When I was training to become a captain, I felt overwhelmed at times, thinking of all the different challenges I’d face as a company officer. (Ever thought about it? If you have, it might make you consider going back to cleaning toilets and pulling hose.) Company officers must know how to deal with a seemingly endless spectrum of problems ranging from fireground emergencies to personnel issues.
The truth is being a company officer isn’t overwhelming at all if you put it in the right context and develop a system that allows you to deal with a wide assortment of problems.
Many Problems, 1 System
When I first tried to simplify things for myself, I started by breaking down just a standard fire problem, such as a residential fire simulation. I also studied numerous officers whom I really respected and who could run the hell out of a fire. What I realized was that all the officers did things differently, but they also shared some similar characteristics and problem-solving methods. So I adopted some of those characteristics and methods.
Being a simple-minded person, I can’t apply a different algorithm to every problem. (When I see a follow-the-boxes-and-arrows problem-solving matrix, I get an instant headache and start twitching.) So I developed a system for myself that covers a whole host of problems.
Below, I outline my system, which gives step-by-step instructions on how to deal with a fire-related problem. Then I apply that same system to an employee-related problem.
The Fireground Problem
- Stay calm: The first thing any successful fire officer must do when dealing with a fire problem is stay calm. Call me crazy, but it doesn’t look great when the people who are supposed to be professional problem-solvers are frothing at the mouth and screaming like lunatics. Remember, you didn’t start the fire. You’re there to help.
- Get the facts: What’s burning? Where’s the fire going? What resources do I need to take care of it? Gathering the facts at the beginning of any emergency is crucial to the success of the operation. If you rush into solving the problem before you have enough information, there’s a high probability that you’ll be playing catch-up later.
- Determine the severity of the problem: Is this fire big or small? How soon do you think you can control it and/or extinguish it? Big fire equals big hoses and lots of people.
- Determine which resources you’ll need: Based on the severity of the problem, do you have enough resources to take care of it? I was taught to always anticipate what I’d need if things turned ugly. Remember: Don’t let a small problem become a big one.
- Develop a plan: Steps 1—4 address thought processes and information gathering involved in this system. The fifth step is the beginning of the system’s “action phase.” Whenever I develop any plan, I always start off with what I know will work based on my own experience. If I don’t have enough experience to handle the problem, I ask another officer who I respect and trust for their opinion or direction.
- Execute your plan: You can develop the perfect plan, but it won’t do you any good if you miss your opportunity to use it because you waited too long to put it into action. The good thing, and the bad thing, about fighting fire is eventually, the fire will run out of fuel. Gather enough information to develop a good plan so you can put it into action at the right time–before the fire burns out of control or before the fire burns out.
- Make sure your plan is working (and adjust if necessary): Sometimes plans work and sometimes they don’t. The worst thing an officer can do is fail to adjust a bad plan. Sometimes we get locked into a plan and hold on to it until the very end because our pride won’t allow us to admit we were wrong. One good indicator that your plan isn’t working on the fireground: the building continues to burn.
- Pay attention to the details: One of the biggest mistakes we make is overlooking the small details at the conclusion of an incident, such as implementing a good overhaul plan, conducting an investigation, implementing scene security, completing the proper documentation, etc. The company officer’s job isn’t done until the paperwork is done.
Like I said, I use this system because it’s a simple way for me to work through a variety of problems with a high level of consistency and organization. Now I want to show you how I use this same process for another challenge faced by company officers: the always-fun personnel problem.
The Personnel Problem (Same System)
- Stay calm: Just like a fire problem, if you can’t stay calm, you lose. Just because someone made a mistake or a bad decision doesn’t mean you should take it personally, or make it personal.
- Get the facts: Ask the basic “who, what, when, where” questions about the situation–what happened, who was involved, etc. One of the most embarrassing mistakes I’ve made as a captain happened because I didn’t get the facts first. I thought I knew what was going on with a particular personnel situation, so I jumped to a conclusion, which was the wrong conclusion, and as a result, I looked like an idiot in less than 5 minutes. If I had followed my rule of gathering the facts, I would’ve avoided a really embarrassing situation and wouldn’t have had to apologize for being a moron.
- Determine the severity of the problem: Employee problems, just like emergency problems, can vary widely in their severity. If it’s a serious employee problem, it may require input from several people. Conversely, if the problem isn’t very complex, you may be able to handle it with a simple conversation.
- Determine which resources you’ll need: As I noted above, the severity of the problem will give you an idea of which resources you’ll need. If the issue is a small one, you can probably handle it with a quick talk and redirection. If it’s a larger issue, you may need to bring in your supervisor for some help. If nothing else, let your supervisor know what’s going on so they don’t find out about it from someone else.
- Develop a plan: Once you’ve gathered all the information, you can develop a plan to take care of the problem. Remember your objective when developing a plan for an employee problem: changing personnel behavior. In other words, you don’t need to give someone days off without pay if a simple counseling session will do the trick.
- Execute your plan: A plan works only when it’s implemented. But when dealing with employee issues, this is the most difficult part of the system because it means we have to deal directly with the person at fault or involved in the issue. This can make company officers uncomfortable, so they may avoid dealing with the issue, hoping it will go away on its own. But if you can’t do this part of the job, you probably shouldn’t be a supervisor.
- Make sure your plan is working (and adjust if necessary): Remember, if the building is still burning after implementing your fantastic plan, you need to adjust the plan. So, if the employee doesn’t change their behavior after you’ve implemented a plan with them on how to correct their behavior, you must change up the plan and take further steps, which may include further discussion, disciplinary actions, etc.
- Pay attention to the details: Just like a fire, the job isn’t done until the paperwork is done. Not all employee problems require documentation, but make sure you know which ones do. The last thing you want after doing a great job on solving an employee problem is to mess up the documentation or, worse yet, not do it at all. Remember: If you don’t document it, it never happened.
I use this system for taking care of a wide variety of problems because it works for me. I’m not saying it works for every problem in the world, but it gets me going in the right direction and helps me think through problems in a consistent manner. Any system that helps you do those things is a helpful management tool.
This system, or one like it, may or may not work for you, and that’s OK. But it’s a good idea to develop a process that helps you think through some of the challenges we face as officers within the fire service. A simple plan will help keep you on track and provide you with good outcomes, both on the fireground and back at the firehouse.