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Your Call: Plenty of techniques for handling slacker issue

Thank you to everyone who commented on the scenario in the first instalment of Your Call in February, about firefighter Lansing, who didn’t do his part of the fire-hall workload. (Visit www.firefightingincanada.com and click on past issues to see the February column). Your responses were great. Here are a few examples.

April 29, 2008
By Steve Kraft

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Thank you to everyone who commented on the scenario in the first instalment of Your Call in February, about firefighter Lansing, who didn’t do his part of the fire-hall workload. (Visit www.firefightingincanada.com and click on past issues to see the February column). Your responses were great. Here are a few examples.

Here’s the next scenario:

There’s lots of talk in your department about an issue that’s making the news – it could be two hatters or the controversy over stickers on fire service vehicles that express support for military troops. How do you, as an officer, manage the message in your department?
Please e-mail your reply to skraft@richmondhill.ca
Include your name, rank and department. Please remember to keep your reply to 250 words.

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Dave West, company officer, Richmond Hill Fire Department
It states people are becoming frustrated. Is this true? As a leader and captain of the crew, I would have a good understanding of what has been going on and I would make sure this accusation is true. I would have individual meetings asking all members of the crew if they feel everyone is pulling their weight. This would be done to make sure this is not a personal conflict between two members of the crew. If the general message is that Lansing isn’t pulling his weight, I would first look at how I handled FF Lansing. Have I given him special treatment? Have I looked the other way hoping this problem goes away? If this isn’t true and I handled it right, I can only presume this has been going on without my knowledge. I would request an informal meeting with Lansing. I would ask him if everything is OK. If his response is yes, I would have to take his lack of performance at work to be caused by motivation for the job. Understanding Adams’ and Homans’ Equity Theory and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I would make sure there is no underlining work-related problem and all other needs seem to be satisfied. I would proceed with informing him I (not the crew) have noticed that his performance is slipping. I would indicate I have had meetings with the crew so I am not hiding anything. I would also state this is a concern for FF Lansing and that this is not a witch hunt. I would let him know that I would assist as much as I can in getting this problem rectified. I would counsel him, if required, in my limited role and provide the required assistance that may be needed. I would build him up and give him positive feedback on how important he is to the crew and department. I would inform him that people only notice a lack of work by someone when that person stops working and being helpful.

After giving him positive feedback I would tell him he is needed. He would be informed this problem will remain in house (our crew) and there will be no formal documentation. I would advise him his performance is being monitored and that I hope to see an improvement that I know he is capable of. If the problem persisted then documentation would be required and the chain of command would have to be implemented with a review of policies and or SOPs.

Shane Caskenette, deputy chief, City of Woodstock Fire Department
These types of issues are common in the fire service but if not addressed they can have a demoralizing effect on the crew and seriously hamper the crew’s performance. Eventually, other crew members begin to think that if one can shirk their duties and get away with it, why can’t we all, and the issue begins to escalate as performance decreases.

First, assess the problem for yourself: are the allegations true? Perhaps while others are cleaning the truck the other firefighter is cleaning the bathroom? Look at the big picture – perhaps there is more to it.  

Secondly, ensure you have communicated expectations to all crew members. It is hard to perform to expectations if you don’t know what they are.

Thirdly, discuss the firefighter’s performance in a closed-door coaching session.  Set “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) objectives to help improve performance. If you conduct regular coaching sessions with crew members this won’t be perceived as disciplinary. Regular coaching sessions are a great way to reward good performance as well as address opportunities for improvement and reinforce team goals and concepts.

Fourthly, performance management is not a one-time intervention. Like any management skill, it requires time and constant attention to build and maintain crew performance. To be successful, company officers need to constantly monitor, evaluate and manage the performance of each individual crew member in order to build and maintain crew performance. 
“The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual” ~ Vince Lombardi, football coach for the NFL (1913-1970)

Andy Brzozowski, captain, Niagara Falls Fire Department
In a perfect world the manager would know all of his firefighters very well and understand why Lansing is not participating. Lansing could have family trouble, medical problems, issues with alcohol or even drugs; he could even be harassed by one of his peers. Any one of these items, or a hundred others, could cause someone to pull away from the team. However, according to this scenario, the lack of participation is only when work around the fire hall needs to be done. As the manager I will first thank the firefighter for his input. Second, I will find out if the allegations are true. This can be done in a couple of ways.

A: Is this the only time (or firefighter) that has complained about Lansing’s participation.
B: I may observe Lansing myself to confirm the accusation.

If I have had more than one complaint and have not seen Lansing around the hall when work needed to be completed I would be compelled to speak to him. I would say something like this. “Lansing, can I share something with you? When you don’t help with the daily apparatus checks or when you don’t participate when the trucks are being washed here’s what happens. You don’t maintain proficiency with the equipment, you create more work for the other firefighters and I feel that it disrupts the team we have built here. What can you do differently?” Lansing has a number of ways to answer this, of course. He could say “I will work on participating better” or he could give some other reason that he is not working as a team member. The main thing to remember is as a manager you are constantly encouraging your firefighters to improve behaviour.

The scenario/dilemma in the March issue of Your Call was about a firefighter who did not wear his seatbelt. (Visit www.firefightingincanada.com and click on past issues.)

Most of us know what to do in this scenario, but the question is, will we do it?  Will we stop the apparatus until the firefighter buckles up? Will we write up the firefighter? Will we write a report to the chief, telling him what happened? Will we be the reason a firefighter gets suspended?

There is absolutely no excuse for not wearing your seatbelt. There are many examples of firefighters getting seriously hurt, or killed, because they neglected to wear their seatbelt. Nationally, so far this year, three firefighters have died in the line of duty because they were not wearing seatbelts on the job. We don’t have to look very far to find a friend who has been seriously hurt because he didn’t wear a seatbelt.

Firefighters are supposed to wear their seatbelts either by law or because of fire department SOPs or SOGs. In Ontario, the highway traffic act states: “a firefighter occupying a seating position behind the driver’s cab in a fire department vehicle . . . is exempt from wearing a seatbelt where the performance of work activities makes it impracticable to wear a seat belt assembly”. The question is whether firefighters perform any work activities that make it impracticable to wear a seatbelt assembly? My answer – no. In my department, our SOP states, “The management team is of the opinion that NO fire fighting activities make it impracticable to wear a seatbelt assembly.”

I realize seatbelts can be awkward. I realize we have some big firefighters and the seatbelts need to be bigger. I realize there are 101 reasons, as firefighters, we try to justify not wearing them. But I will give you one reason to wear them: your family. A brother doesn’t let a sister die because she didn’t wear her seatbelt. Just as you wouldn’t let your child ride in your car without being buckled up, don’t move your apparatus until everyone is buckled. It just isn’t worth it. Ask someone who has been through the devastation. They will make it perfectly clear. Wear your seatbelt!

Steve Kraft is the deputy chief and a 19-year member of the Richmond Hill Fire Department. He has completed the certificate in fire service leadership though Dalhousie University and is a graduate of the fire protection technologist course at the Ontario Fire College. He is a certified Community Emergency Management co-ordinator and is enrolled in Western University, where he is completing his diploma in public administration. 


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