By John McKenzie
Can we rely on the tests of the past to qualify the firefighters of the present? Of the future?
As firefighters, we want the best. We want the best in order to be able to do the best job we can. On the whole, we’re motivated and driven; we have a job to do, we know how to do it and we want to deliver. We want the best workplace environment, the best equipment, the best training, and…the best colleagues. And this is where the hair on the back of our neck often starts to stand on end. Are we getting the best colleagues, we silently ask to ourselves or whisper to others? Are we getting the best graduates? How do we know? What is the status of the standards? And, crucially, what happens if we’re not? If standards slip? What then? How do we come to terms with the idea that some colleagues make not have had to pass the same tests we did?
Today’s firefighting environment is complex and it’s getting more complex every year, with new methods, new equipment and innovations in technique. Oh sure, the basics stay the same, but the job has changed in countless ways. But, this means that the criteria by which we judge what a strong firefighter is has to change too. Can we rely on the tests of the past to qualify the firefighters of the present? Of the future? The job has gotten more technical, more nuanced, not less. When this happens, no matter the industry, we need to step back, take a broader view and critically interrogate the role.
Does the fact, for example, that a colleague’s stair climb isn’t what it used to be or that their hose drag is slipping mean they can’t be a valuable asset to the service? Maybe they’re a superior planner or drone operator, great with building design and building systems. In other words, there may be ways of fitting the role to a person which prompts me to think that we might consider taking an ergonomics approach to staffing the firefighting role.
Ergonomics, broadly speaking, is the science of fitting the job to the worker (rather than the worker to the job) in order to avoid issues of health and safety. For example, consider a typical workstation setup: a computer desk, chair and monitor. Whereas in the past, workers would slouch and bend their back and neck at unnatural angles to see the screen clearly, an ergonomist would suggest raising the monitor to a level in line with the workers eyesight, allowing proper posture and thereby preserving the worker’s health and comfort. In a similar way of adjusting our concept of what a firefighter is to better fit workers. Not only is it possible but I also think it’s crucial; the demands of today’s firefighter role require more than a one-dimensional approach. Will there always be a role for brawn alone? Of course. But at the same time, in today’s market, there would seem to be many interesting and exciting ways to be a strong firefighter.
All that said, sometimes people just aren’t suited, or aren’t suited anymore, to a particular role. Maybe they’re not as fast as the task demands or not as strong as others. Maybe they’ve been injured. We need to tread carefully when this happens because of the implications of the intersection with the human emotional domain. Was this role a lifelong dream? Are there family connections — a tradition — that make this role important? Sense of identity and self-worth are often at stake. In these cases, it’s good to know how to break bad news to good people.
According to Susan Krauss Whitbourne at Psychology Today, there are five keys to effective communication of bad news. First, tell at least part of the truth if you think the person needs to hear it but not the whole truth, which may be too devastating or overwhelming for the recipient. In some cases, she says, you can offer comfort to the receiver in this way. Second, sugar-coat it if you think the recipient can’t handle what they’re about to hear. That is, try to find a positive spin for the receiver to anchor to. Third, follow the principles of politeness theory. What she means is to allow the receiver to save face. Fourth, take your time to prepare your message: It takes mental effort to deliver bad news. Finally, rely on others to help you in the task to provide moral support for both deliverer and recipient.
It seems to me that the common thread among all these keys is careful communication. If a colleague is underperforming in some area, the key would seem to be to plan a direct conversation with him or her, laying out the issue and proposing a scenario within the fire service, where their skills and qualities would be well-utilized in making a difference to the mission and purpose of the fire service writ large. As long as we keep the positive qualities of colleagues in view, then I believe the future looks very strong for the fire service indeed.
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