As I read a line-of-duty-death report recently, two statements jumped off the page. First, the report concluded that “General Orders are often contradictory, unclear, or too cumbersome for personnel to glean operational value.” Second, it stated investigators had observed “lack of trust with department leadership, based upon a widely held belief that department leaders are not promoted or assigned based on merit or experience.”
Wow. Rarely do we see conclusions addressing systemic problems within an agency, but there it was. The firefighter’s death, in part, could be attributable to poor policies and a lack of trust in leadership.
Trust between firefighters and their officers, or lack of it, is part of fire department culture—the department’s DNA if you will. Trust is key to fireground safety and performance. It is imperative to the successful execution of an incident action plan (IAP). However, a department can’t have a policy that says, “Firefighters shall trust their officers,” and you can’t include a “trust” action in an IAP. Instead, it’s a cycle: Good policies support a fire department culture of trust, and a culture of trust supports the successful execution of a fireground strategy.
Lack of trust in business draws a straight line to loss of revenue. Lack of confidence in the fire service draws a straight line to loss of life. Let’s start from this premise: Officers who don’t consider the trust necessary to crew safety and performance probably don’t have the trust of their crews. On the other hand, officers committed to transparency, honesty, leading by example, their own professional improvement, and mentoring their crews? A culture of trust likely exists within that department.
How Policy and Procedure Support Fire Department Culture
Let’s take a closer look at three areas in which good policies and procedures, consistently applied and enforced, can build trust within the department.
- Promotions. We all know that sometimes even the most well-intentioned promotion turns out to be less than ideal. Bad promotions are bound to disrupt the department, but they don’t have to lead to a lack of confidence in the entire promotional process. When leaders can point to external standards (e.g., civil service list rules, required certifications, or local personnel rules), leadership capabilities, and performance-based measures to justify the promotion, it can help alleviate any breach of trust caused by a promotion that didn’t work out. Good policies addressing officer training, selection, and advancement, among other subjects, create consistency and objectivity. In doing so, they support a culture of trust, giving firefighters confidence that decisions are made for the right reasons, not favoritism or popularity.
- Conduct. Fair and legally defensible policies addressing firefighter behavior, such as to conduct standards, prohibitions on discrimination, and handling of personnel complaints and grievances, should include specific reference to how officers handle, shepherd, and resolve these matters. Consistent interpretation and administration of such policies further demonstrate and supports a culture of trust.
- Fireground assignments and tactics. When it comes to response, good officers who value trust make sure the individual firefighters on their crews are trained and competent to cover their fireground responsibilities. Officers shouldn’t place crews at unreasonable risk by assigning a firefighter lacking demonstrated competence to a task. Crews must trust that decisions are based on this premise. Fireground assignments based on favoritism, discriminatory basis, or non-performance-based factors lead to crews deviating from policy and procedure, second-guessing, and freelancing. When crews trust their officers, they are more likely to become engaged in the strategy, know their officers will accept input based on experience and training, and carry out the plan.
We all like to think our firefighters have faith and trust in their officers, especially when we are one of those officers. However, we should be confident enough to know. How can we measure the faith and trust that firefighters have in their officers? Organizational and competitiveness expert Stuart Wells identifies four levels of trust present in organizations. Identifying where your department fits on this scale provides a quick self-assessment (See: Wells, S. (1997) From Sage to Artisan: The Nine Roles of the Value-Driven Leader. Nicholas Brealey Publishing).
The levels are:
- Negotiated Trust: This is the lowest level of trust. At this level, crews operate at the level of that required by personnel rules or policy. Deviation from those rules or policies, however, can occur if it is perceived the rules are arbitrarily applied or officers don’t follow them. Crews will not do any more than they are formally required to do and will not provide input.
- Conditional Trust: Crews give officers the benefit of the doubt, yet they reserve full judgment based on the officer’s behavior. This is a “wait and see” approach. It can also be described that crews are merely waiting for officers to fail, and, likewise, officers are waiting for crews to fail. When there is a failure to meet expectations on either side, it results in a reduction of trust.
- Cooperative Trust: Crews have expectations of their officers and each other, but failure to meet those expectations will not result in reduced levels of trust. Crews will assume that the occasional mistake, a lapse in judgment, or an error was the result of some misunderstanding and/or miscommunication. Belief is not easily shaken because everyone is operating under the principle of commitment to crew safety and success on the fireground.
- Unconditional Trust: This is the highest level of trust. Crews rely on the word of officers. Crews also are confident their experience and assessment are valued. Trust is not affected by individual weaknesses. Instead, the officer and crew work to improve individual competence through practice and further training. Officers and crews openly take responsibility for their actions.
Additionally, crews consistently and proactively find ways to add value to the station and fireground performance. This is the “gold standard” that every officer and organization should strive to achieve. Crews know the officers will support them both tactically and administratively.
Keep in mind these levels were written for business, where the “occasional mistake, a lapse in judgment, or error” doesn’t cause severe injury or death. So, unconditional trust is really where your department needs to be.
Objectively determining the level of trust naturally leads to the question of whether and how your fire department culture needs to change. And cultural change isn’t just the realm of high-ranking officers. If you’ve got a crew, or if even one firefighter answers to you and is subject to your direction, then, to the maximum extent possible, it’s your responsibility to create a culture of trust within your command.
Scott Eskwitt, Esq. is the former chief of Fair Haven (New Jersey) Fire Department. He is also an attorney who advises municipalities and fire departments on risk management, human resources, and labor relations issues.