Why Are You Screaming?


I have used most of my monthly visit with you discussing some activity relating to being a functional boss. I have been a student of boss behaviors for a long time and continue to try to understand what leaders must do to effectively care for humans in the workplace. We have in the recent past looked at evaluating boss effectiveness on a vertical hierarchy; listed boss goofs; connected effective boss behaviors to delivering service to Mrs. Smith; and bounced around descriptions of applications of simple, but critical, no-brainer management ideas to support the troops who do the work of our business.

A boss activity that I continue to try to make sense of is what it takes to be an effective incident commander (IC). As a young firefighter, I developed an early curiosity about the dynamics and challenges of managing a hazard zone operation. I observed bosses on the fireground (our only service then) and was fascinated and somewhat bewildered by the range of their effectiveness: A few were very skillful and seemed to do an excellent job based on their natural ability; others, sadly, were just the opposite. The longer I watched them, the more I realized that since the department did not have any sort of preparation, training, or coaching program, the effectiveness of each individual was based on the capabilities of their personal profile. I thought, even at that early age, that this was a weird way to manage the person who was the boss of the most dangerous activity in which we engaged.

As I got more experience and was promoted, I attempted to prepare myself to be an IC; became an instructor in the local fire science program; and, for some unknown reason, started to translate the IC notes I jotted down from the beginning of my career into a longer and longer version. The ongoing refined versions evolved for a long time and eventually morphed into a set of books, Fire Command and Command Safety. My interest in the role of the IC and the IC’s relationship with the workers continues to be a work in progress for me.

Troops’ Feedback on the IC

One of the really enjoyable things I still get to do is to interact directly with (mostly listen to) firefighters. Whenever we have these discussions, the topic that always seems to come up is their feelings about and experiences with their current IC. In a recent classroom conversation, one of the young company officers described an incident command problem he was living through with his boss. He indicated that he worked for a battalion chief who was very experienced, nervous, and autocratic. He said that his boss was highly excitable when serving as the IC. If the incident was not quickly controlled, he would become “unhinged” (his words) and scream on the tactical radio channel. When this would occur, the effect was predictably contagious, and soon the voice levels of the other officers would be raised to somehow attempt to communicate with the screaming boss.

As the young man told his story, many in the class nodded their heads, and their facial expressions sent the message that they, too, were familiar with this boss behavior. I have conducted incident command discussions for a long time. Early in the process, I gave every participant a 3 × 5 card at the start of the class and asked them to identify the most serious fireground problem they currently faced. When I reviewed their answers, more than half of the class wrote “the fire chief” on the card. This created a spirited discussion as they related that their chief would respond, act strangely, and seriously disrupt the entire operation. In that discussion, most of the reporters included the word “screaming” in the description of the hysterical character who outranked everyone else at the scene. Based on the reaction from many of our class members, it seems that it is still not that unusual to encounter an IC who screams. I was curious about the definition of scream, so I Googled it: “a long, loud, piercing cry expressing excitement, emotion, or panic caused by fear or pain.” I still can’t determine if I feel better or worse now that I have the definition.

How Do You Fix the Problem?

Someone in the class asked, “How do you fix the screaming IC problem?” The answer must be connected to the historic way we have regarded fireground leadership. I remember back when I was a baby firefighter quietly listening to a discussion (sitting at the kid’s table) among my elders in the kitchen about command leadership style that I heard in that robust discussion something that was repeated over and over throughout my career. The discussion began with, “The fireground is a place where we don’t practice democracy!” I was conditioned by my elders from the beginning of my career to the fact that the urgency of the event required a style of supervision that was definitive, tough, and sometimes severe.” This “my way or the highway” boss behavior was drilled into me from the beginning of my career

The more I heard, “We are not going to vote at a fire,” the more I watched the boss (IC), particularly at significant incidents. I quickly identified the capable officers, who never seemed to raise their voice and who made good decisions. Those who were not so capable were called “screamers,” and it was almost impossible to understand what they were screaming about or what they wanted anyone to do. The troops who worked for these ICs would just roll their eyes and quietly mutter, “Put it out before he gets here.”

