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A Game without Rules


Imagine yourself playing on a football team in the NFL. However, imagine that there are no written rules. The coaches generally make them up at each new game.

More than that, none of the coaches confer with each other before the game on what their rules will be for the game. Both sides show up to play, and each plays their own game. The referees have no idea how to rule.

What would be the result?

Undoubtedly, injuries will increase in frequency and severity. Players will get frustrated by not knowing the rules. Fans will begin to hate the league and the teams. Even though being a football player may have had appeal at first, recruits will quickly realize there’s little organization and will quit for fear of their own safety.

There would be little confidence in the coaches, since they constantly make up the rules as they see fit. Players would believe they’re being treated unfairly, and each player would judge the acts of the others against what they believe to be the right way to play the game

Morale will vanish. Fans would grow upset with the poor outcomes.

In short, the lack of rules destroys the game.

As inconceivable as the above scenario seems, this is how many fire departments operate daily. The departments have failed to adopt policies and practices to guide their operations. Chiefs are forced to make up the rules on a case-by-case basis.

Without written policies and practices, firefighters are more likely to be injured, fireground operations are inefficient, people aren’t treated fairly and running the department becomes a matter of figuring out the best way to do things in the spur of the moment.

The failure to adopt policies and practices negatively affects departments in several areas: One is the severe detriment on recruitment and retention and a second one is morale.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs identifies basic human needs that must be met for people to remain motivated and to progress in their lives. The failure to meet these needs is detrimental to individuals.

One of Maslow’s basic needs is safety. Firefighters must believe they’re secure in order to thrive in the fire department. Would you remain somewhere that’s not safe? Of course not, and nor will firefighters in your organization.

Fire departments must provide their members with order. Members of an organization will feel more secure if the rules of firefighting are written down.

Then, the rules are taught to them in training sessions. They’re enforced by leaders without exception, and they’re followed on the training ground. Firefighters understand that these rules and practices provide them safety, thus meeting their second of the most basic needs.

When these rules aren’t put into place, firefighters won’t thrive in the organization. They’ll fear for their safety. They’ll stop showing up to calls as volunteers, and they’ll ultimately leave the organization.

Without written policies and practices, morale will suffer. The absence of written policies and practices will lead to disharmony and ultimately anarchy on the fireground and in the firehouse. They won’t know what’s expected of them either on the fireground or in the firehouse. They won’t know whether they’re succeeding or failing because they’ll have no standard to judge against.

Members will believe that the leadership is unorganized and unprofessional and that the leaders are making up the rules on every call and in every situation. If they’re accused of wrongdoing, again without a standard to judge against, they’ll believe they’re being treated unfairly.

This is a recipe for disaster and a quick way to lose your members.

Also on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are esteem needs. At this level, an individual has obtained mastery of their craft. They have status, perhaps as a skilled firefighter or officer. They have received respect from others.

This level is almost impossible to achieve without written policies and practices. People can’t be measured fairly when each of their actions can be questioned. They can’t achieve mastery of a craft without a standard to be measured by. People will be judged by their actions, but personal opinions will define the rules: Leaders will lose the respect of their departments, and the departments will lose its leaders.

At the highest end of Maslow’s Hierarchy is self-actualization, where individuals believe they’ve reached personal potential. They’ve obtained self-fulfillment and achieved personal growth.

Once again, without written policies and practices, no one can truly reach their peak potential. Individuals’ knowledge can’t be measured, and they’ll be judged by the opinions of others, not by the standard that should have been set forth in the rule book.

So what do you do with this? How do we bring order to chaos? It’s not an easy process, but rules are the foundation a department is built on. Without rules, the foundation is unstable at best.

First, begin the arduous but critical process of constructing a policy manual and a best practices manual. How to do this isn’t the subject of this article, but suffice it to say that it is a multi-yearlong process requiring time, expertise and dedication. Constructing the manual is an unparalleled department accomplishment; maintaining it is a task that never ends and always demands attention.

After each policy or practice is adopted, make sure that training is conducted on it. Lesson plans should always refer to the policy or practice as the method for performing the task. Hold tabletop tactical lessons using the policies and practices. For example, once you create a practice detailing the assignments of the first three arriving units, play out a call.

Down the road, once you’ve written and adopted a good manual and have trained your people in its contents, you can create a leadership development path. Perhaps you require your lieutenants to know certain policies and practices and to run a scenario referencing them. Perhaps you create a written test based on them. As you move through the ranks, candidates must prove they have the knowledge contained in these written documents.

Without structure, your fire department will suffer. So start now. Step by step, block by block, policy by policy. Build the foundation. Your peers will respect you for the effort you undertake. They will believe you’re looking out for their safety, and indeed you are.

Your fire department will be respected. Recruitment and retention will improve and your leaders will become better leaders and more respected individuals. Promotions will be built on knowledge instead of popularity. The department will be professional, and most importantly, the leaders will have dedicated themselves to their members’ safety.

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