By Dennis Reilly
Published Tuesday, November 8, 2011
We all know that fire officers—and in a lot of cases firefighters—are tasked with making difficult decisions and managing resources every day that they are on duty. In this economy, many of those decisions are getting harder and harder, especially as they pertain to staffing levels, resource allocation and other hot-button issues. So how can a fire officer, or firefighter, feel confident that they are making the right decisions?
It’s easy to get lost in the flood of buzzwords and new “best solution” fads. Politicians often talk about “staying on message,” and we hear Pentagon officials say that they are “staying on target” as it relates to defeating the enemy. The problem: No matter how good our intentions are, we can still miss the mark in terms of making solid, effective decisions. By focusing on either the message or on the target, at the expense of the other, we can easily find ourselves coming up short.
With this in mind, I like the idea of “staying on point,” a concept that allows you to make good decisions, be effective in your role as a fire officer or firefighter, and position your department to be successful.
What Does It Mean to “Stay on Point”?
I define “staying on point” as an action model that incorporates the concepts of “staying on message” and “staying on target.” I consider it an action model because the concept requires us to focus on the results of our decision while making us take into account and all the factors that will affect (or will be affected by) our decisions. The goal is to clearly address both elements—the message and the target—so you get what you want. The best way to explain this concept is to look at some examples.
Staying on Message but Missing the Target
I am positive that many of you reading this article have seen examples of staying on message but missing the target. Just think about the fire chief who writes a strong personal protective equipment (PPE) standard operating guideline (SOG). The SOG is comprehensive, addressing all aspects of the use and care of PPE. It might even include provisions related to what to do if a firefighter fails to wear their PPE. The message is to wear your PPE, and the target is to enhance firefighter safety and reduce injuries.
I applaud the chief for taking the hard line, but what happens when we find the chief standing at the front door of a working house fire in their station wear (a classic example of “do what I say, not do what I do!”)? You can bet that everyone on the fireground saw this or heard about it on the ride back to the firehouse. And I’ll bet my paycheck that the story will circulate to the other two shifts at the speed of light.
Certainly this chief sends a great message about wearing PPE, but ultimately misses the target when it comes to enforcement. Put simply, the goals of behavior modification and firefighter safety could be jeopardized. If you want your message to be more than just words on a piece of paper, then you must reinforce your message with the correct behaviors.
Staying on Target but Mishandling the Message
If we look at the other side of the coin, it’s not too hard to imagine a scenario where a leader does a great job staying on target but mishandles the message issue. Decision-making doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We must be sensitive to the environment in which we operate.
Consider the example of a chief who decides to make a serious commitment to firefighter fitness. The chief makes arrangements with a local health club, orders all companies to schedule on-duty PT time, and even joins companies at the health club for a workout. He is proud of his decisions and commitment to firefighter safety. All day long, anyone can see different companies from XYZ Fire Department working out at the local gyms. This sounds good, doesn’t it? Who can argue with firefighters working hard to maintain a superior level of fitness? The answer is only obvious if you know all the facts. First, what if you don’t have expert knowledge in this matter? What if you’re just an average citizen who really doesn’t understand the complexities of firefighting and the need to be physically fit? What if you’ve been laid off from a moderate-paying job and out of work for 14 months? How are you going to feel when you see firefighters coming and going from the local health club all day long? In this example, I think the chief did an excellent job defining the target, but failed to think about the ramifications of not crafting a good message to all the stakeholders.
In the first example, the chief who wrote the SOG simply needs to don his PPE as soon as he arrives on the fireground. Don’t send the message unless you’re willing to abide by it yourself. Model your message, and the troops will act accordingly.
In the second example, the chief who initiates the PT program should do some PR to educate the public about the fitness initiative before it officially starts. If the out-of-work citizen knew the tax burden created by an on-duty heart attack, then they might be more understanding of what the firefighters are doing at the gym. If there is serious concern about a backlash related to how firefighters spend their time, maybe the chief should ask companies to try to schedule their workouts on “off hours” when there are fewer people at the gym. Another option: Considering the current economic situation, the chief may want to try to find an alternative to a local health club—perhaps encouraging crews to run in the neighborhood or do exercises at a local park.
Remember what I said about our decisions not being made in vacuum? When you really think about these problems, they all have simple fixes.
Staying on point is not a complex task. By using the concept, we can avoid some of the problems shown in my examples. To stay on point, we should consider both the message and the target, and then ensure that our actions support a positive result. It does take some forethought, and it does require you to view an issue from all relevant angles. If your message is clear and you’ve focused your efforts on getting positive results, then you’ll be well on your way to staying on point.
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