Thursday, April 21, 2011

Volunteer Fire Departments 2.0 (3 of ?) Communications

This is the third installment in a series and the first in which I discuss the critical challenges facing Volunteer Fire Departments. If you missed the first two parts, you can find Part One Here and Part Two Here.
 Just to be clear, I'll repeat the ground rules here: 1) we are trying to have a discussion. Let's pile on the comments, but keep them civil. 2) I am not holding myself up as an expert here. My Department has it's own problems and challenges like every other Department. What appears here is what I have learned from traveling to and visiting with many Departments that have gotten some things down really well. I intend to share those best practices I have seen. You may, and likely have, seen something better. I encourage you to share it with all of our readers here.
 COMMUNICATIONS has been selected here for the simple reason that I have seen this cripple many Departments, and I have also seen Departments that handle it well reap the benefits of that skill. The Communications I am focusing on here is not the 'on-scene' form, which most Departments have down pat, or at least in a workable format. What I am referring to are the internal communications within your Department.
 Best practices I have seen:
EMAIL: Having someone in the Department that is 'the email dude'. This person's job is to get all the information out to the members in an accurate, timely, and ordered format. In the best case, there are only one or two emails sent to all members each month that have all events, meetings, training, and other information in chronological order. These emails must be clean, concise, and without editorial comment. Having more than one or two per month can tend to overload the members and they will start to ignore them. Including a printable calendar each month allows members to print it out and stick it next to the family calendar, this cuts down on the household conflicts. You can also add response call data or other specific items to keep the interest up. (In my Department, we include this along with a comparison to previous years stats for the same month, folks look forward to seeing how we are doing and it makes them read all the way to the bottom of the note.) Making one person responsible for this means every Officer that adds something on the schedule has a single person to contact and get the word out. This person, by default, becomes the 'calendar coordinator'.
TEXT MESSAGING: Some Departments have used text messagin to send out reminders to their memebers of drills, meetings, and other events. They usually have one person as the central point for this task. With everybody, almost, having a cell phone these days, it just makes sense to use the communications systems they themselves use all the time.
OPERATIONAL PROCEDURES:  Does your Department have everything in writing? This is important so that the members have a document(s) which they can refer to for the proper procedures or recommendations for everything from responses to discipline. You cannot expect people to know the rules if they are not written down somewhere. Simply having this will eliminate a lot of arguments, hurt feelings, and confusion. Folks want to know where they stand and a document like this allows them to do that. If you don't have it, you will be facing endless problems over the 'correct way' to get things done. In addition, much of this is required under the NFPA guidelines in a properly organized Department. When there are no rules in writing, there are no rules. This leads to folks making things up as they go and using terms like 'well, it's not written down, but EVERYONE knows that' Well ,excuse me, but just how are 'they' supposed to know that if it was never written down?
 NEW MEMBER INFORMATION: All Departments should have a new member program which includes some sort of book that gives them all the basic expectations and information. What is the chain of command? Who do I see when I need gear? How do I get training? What meetings should I go to and when are they? The new member WILL have a million questions that deserve good answers. Doesn't it make good sense to put this all down in a document? Doesn't it make good sense to have an Orientation training event which includes the probies as well as a few experienced members to discuss all the issues, procedures, and make them feel welcome? I spent my first two years in the Department learning how things are NOT done, by making all the mistakes and getting yelled at. Why they didn't just tell me everything up front is still a mystery to me. (We've since fixed that and have a good program working now.)
TRAINING EVENTS: Most areas have training conducted on several levels; Department, . inter-Department, County, State, and Special opportunities (such as guest lecturers). How is this information delivered to your rank and file members? Do you have a central person responsible for gathering this stuff and getting it to the calendar coordinator? Do you get it to the members with enough lead time that they can adjust their personal calendars to make room for these? There are few things that make me angrier than sitting down to dinner at 1800 and having my pager go off to announce a drill taking place that night at 1830 hours, which NOBODY knew about until this very moment. I do not attend these drills, EVER. My feeling is that if they can't give me the courtesy of a little notice, then I cannot re-arrange my life to make their drill. I know I am not alone in this thought. Giving your people advance notice and time to plan for non-emergent events is more than a simple courtesy, it is NECESSARY to ensure that people will show up. Why put all the effort into a drill and only have 4 people show up? If people DO show up because they have to, for whatever reason, well then you are just being abusive of their time and will quickly lose any respect people had for you.
 TACTICAL AND REGULATORY INFORMATION: We get a fair amount of this in our business and it pays to have a disciplined method to deal with it. Procedural changes within the Department, new hazard information or law changes that comes to us from Local, State, and Federal sources should be given to all the members in print. Ideally, every member should have a mailbox at the station where these bulletins can be dropped into each one so that EVERYONE has the latest information. Having informed members makes everyone safer and better able to do their job. Sending this type of information through email may be easy and quick, but there is no assurance that it will be read because of email overload. Not everyone reads email in a comprehensive manner. It boggles my mind in this day and age, but many think that email doesn't really count and expect something more substantial if it is 'really important'.

 In summary, knowledge is power and information is king in our business. There is a lot of new information coming out all the time and things change fairly quickly. If something is important to pass on to the members, it should be given in a readable format with as much advance notice as possible. If you don't get the information out there, people will not go looking for it. Rumors and hearsay will become the method everyone uses to get their information. If you want them to make meetings and training events, the least you can do is let them know about it in plenty of time. It is much more than a courtesy to let them know what is going on. If you don't work on this, you will consistently be wondering why people don't show up, or don't get the 'word'. Verbal information is worth the paper it is printed on. Many Departments fail to understand how important good communications are, and they get off on the wrong foot with their members while finding themselves always playing 'catch up'.
 Nature abhors a vacuum, if you leave an information vacuum, it will likely get filled with problems.


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