By Author(s): John Brunacini 
Published Friday, February 20, 2009
| From the October 2006  Issue of FireRescue 
The August personnel problem involved a relatively new member of your crew, Dave, who has a slight attitude problem. While on an EMS call with an elderly female, he informed the patient, in a rude manner, that "the fire department is not a counseling service" (see "Bad Attitudes Are Contagious," August issue, p. 144). Let's take a look at two of the responses we received.
1) "First of all, the company officer needs to have his head in the game ... every day. Yeah, OK, you're in a depressed part of town, but you play the cards you're dealt-you're there for a reason. The powers that be have put you out there because they know you can hold it together, so carry that torch! If your attitude is not right, it will manifest itself in your crew. You hold the keys to how the 'shift philosophy' forms.
"That said, let's deal with the sniveler who comes to your shift. When he arrives the first day, the company officer has a duty to inform him of how things run on his shift. Make it a blanket policy for everyone who comes over to that shift. Start everyone on a clean slate and build your perceptions of people on your own, forgetting all the rumors you've heard about someone. Learn each person's personality traits, get to the crux of their problems, try to understand the problems, maybe even help them, while tempering their personal goals with that of the organization. Any changes in attitude should be monitored and dealt with should they become a trend.
"As far as this guy treating a customer like he did, that should have been caught at the first couple of words out of his mouth. Watch the crew's body language and tone of voice when dealing with customers, and catch them before they offend someone. Let them know you will inform them of what the department responds to, and show them how to do it in a tactful way."
2) "Every service responds to this type of call; how we deal with it can have a lasting effect on how the public perceives us. First and foremost, Dave needs to be removed from this situation. Have another crew member take him back to the engine and then do some damage control with the patient. Be firm, but do not humiliate him in front of the patient or crew.
"Once back at the station, take Dave into the office so this issue can be confronted in private. Dave needs to understand that when someone calls 911, they think they are having an emergency, and while we may not agree, the call must be handled with the urgency and professionalism that we would expect if we called 911. It has to be completely clear to Dave that the patient and the current call are our focus at the moment. Dave may always think that these calls are a waste of our time, but we can train him to treat the patient with respect and empathy.
"In order to get Dave to think about his actions, I would ask him if he thinks there's a solution to this problem. Lastly, I would reinforce the importance of treating our patients with respect and let him know that future incidents would subject him to the department's progressive discipline process."
Both responses accurately describe what must be done before and after the call. But in a previous article, I described two basic types of problems a company officer will face when supervising a crew: 1) immediate service delivery issues and 2) discretionary time issues. Immediate service delivery issues must be addressed immediately. These types of problems involve safety procedure violations and core service delivery infractions (EMS activity is pretty much our core service these days). This problem is definitely a core service delivery infraction. The supervisor must immediately address Dave's behavior in some way and then attempt damage control with the customer, who at this point is probably feeling a little offended or embarrassed, or maybe even outright angry at the way she has just been treated.
Whenever possible, try to interrupt people like Dave as soon as they start their little speeches (Response No. 1 describes this very well). But the damage in this case has already been done, so now you must immediately address what just happened. There are several ways to deal with Dave on the spot; most depend on the type of person you're dealing with, what type of relationship you have with them and whether there is any history of the same type of behavior. You could tell Dave to shut his mouth and immediately apologize to the patient for what was just said. You could excuse Dave from the call by telling him to get on the truck and then try to smooth things out with your patient. Or you could immediately apologize to the patient and inform her that what he just said was completely out of line and you will address his behavior with him back at the station, but right now, you need to take care of her and help her however you can.
Both responses do an excellent job of covering the follow-up conversation that must happen with Dave back at the firehouse. Give Dave a chance to tell you why he behaved in that manner. He might tell you that his wife recently took everything they owned and moved to Canada, and he's just not been himself the last couple of days. But regardless of what's going on in Dave's personal life, the bottom line is he's expected and paid to be nice on every call.
As our service evolves more toward EMS and social-type calls like this one, this type of problem will happen with increasing frequency. The medical system in the United States is broken (or at least really screwed up), and fire departments across the country have become the agency of last resort. When somebody is having a bad day and no one else will listen to them or their doctor can't see them for the next three weeks, they call 911. Why not? We show up, are generally nice to these people, and we do whatever we can to solve their problem. Most departments have made the necessary adjustments to their organizations to address these changes and have embraced this new role in their communities. This type of response has made us the most popular and honored service in the country.
However, most fire service members joined because they wanted to fight working fires and rescue people in life-threatening situations. Most of the training we deliver and attend is centered on safety, operating in the hazard zone and performing high-risk operations. Our EMS training is geared toward saving a life that hangs in the balance, whether it's the result of a medical condition or trauma. We really aren't trained to deal with old Mrs. Smith who is hungry because her Meals on Wheels didn't show up and her closest relative lives 500 miles away. Yet these types of calls represent the highest percentage of our responses; only a small percentage of the calls we respond to actually utilize our training and full capabilities.
I worked at the same multi-company station for more than 14 years. It was located in a very depressed area of town and housed an ALS engine, a BLS ladder truck and an ambulance. The last nine years working at Station 11, I was the captain on the ladder company, and 85 percent of the calls we responded to were BLS-EMS runs. We took the very bottom-of-the-barrel calls: the man downs, the welfare check issues, ill persons, person needing assistance and, my personal favorite, the "unknown medical."
My whole crew was well aware of our mission statement and the need to be nice to all of our customers, and we all did an excellent job of faking it when we had to. But when you respond shift after shift to these calls, with very little firefighting in between, it begins to wear on you. At one time or another, everyone on my truck just couldn't take it anymore and would blow a minor gasket before or after a call. This usually took place after midnight or when we were interrupted while doing something we thought was more important, like working out, cooking a meal, watching the Super Bowl, etc. I could always sense when someone on the truck was on the verge of acting out and having what my father would call "an unsuccessful interaction with a customer."
After a few short months of going on these types of calls, we implemented a policy on our truck that if anyone was having a bad day (or night) and thought they couldn't be nice on a call, it was their duty to themselves, to their crew and to the customer to just stay on the truck and sit it out. All of us used this policy at one time or another, but none of us ever abused it.
We have all thought about doing what Dave did in the last scenario, but hopefully, we all have the self-control to be nice, do whatever we can for the customer and return to the firehouse and continue to enjoy life. It's much easier in the long run to be nice. Most of us make a pretty good living as firefighters, and we also enjoy the added benefit of hanging out every shift with our best friends. Supervisors must set the example, manage their crew's behavior on these types of calls and continually reinforce what we are paid to do: Deliver high-quality service to those who call us.
Problem to Ponder
Would you turn in a friend who came to work intoxicated?
The following is one of the most frequently asked management situations I encounter in my system. You have been working on the same rig with the same crew for the past eight years. You are all very good friends and the entire crew socializes together on your days off. At the beginning of shift change one morning, Kent, your engineer (who is also the godfather of your two children) shows up to work a little later than usual (although he is not late for work), and he appears to be a little intoxicated. You immediately take him somewhere private and ask him how it's going. As he explains to you that everything is fine and dandy, your suspicions are confirmed. You can smell alcohol on his breath, he's not too steady, his eyes are bloodshot and his speech is a little off. How would you handle one of the most uncomfortable situations a company officer will ever have to deal with?
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