If we examine the progression of management development through the years, it reflects that for a long time fire service bosses were very autocratic. In modern times, we have discovered that a human-centered approach for leaders consistently brings out the best in workers – in fact, today, if a boss routinely screamed at workers in the workplace, that behavior would be regarded as creating a hostile workplace in legal (enforceable) terms. This would be a lawyer’s dream.

As a baby firefighter, I came to the brilliant conclusion that the system should train us to do the job before they send us out to do it. Pretty much everything I have observed since then has supported and reinforced that revolutionary idea. I also concluded that it was crazy to yell at the workers when I attempted to evaluate the critical operational, organizational, and community elements involved in delivering firefighting service.

Willing Workers

It would seem that the activity in which it would be the easiest to manage the workers (be a boss) is the activity that makes the workers the happiest and most willing to do their work. That workplace, of course, is at a FIRE. I have never heard of a fire company hitting an overhead apparatus bay door driving through it before it was all the way up going to make an inspection, attend a drill, or respond to a difficulty breathing call (all absolutely critical calls). Every door I had ever hit, saw hit, or heard about being hit was struck by a fire company responding to a fire. Our morale is affected by the abundance or scarcity of a firefight. The most therapeutic treatment we experience for frustration, intershift bickering, or being grumpy is fireground manual labor.

It would seem that for a boss, it would require a reduced level of command stress to manage a work activity where the workers wear T-shirts with dramatic graphics of that activity when they are off duty. It is a highly unusual challenge for a boss to worry about the welfare of the very enthusiastic worker who must be pulled out, not pushed in. You may be wondering if I am going to characterize a firefight as some chummy fantasy event where the boss can just hold hands with the nozzle and hook guys/gals and sing a happy song and the fire will miraculously self-extinguish and spontaneously overhaul itself. The reality is that any fire can consistently create the rapid potential to damage and destroy virtually any physical thing and almost instantly injure and kill any living thing.

Positive Community Acceptance

It is much easier to be the boss of a popular service. When there is a fire and we are called, respond, and arrive, we have historically received a very positive welcome. Currently, we find ourselves mostly delivering emergency medical services in the middle of the insane level of violence now occurring. Many times, the incident problem is seriously disrupting the good order of the customer and the community. Based on this disruption, pretty much the only person or part of a fire incident that is not happy when we arrive on the scene is the fire. Mrs. Smith called us because she loves us and trusts us and we are the long-standing “fireologists”; the exposed neighbors are happy because we stop her fire so they don’t. The community is happy because the body politic objectively shows it cares for the citizens because we quickly arrive and are “the government.” The IC does not have to do any interviewing, do any bureaucratic paperwork, or review any application for service for the customer; that’s pretty easy (and unusual for government).

Fire Is Our Middle Name

Another part of this dynamic is that our business is firefighting. If a fire caused the boss (IC) of the firefighters to become out of control and scream, who else would you call if you had a fire? I routinely eat in diners, and their staff doesn’t seem to get excited because someone shows up who is hungry. I watch the guy who drives the garbage truck and picks up my trash on Friday, and my trash cans don’t seem to unnerve him. The other day, I called a “leakologist” (plumber), and he calmly fixed the leak (no screaming), picked up his tools, and cleaned up the mess the leak caused. I realize that the very important work of a diner, a garbage truck, or a plumber is not as challenging, dangerous, or urgent as when, where, and why we routinely do what we do.

Fire Radios/Airplane Radios

We all watched a very skillful, experienced airline pilot calmly land his airplane full of passengers in a river because a flock of birds committed suicide by flying through and shutting down the jet engines propelling his plane. We also listened to the pilot and the air traffic controller communicate trying to resolve the problem (where to land).

The pilot evaluated the possibility of reaching dry land and quickly decided that he could not reach the closest regular airport and decided to make the Hudson River a hydraulic runway, which he did very skillfully. Both the pilot and the controller calmly communicated; neither raised his voice – in fact, they both sounded like it was just another day at the office. It would seem there was a very effective system in place that taught and supported the cool-headed techniques they employed to pull this off. This could be for us a scream prevention plan.

Next month, the plan.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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