BY DAN CURIA
Look around your firehouse or department and note the newer faces vs. the faces you have seen for years. Are there more new firefighters in the kitchen than veterans? If so, you may have realized that your management style is not as effective as in years past. Why is that? The answers may lie in the way we communicate with the younger generation and the way we treat them.
If you have more than 10 years in the fire service and have advanced to a management position, how many times do you find yourself thinking or saying, “That’s not the way it was when I was a rookie” or “These younger firefighters just don’t get it!” Or better yet, “I always kept my mouth shut and my ears open” and “I never asked my captain ‘why.’ ” Are you nodding your head in agreement? Have you ever considered the fact that the newer firefighters (and officers) may, in fact, get it but you do not get them?
The younger generation does not perceive things the same way your generation does, just as your parents did not perceive things the way you did when you were younger. Do you remember the times when you thought the older generation was out of touch and unrealistic? You are now that older generation! There is hope if you are willing to broaden your view concerning the correct way to act and accept the fact that there are many ways to get the results you desire.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Where do we, as ancient management dinosaurs, need to improve? I think there are three basic areas.
1. The modes of communication.
By this I mean the way we actually communicate with each other. The younger generation is well-versed in the ins and outs of computers, the Internet, e-mail, voice mail, and text messaging. You, on the other hand, are comfortable with the paper memo sent from the administrative building (aka The Ivory Tower) or fire chief’s office. The memo is meant for you and only you—the officer, manager, supreme commander, or however you like to view yourself, right?
In most instances, the answer is no. The information from the department’s chiefs or other city personnel is usually meant for all personnel, not just you. The communication trick here is making sure the firefighters get the information in a form they can use and understand. Without the component of understanding, there is no communication. So although you feel very comfortable with the paper-based method in which information has been presented to you by your bosses, the firefighters who work with you feel detached. The communication stopped at your level.
Luckily, there are several ways to improve this communication problem. You could set up e-mail accounts for all personnel; if a memo meant for all personnel is to be distributed, send it to everyone’s e-mail address. If you have access to a computer and the Internet at the station, you already know that is where a firefighter’s free time will be spent. Put the information at his fingertips and allow him to access the information in a comfortable forum.
Since younger personnel are very comfortable with computer technology, invest in a quality Internet site that describes your department, stations, personnel, recent calls, call volume, public service announcements, and so on. This allows your personnel to display their pride in the organization and may provide a spillover benefit in the recruitment of quality personnel.
A quality intranet site for communication within the organization may also be a possibility. On this site, you can store standard operating guidelines and procedures, catalog departmental memos for easy retrieval, post up-to-date departmental information (controlling the rumor mill), post promotional announcements, and give praise for jobs well done for the entire organization to see. Again, you know your personnel are going to be on the computer anyway, so why not use it to connect with your personnel?
2. The accommodation of the need to know “why.”
The constant questioning of “why?” seems to provide another management barrier between the younger and older generations. I do not think it is any secret that, as a manager, you hear that one word over and over. “Why do I have to empty the trash again?” “Why do we have to drill on Saturday?” “We could have gotten that fire; why did you decide on a defensive operation?” I am sure a number of you are again nodding your heads!
The answer to “Why?” is simple: We asked for it! The city manager, mayor, fire chief, or some other person in a position of authority decided that the fire service was going to insist on minimum education requirements for entry-level personnel. As the educational levels of your personnel increase, the question “Why?” is a natural by-product. An educated workforce is less inclined to do something just because you order them to do it.
At this point, you need to avoid comparing the old days with your current situation. I know you did anything your officer ordered without question; that was the nature of the fire service when you were a rookie. Except with ex-military personnel, that approach will probably not work today. While you may view the questions as a nuisance, the younger generation views it as the right to ask “why?” Answer the questions simply, and keep going forward; no disrespect is meant toward you or your position within the organization.
Make two things perfectly clear, though: Emergent decisions are nonnegotiable and not debatable during an emergency scene, and orders are not to be debated in public. There is a proper time and place for everything.
3. The use of empowerment to achieve goals and success.
We have asked for and gotten a young, educated, motivated workforce; we need to use those qualities to our advantage! Train often on how you want your firefighters to react to different situations, and then trust them to do the right thing. A little genuine faith in your personnel can go a long way toward accomplishing departmental and company goals as well as fireground objectives.
Try to relate your management style to incident command. If you are a battalion chief, your job as the leader is to dictate the strategies in different situations while the company officers decide on the tactics. If you are the company officer, you should allow the firefighters to decide how to complete tasks. One source of joy (and stress) of empowerment is providing firefighters with a general outline of what you would like accomplished and then letting them decide exactly how to accomplish what you have asked. If they know what you expect from them and have been given the tools to succeed, there is a very strong possibility they will exceed even your high standards.
As a manager, you need to focus on the end result, not necessarily the means employed to achieve it. A good rule of thumb is, If it is not illegal, immoral, or unethical, let your personnel decide how things are done. Initially, this can take you out of your comfort zone. You may feel that you are giving up some power and authority by making a conscious decision not to micromanage every facet of your fire company. In fact, nothing can be further from the truth. The team building that you are accomplishing by empowering your personnel will pay huge dividends in the long run. You will have team members who are happy with their leader, fire company, and department and who feel valued as individuals. This leads to increased productivity and a sense of ownership in the department.
All this sounds simple, doesn’t it? I suppose in theory it is, but in actuality it can be a painful process. Until you get used to doing things a little differently, you may feel as though you have relinquished all managerial control. Have faith that your personnel will appreciate the efforts you are putting forth to become a better communicator, manager, and leader; you will ultimately be rewarded with satisfied, happy workers who understand exactly what you want and need from them. Additionally, they will know that you trust them enough to make the decisions that accomplish the goals of the department. It sounds like a win-win proposition to me!
DAN CURIA has been with the City of Durham (NC) Fire Department for more than 14 years and is currently assigned as a battalion chief in the suppression division. He has an associate’s degree in fire protection and a bachelor’s degree in public administration.