Staff meeting at the fire station.
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April 19, 2018
    Article highlights
  • Require sign-offs on shift logs and important memos.
  • Implement an open-door policy.
  • Rethink your role as a leader.

Fire departments face unique challenges when it comes to their internal communications.

With personnel scattered between stations and shifts, it can be difficult to get the same message out to every staff member. Firefighters can feel siloed from the wider organization, only communicating with those on their same shift.

Down the line, this can lead to issues with performance, and even safety.

Traditional forms of communication include word of mouth, bulletin boards, paper shift logs, email. However, these are often inefficient and ineffective.

Many command staff only send out a department-wide email or ask shift commanders to pass a printed memo along to firefighters. But this means they have no way of guaranteeing that the information reaches everyone on staff.

A lack of internal communication can leave firefighters feeling out of the loop, which hurts morale. Miscommunication about policy updates, equipment issues or emergency situations can also impede their ability to do their jobs effectively, and even put them at risk.

Improving internal fire department communications can be as simple as pairing some of the traditional formats with technology tools.

Here are a few ways to improve internal communication in your department so that you can ensure safety and success for everyone on your team.

Require Sign-Offs on Shift Logs and Important Memos

A streamlined memo system is one place to start if you want to improve internal communication in your organization. Memos and shift logs are an essential part of a department's daily routine.

Both items help make sure every firefighter knows about issues, problems and equipment updates in their station and jurisdiction. Shift logs provide context for the next day’s personnel and reduce the likelihood of duplicate copies of things like maintenance request forms.

Memos let firefighters know about important news in the organization and the wider community. Paper shift logs and memos are easy to overlook and hard to track.

Consider moving these essential updates into a policy management software tool such as PowerDMS and requiring every firefighter to sign off on them at the beginning of each shift.

Send Out Monthly Newsletters

As a rule, email may not be the most reliable way to distribute essential information. But in some cases, it can be helpful.

A quick email can let firefighters know about organization-wide events, announcements and department or individual accomplishments.

Instead of flooding inboxes with individual emails, create a simple newsletter that you can easily update and distribute.

Command and rank/file officer communicating on the scene.

Ohio Deputy Chief Billy Goldfelder told FireRescue Magazine, “In a department I previously worked for, I used to send out an e-mail called ‘What’s Up?’ in which I just let the troops know what’s going on."

A regular, informal but informative newsletter will help firefighters feel more connected. It can also give you a chance to share department happenings in one fell swoop.

Fostering a sense of community in the department as a whole will improve morale, which is known to increase productivity and teamwork.

Prevent Rumors Before They Start With One-on-Ones

Like any other industry, communication in the fire service can involve rumors. A 2010 survey found that 73% of firefighters agree strongly that their coworkers participate in the rumor mill within their department.

What’s the basis?

According to Fire Rescue Magazine, lack of communications processes and an increase of informal online communication could be to blame. Difficult decisions like budget cuts could make this problem worse.

For this reason, it is crucial to address changes up front when possible.

One fire department conducts weekly PCBs, or paycheck briefings, to prevent rumors before they start.

Every time someone picks up their paycheck, they receive an organizational briefing. This routine one-on-one allows firefighters to ask questions and stay in the loop regarding any organizational changes.

Outside view of a fire station.

“Personal face time dispels a lot of rumors,” FireRescue Magazine Tim Sendelbach says. “Not only does it give a personal touch, but it lets them ask secondary questions immediately. The more we deal with the facts in front of us, up front, the fewer problems we have.”

Implement an Open-Door Policy

Similarly, increasing communication can be as easy as letting your team know you are available for informal meetings.

Joseph Kitchen of the Bath Township Fire Department said his open-door policy aids communication and adds value to his work.

Some days I leave the fire station feeling like I didn’t get everything done that I needed to accomplish because I had guys in and out discussing issues in my office.

But, to me, this is valuable time I want our personnel to be engaged and often if they come and ask me questions it keeps them from guessing or feeling left out about what’s going on not only operationally, but administratively within our department.”

Validate Knowledge With a Test

In the public service realm, training is an ongoing effort. That means ongoing testing is, too. You won’t know if your team has retained the valuable information you shared unless you somehow validate it.

Testing is one foolproof method for ensuring your firefighters have grasped the policies and updates you disperse. But testing doesn’t have to be difficult, expensive, or time-consuming.

Software like PowerDMS can streamline the process, ensuring your team understands and can apply important knowledge when it matters most.

Attach Tests to Your Crucial Documents

See for yourself how PowerDMS can simplify how you test and track firefighters' knowledge.

Give Feedback Whenever Possible

It may seem obvious. If you want to get your team is on the same page, communication is essential. If there is a team member who is consistently not up to par regarding communications, give feedback whenever possible.

Think of it this way: constructive feedback is like a currency you invest in your team. With specific, timely support and guidance, you can help your department as a whole achieve its safety and performance goals.

According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management,

Effective and timely feedback is a critical component of a successful performance management program and should be used in conjunction with setting performance goals. If effective feedback is given to employees on their progress towards their goals, employee performance will improve. People need to know in a timely manner how they’re doing, what's working, and what's not.

Use Surveys to Gather Feedback

Remember, effective internal communication is a two-way street. Along with distributing information, departments also need to make sure officers feel included and heard.

This means providing your team with the ability to provide feedback to you.

According to the National Business Research Institute, “The importance of the annual employee survey cannot be overstated. Managers today have come to realize that information is power."

Firefighters communicating over the radio.

For this reason, the NBRI recommends, try to think of employee feedback as a powerful tool to harness rather than something to fear.

Keep in mind that you want to make the feedback process as easy as possible on both sides – your officers will be more likely to respond this way.

Using PowerDMS’s survey tool can be a good starting point.

The detailed data reports can help administrators gauge morale, identify the organization’s strengths and learn where the department needs to grow.

Rethink Your Role as a Leader

As a stakeholder in your organization, you not only oversee operations, but set the culture in your department.

For this reason, it is important to lead by example personally on a daily basis. This is especially important as you implement a new internal communications process.

Chuck Burkell, former Program Director for the National Fire Academy, likens the leader of a fire department to a social architect.

The climate or culture of an organization is analogous to the mortar in a brick wall. It can be so incredibly strong and supportive to the reason for the wall, or near a state of failure in need of change or repair … the effective leader is one who can assess, shape, and manage this mortar – to be a social architect.

Improving internal communications is a huge part of improving your entire organization.

Good communication increases employee buy-in, improves retention and ensures that firefighters have the information they need to serve the community well.

Finding consistently reliable ways to relay crucial information creates a culture of communication in your department, which Rebecca Desch, Program Administrator at the City of Bradenton Fire Department, says is crucial.

“It’s imperative – literally life or death in some cases – to reach every first responder with new information about evolving risks and tactics. Whether outside the classroom or in hands-on training, the best way to do that is to track it, require a sign off, and validate with a test,” she said.

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