Minding the Machine

In the January 2017 issue of FireRescue, Shawn Pruchnicki wrote about how the fire department—and fire service—is a complex system. As we look to see what went and or is going wrong in our organizations, we tend to develop a hindsight bias that clouds our solutions and outcomes and passes blame on individuals. We tend to create a culture of blame and, henceforth, get comfortable pinning the misfortune, act, or intent on an individual to pacify the organization or outside observers.

We also parallel the blame game from post-incident analyses of the entire machine that is the fire department by pointing to a particular cog. This could be a bad boss, troublemakers, and malcontents. When we look at the overall health and wellness of the machine, moreover, it’s easy to blame personal habits and be dismissive of the individual. We can visit any firehouse and see an individual who lacks the desired fitness or isn’t taking care of himself like the others and comment on the perceived liability. This is counterintuitive, because overall health and wellness is more than just assumed physical fitness; it’s also mental health, physiological health, and overall morale and commitment.

Jordan Ponder parallels all of the above by juxtaposing a tragic call involving the death of a child and how we also have to provide checks of our crews after these incidents; it’s not just restocking and checking EMS supplies on the rig, as usual—there’s more involved in remaining dynamic, as Jordan explains. Apparatus require daily checks, maintenance, tire rotations, etc., and often have built-in systems to make these machines operate at peak and optimum capacity. In fact, many new apparatus have auto-lubrication systems, seat belt and backup alarms, and other autonomous safety features. So why doesn’t the complex machine that is the fire department have anything similar?

If you work in a job like mine, most of you, especially members of engine companies, are up all night on 24-hour shifts. As the human machine’s sleep cycle is interrupted continuously, is there anything in place, policywise, to implement a recovery cycle as well? Nate Melby discusses the effects of sleep deprivation and provides an overview of this pervasive fire service problem. In fact, apparatus emission requirements find engines “regenning” every so many miles and/or detected carbon accumulation, so why is sleep deprivation left to the individual to manage on an off day? I’m not against 24-hour shifts, mind you, but we all know how hard it is to recover at home, particularly with a young family or house projects waiting anxiously for you. At least we’re looking at sleep, again, and this time the research methods are more sound (asleep?). In fact, as I write this, my department has a study underway to monitor the pathophysiology of heart rate and recovery, with attention to the effects of sleep deprivation. We should all look forward to this report and never tire from researching this problem.

The machine also requires attention to its parts as it relates to personnel, management, and administration. How’s the morale in your department? Now, it’s a fact that we always hate change and never have the money to keep us at continuance levels from the year prior, but we must mind the machine through budgets, succession planning, and overall health of morale. As we see our senior firefighters retiring in droves over the past several years, we’re finding ourselves trying to figure out the millennials. While some, myself included for full disclosure, have wondered why they prefer “gotcha” politics and don’t agree that seniority and rites of passage work or should apply anymore, they are the future of our fire departments—and they’ll do just as good a job or better than we did. Anthony Correia discusses why we loathe them and why this is counterintuitive in replacing the retiring cogs in the machine.

Once we learn to incorporate the incoming millennial generation into our fire departments, we must be mindful about ensuring that they receive the help and mentoring to become leaders and managers. Nicola Davies introduces us to reciprocal peer coaching, a strategy that offers a more collaborative succession planning that gives more control to the individuals in the process. By allowing more knowledge sharing, the “gotcha” aspect of information, or failure to provide it, can be eliminated, and more trust can be built into the machine as it moves into the future. And regardless of your machine’s future, perhaps the greatest benchmark of how great this job is is our senior, tenured firefighters. Of course, we have one of the best in the business in David Rhodes, and he shares the fact that although the machine may have its flaws and faux pas, it’s still the best job in the world. It’s our machine; we must take care of it and every cog that makes up the thing. It requires routine maintenance from both the individual and the organization to ensure that we are constantly minding the machine so that it works when it’s called.

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October 2017
Volume 12, Issue 10