The Company Officer's Role in Communicating Department Doctrine

My fondest childhood memories are of summer’s long days in Washington, D.C., playing football and basketball with neighborhood kids for hours on end until the street lights came on (the universal signal that it was time to come inside the house). I remember rambunctiously playing, as boys often do, but what I remember most of all at the conclusion of our games was the question, “Who has the Kool-Aid?”

You see, with tongue-tantalizing flavors identified in a coded language that only a child could truly comprehend (purple, green or red), Kool-Aid was always the show-stopping, preferred thirst quencher. The promise of it could be used to entice or rouse. “I’ll let you play on my team if you let me have some more Kool-Aid,” someone would say. It could also be used to develop new friendships or mend existing ones. “I’ll be your best friend in the whole world if you share your Kool-Aid with me,” someone else would say. At times, Kool-Aid seemed to act as the common denominator in a ritual of accord or unity.

In the business world and in today’s fire service, the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” is synonymous with personal adaptation of an organization’s vision or philosophy. Senior leadership plots the direction by which its members are to embark. This plan is then communicated down to the lowest levels of management where the mission is carried out. The need for “buy-in” is emphasized at all levels so the organization can meet its goals and objectives. In other words, for the ship to move forward, all oars must be in the water rowing.

Company officers play a critical role in the fire department because we communicate the institutional doctrine to the rank and file. Essentially, we’re where the “rubber meets the road.” Through nuances in service delivery, such as the introduction of new technology, the adoption of enhanced safety and risk-analysis concepts, and increased emphasis on customer service, just to name a few, line officers perpetuate the institutional doctrine within their companies. The bottom line: Company officers must sometimes “drink the Kool-Aid,” thus encouraging our subordinates to do the same.

To Drink or Not to Drink?

As stated earlier, a sense of buy-in must be created by department leaders through compelling, persuasive and compassionate dialogue, and passed to their frontline officers. Our leaders hope (and bank on the fact) that we’ve been convinced via the poignancy of their message to execute departmental goals. And it’s just as important for company officers to voice our concerns regarding departmental objectives to our leaders. Tip: Does your department encourage input from its company officers through some type of open forum, such as quarterly officer meetings? Adopting an open forum for company officers so they can engage with senior staff improves departmental communication through direct dialogue. It allows their voice to be heard in addition to the chief’s voice.

But what if we don’t agree? What if the message being sent just doesn’t resonate well? There are times when company officers, better known as the “preachers of the gospel of departmental policy,” just don’t agree with certain changes within our organization.

Some questioning of new policies is indeed warranted. But many times, it’s the fire service’s rich sense of tradition that can make company officers and firefighters resistant to change.

History holds a plethora of examples of fire service obstinacy. The two most powerful examples that come to mind: 1) the adoption of SCBA and 2) the use of seatbelts on apparatus. Assistant Chief Michael Wallace of Seminole (Fla.) Fire and Rescue has written about the evolution of SCBA in the fire service from its origins in 1818 England to modern-day NFPA 1981 and its 2002 updates requiring the heads-up display. He lauds SCBA as one of the most prominent developments impacting modern-day firefighters.

But how do you think the smoke eaters of the 1940s embraced the introduction of Scott Aviation’s contribution to the fire service? Opposition arose in many forms, but all can be classified under the previously listed cause, resistance to change. Yet 60 years later we can’t even fathom entering an IDLH atmosphere without SCBA.

In May 1991, my department, Montgomery County (Md.) Fire and Rescue Services (MCFRS), adopted a no-tolerance philosophy toward the non-use of seatbelts. “Drivers must not move apparatus until all personnel on the vehicle are seated and secured with safety devices in approved riding positions” reads a section of the MCFRS’ “Safety While on Apparatus” policy. With almost 20 years on the job, I remember the tidal insurrection this policy created from officers and firefighters alike. “This safety stuff has gone too far,” members commented.

“How are we supposed to get dressed en route to a call? This will impact response times dramatically,” others commented. Sixteen years later, with the development of a Safety Division and Driver Training Coordinator, not wearing seatbelts within my department is a thing of the past; we’re 100 percent compliant.

Other departments have similar success stories. In November 2007, the District of Columbia Fire Department (DCFD), under the leadership of Chief Dennis Rubin, participated in the National Fire Service Seat Belt Pledge. The DCFD is being heralded as one of the first national metropolitan departments to fully participate in this campaign.

These two examples prove our industry has changed dramatically, to say the least. We’ve gone from total opposition to the idea of wearing seatbelts, to making it part of our culture; today our drivers won’t move until everyone is belted. Somewhere along the way, with due diligence, sweeping change in doctrine, commitment by our leaders and eventual buy-in by company officers, change took place. We sipped the Kool-Aid and as bittersweet as it may have been at first, it’s made us a safer, better fire service.

How to be a Team Player

To be a successful team player, one must possess specific attributes. In “The 17 Essential Qualities of a Team Player,” author John C. Maxwell presents a clear analysis of which personal characteristics he feels are necessary to become a team player. Of the 17 qualities, there are four that, in my opinion, are most important in executing departmental initiatives as an officer and as a team player.

Adaptability
Quincy Jones once said, “A person’s age can be determined by the degree of pain he experiences when he comes in contact with a new idea.” Teamwork and inflexibility just don’t mix in the major scheme of things. True team players are emotionally secure and don’t see something new as a threat or a challenge. Instead, breaking new ground is one of their highest priorities. They are always willing to learn and travel into the unknown. They find creative ways to make change happen. As company officers, we must remain open-minded to new ideas and give them a chance to mature before we condemn them.

Enthusiasm
Attitude is a choice. As public servants, we cannot afford to wait for something dramatic to happen that makes us enthusiastic about our responsibilities. We must think and act positively, and perpetuate positivity. Even if we don’t feel optimistic, we must act like we do. By choosing to have a positive outlook, we open the door for greater things.

We must also believe in what we do. People who focus on the positives of their job and act and speak enthusiastically about it spread the feeling around. Remember: Enthusiastic people are surrounded by other enthusiastic people. You attract what you resemble–and you emulate your surroundings.

Self-Improvement
To add value to the team, we must constantly re-invent ourselves through self-improvement and development. When individuals are conditioned to learn something new on a regular (daily) basis, they become better prepared to handle new challenges. Instead of talking, listen. Take on a new challenge even if it makes you feel inadequate. Adopt an approach that requires you to be a learner, not an expert.

Enlarging
One of the most valuable services one can perform is helping others achieve their potential. People will always move toward others who help them improve themselves and away from others who devalue them. As a general rule, believe in others before they believe in you, and add value to others before they add value to you. Find a way to pass the ball to your people from time to time. If your colleagues and subordinates shine, you will too.

Conclusion

As company officers, we are the critical link in translating a department’s vision into action. Disagreement with the message that’s being passed down is contrary to the progress of the departments we serve. We must carry out the fire chief’s vision by becoming team players.

Fire chiefs across the country make the final decision on a host of policies, general orders, initiatives, etc. More than likely, they have commissioned committees to flesh out the preliminary research and development on a host of topics beforehand. I challenge all readers to take an active part in this process at some point within your careers. Not only will you find it deeply challenging and rewarding, but you will also have played an active part in “making the Kool-Aid.”

References

Maxwell, J.C. “The 17 Essential Qualities of a Team Player.” Maxwell Motivation, Inc., 2002.

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