If You Have Time to Lean, You Have Time to Clean!
Is there value in busywork in emergency services? I think your answer probably depends on whether you are Supervisor or Staff in your organization.
About 20 years ago, when I first got hired by my department, scrubbing floors (and I mean SCRUBBING) was a daily priority far above training, physical conditioning, or any kind of team building. This mindset came from back in the day when our first career staff found themselves waiting for hours and sometimes for days for calls to come in, but were expected to earn their keep and not just “sit around”. It was a source of pride for the old-timers to teach a rookie like me the proper way to mop concrete and clean the dust off of lightbulbs. One of my first captains was fond of saying “If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t, clean it!”
But as the number and variety of calls increased along with the expectations of the citizens we served, greater demands were placed on our limited time and resources. As I moved through the ranks and learned more about the fire service I began to as “Are there better ways to prioritize our daily routine?
Twenty years later, now a shift commander myself, I still value cleanliness in my staff, apparatus, and station. But as my crews and I find ourselves training in more topics, responding to more calls, and playing more challenging games of “Daily Problem ‘Whack-A-Mole'” I find value in the rare downtime when our crew gets to catch their breath, share a meal, and build the camaraderie and trust that is the core of brotherhood.
Now don’t think for a minute that I approve of firefighters being horizontal in a recliner while there is work to be done. It’s that kind of attitude that breeds firefighters who will pass by a problem until somebody gets embarrassed (at best), or hurt or killed (at worst)! Nor am I a fan of the idea that we should “just let them do what they want as long as it just stays among us.” as this is often used as an excuse for the kind of stupidity that leads to embarrassing YouTube videos that wind up on the news and Statter911, much to the embarrassment of and detriment to our entire profession.
So here’s my advice, such as I might give it.
Firefighters: Come to work ready to work. Look for what needs to be done and do it before someone tells you. Those are the hallmarks of the great firefighter.
Company Officers: Abandon the idea that you are only a leader if you are constantly telling people what to do. Give your team a chance to be great firefighters. When they miss something, or they don’t set their priorities correctly, that’s the time to correct them. Don’t be afraid to encourage some down time when the critical work has been completed. Even the strongest firefighters need time to catch their breath, fill their bellies, and empty their bladders to stay “ready to respond”.
Chief Officers: If there is a problem with a particular company officer, group, or individual firefighter not doing what needs to get done, address it with them individually. Set and clearly communicate your expectations and make sure that they have the resources to do the job. And above all, don’t yell at everyone about a problem that is really just a small group or individual. The slackers for whom you intend the message will assume that you’re not talking about them, and you will destroy the morale of the people who are out there busting their butts every day, yet getting yelled at anyway.
So be proud of a polished fire engine and the well-mopped floor, but be sure to also give importance to occasional downtime. It will show you as a leader who values people, not just what you can make them do.