4 steps to be a better fire department leader

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Linda Willing

Do you want to be a better leader? Do you want your coworkers and crews to look up to you and seek your opinion? Do you want to be remembered as that officer who really made a difference to a new firefighter?

Do you want to keep your crews safer? Do you want to avoid accidents and be sure that mistakes are manageable learning experiences? Do you want to manage every emergency scene in the most effective way possible?

Do want to serve your community better? Do you want to understand the changing needs of that community and develop new solutions for them?

What firefighter would say no to any of the questions above?

One simple thing
Well, here's the good news. There is one simple thing you can do that will improve your performance in every aspect of your work.

It is just this: Pay attention.

Too simple you say? I mean, who doesn't know that paying attention is a good thing?

But simple doesn't mean easy. And in this world of increasing information and distractions, the importance of attention is often overlooked.

There are many ways that attention can be a problem in the fire service. In some contexts, officers can try too hard and end up a victim of tunnel vision.

The obvious is elusive
I remember the time we responded to a rapidly spreading grass fire that was behind a tall metal fence. I was so focused on the flames and the problem of access that I immediately started developing complicated strategies for getting over the fence. It was my engineer who pointed out that the fence had a break in it just 30 feet from where the fire was.

Too much focus can be a problem, but it is rarely the one that causes the worst outcomes. More often people are distracted.

They are trying to do several things at the same time. They are occupied with their own thoughts while others are trying to tell them something.

Multitasking is a necessity in the fire service, but it is critical to remember that most people are not very good at it. Physiologically we are well suited to doing two routine tasks at the same time — think walking and chewing gum. But when things leave the realm of normal, the situation gets more complicated.

Divided attention
Everyone has had this experience. You're driving home from work and you're listening to an interesting story on the radio. Then suddenly a dog runs out in front of your car. You swerve to avoid it, narrowly missing it.

The radio was still playing when this happened but you don't remember a thing that was said in the last minute or two, do you?

Modern technology demands multitasking with smartphones and tablets and texting and apps that constantly vie for attention. It is imperative to be able to disengage from these distractions when you need to.

Attention is obviously needed on the emergency scene. But it is equally important but often less prioritized in normal station operations.

Pay attention, and you will notice friction between two firefighters before it becomes a major crisis. Pay attention, and you will see that your response district demographic is changing in a way that requires a different service model.

Four steps
Attention is particularly important in managing interpersonal conflict in the station. All interpersonal conflicts start out small and get bigger if not mitigated, so the key is to see them as they initially develop and deal with them at that level.

Officers have enormous power to prevent catastrophes like workplace violence and lawsuits. But they have to notice what is going on to start.

How can you improve your ability to pay attention? These four basic things go a long way.

1. Put down your phone. Smartphones are wonderful tools but the constant stream of information they provide can become an addicting distraction.

2. Make eye contact. Others know when you're not really listening to them. Take the time to sit down with someone who wants to talk to you, make eye contact, and pay attention. You will gain much better information as a result, and the other person will feel respected and valued.

3. Walk around. Don't hide out in your office when in the station — go to where the rest of the crew is and engage with them there. What are they doing? What's on their mind? Take the time to find out.

4. Likewise, get off the truck when out in your district. Walk around the neighborhoods, make casual visits to businesses beyond doing fire inspections. Let people see you. Notice what is going on. Be approachable.

Simple, not easy
All of this is simple, but that doesn't make it easy. As you try to give more attention to others, you may become frustrated with how little attention they may have for you.

You will also find old habits hard to change. You may get pushback from others if you try to focus on tasks more sequentially rather than simultaneously.

But the payback for developing better attention is enormous. You'll do better work. You and your crew will be safer. You'll provide better service to the community. And others will see you as a serious and caring person, and someone they can trust.

Aren't these outcomes worth any effort it takes to achieve them?

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