our parts for things like these sensors that we routinely need.”
Boss: “Great! Let’s have Logistics look into that and report back to me next meeting.”
The benefits of this staff meeting conversation include the following:
- Logistics and HM got a decision on how to proceed.
- Sensors got ordered.
- A new/better/more efficient system was established.
- Organizational friction was reduced as well as personal friction between staff members.
This very important conversation would likely never have taken place unless it came up in a staff meeting. Another important example of the result of this staff meeting was that a decision was rendered. As a staffer, I do not need to agree with my boss’s decision, but I need the decision to make progress for him to take the next steps.
This simple example shows the critical importance of conducting staff meetings and how they can reduce organizational friction and ensure smooth progress of both daily operations and short-term (replace sensors) and long-term (new specs) goals.
Leading the Staff and Meeting
Let’s look now from the boss’s perspective at a staff meeting. Imagine you are the boss with a staff of six people; usually they will be leaders of their own sections for which you have responsibility. You should have a sample format for your formal staff meetings. This may be as simple as the following: what you completed last week, status of ongoing projects, goals for next week, and any problems you can’t resolve yourself. A favorite experience-laden expression of LTC Mac’s was this: “Bad news does not get better with age.”
Always encourage your staff to bring up problems as soon as they are aware of them. Do the same with mistakes; admit them up front and take responsibility. Hiding them from other staffers and your boss never works out well in the long run.
LTC Jim Rice, an infantry battalion commander I worked for, always said this when staffers discussed a problem: “What can we do our own selves?” He knew the grammar was wrong, but it instantly made several important points: What can we control? What can’t we control? Can we fix this with the resources we have by the staff working together? Can we brainstorm a creative solution? Should the commander take it higher for resolution or resources to fix it?
My boss’s boss, the garrison commander (a very wise and experienced artillery branch colonel), handed down this advice after an embarrassing accident that spilled some oil into the river: “Be completely open with the Coast Guard; tell them everything; show them anything they want to see for their investigation.” Your staff is a very powerful tool; using them to the best advantage takes a high degree of honesty and integrity. Hiding the truth is like an open wound that never heals. Our honesty in this example paid huge dividends in the resultant investigation report. Face it, fix it. As a boss, expect mistakes when your people are actively conducting operations or accomplishing projects. Accept mistakes but not repetitions of them.
Informal Staff Meetings
Not every staff meeting is formal. The morning meeting as described by North Hudson (NJ) Regional Fire & Rescue Deputy Chief (Ret.) Anthony Avillo in his article “The Prime Directive” (Fire Engineering, July 2020) is a great example. Avillo says, “The morning meeting, which can take place right at the apparatus, can remove all vagaries and ambiguities that exist regarding the activities of the shift.” This staff meeting sets the common course for everyone on that shift.
We had an excellent staff in the provost marshal’s office—an excellent mix of military officers, noncommissioned officers, and senior civilian operators. Unfortunately, we were just not jelling into an effective organization. So, our boss, LTC Bob Brown, said we would do “stand-ups” every morning. He said, “Get your coffee and we will do an informal ‘stand-up’ in the operations office at the map.” So, after a couple of weeks of these short briefs, literally standing up staff meetings, we fine-tuned ourselves into a much more effective organization. This was a very interesting experience because we all were performing well but the stand-up made us even better for the organization and the higher headquarters we were supporting. Stand-ups seemed to slightly adjust our professional personalities into a more effective group.
With a little planning, your staff meeting will be a very productive and good investment of your time and your staff’s time. Equally important, it will not be another dreaded meeting! Staff meetings should be a valuable and an effective management tool for you to use improve your organization’s effectiveness.
JERRY KNAPP is the chief of the Rockland County (NY) Hazmat Team and a 46-year veteran firefighter/EMT from the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department. He is the co-author of the book House Fires and the chapter “Fire Attack” in Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering). Knapp also served on the technical panel for the UL Residential Fire Attack study. He recently retired from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, where he was the plans and operations specialist at the Directorate of Emergency Services.