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How Not What

September 6, 2009

People generally admire the work firefighters do even if they don’t understand precisely what it involves.  Firefighters escape criticism for many things that would either put other public officials under intense scrutiny or get them into serious strife.

From time to time, firefighters do get into trouble with the public.  The most notable recent examples have involved activities on the fire station or off duty that were simply beyond the pale.  In most cases, the public recognized that these were the acts of bad apples, not evidence of systemic rot.

I have on more than a few occasions found myself in the position of having to defend firefighters who worked for me.  In almost every instance, the actions people took them to task for were clearly appropriate and justified.  But the way they went about them sometimes caused people to question this.

In other words, they drew attention to their acts because of the way the undertook them, not the mere fact they did what they did.  People almost always pay more attention to how we act than what we do.  Indeed, this is usually the first thing they notice when we’re doing something they don’t understand or recognize as appropriate.

A few days after a particularly big fire in a downtown building early one Sunday morning, a friend of mine approached me and commented approvingly on the efficient and focused fashion with which the first-arriving firefighters set about their work.  As someone who closely supervised employees in an industrial setting, he was familiar with the rigors of intense physical labor under dangerous and difficult conditions.  As such, he was very impressed with the way they swiftly yet silently set about their individual tasks in such a coordinated manner  After hearing his comments, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the actions they took were inconsistent with the standard operating procedure in such situations and had needlessly placed themselves and others at risk.

On another occasion, a volunteer crew I supervised was criticized by the owners of a high-income gated community after they forced the gate open.  The firefighters arrived to find the gate closed and were unable to open it using the pass code provided by the developer.  Seeing a large cloud of smoke looming on the ridge above them, they had to make a decision.  The worker who met them at the gate was unable to operate the controller either but tried to assure them that the fire was a controlled burn and needed no attention from them.  Knowing that conditions were favorable for rapid fire spread in the dry brush around the expensive homes they forced the gate open and extinguished the fire.

When the owner called to complain, he was clearly upset that their actions had damaged the gate opener. But he was more concerned that they had summarily dismissed the advice provided by his employees that the fire was no danger.  The firefighters for their part had a sound rationale for this: how could they trust the word of someone who could not open the gate to the property where he worked?

When we take actions that involve others or affect their interests, they want to know that we’re doing the right thing.  If they have no first-hand knowledge of the tasks we perform, they can only assess our performance by paying attention to the way we do them.  This means we have to pay equal attention to doing the right thing and doing it in the right way.  Doing either one without the other means falling short of achieving a satisfactory outcome.

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