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Enhancing Human Capital: Building a Desire to Serve

Leaders are always looking for talented personnel who are strong tacticians. But they also look for many other traits that cause them to serve others in a way that garners trust and respect.

As the fire and emergency service continues to transition through growth, chiefs have seen more and more firefighters wanting to be selective in how they serve.

Calls for response after midnight and responses to certain neighborhoods and people may generate complaints that are made public (that is, they post them on social media). They then defend making their complaints public by appealing to their first amendment right to free speech.

Some members only want to serve in certain capacities because they believe they can determine for themselves where and how they’ll serve. They often lack respect for the fire service and the department’s mission. When they’re asked to change, they’re so resistant that it can wreak havoc and disrupt department operations.

When we first learned of this trend, we assumed this was a Millennials problem, but we were completely wrong. It’s led mostly by Gen-X folks who feel they’ve been inadequately rewarded or recognized by their communities and their departments. Since these are likely your leaders who then teach their staff members their attitudes, you must involve them deeply in the change process.

We’ve developed a blueprint for implementing attitude change in a fire/rescue department. To help address this challenge, here’s the blueprint for Desire to Serve.

Recruiting and Hiring

Use strategies during recruitment and hiring to select people who want to serve. A written entrance test can measure customer-service orientation, but the interview process is the best place to ask questions and dig deeper into a person’s desire to serve the community.

Define and Communicate Expectations

Set department expectations for service attitudes. Ironically, not everyone agrees on the definition of great customer service or even what it means to want to serve. It’s worthwhile to conduct focus-group meetings to define great customer service and great attitudes toward customer service.

For example, maybe you want your employees to initiate contact with community members and find out their public safety-related needs and then follow up to ensure those needs are met. Initiation is not a trait every employee brings to the job, but once the expectation is set that fire/rescue personnel will initiate that type of contact, your department can set goals and objectives to ensure methods are in place to allow employees to initiate service.

It’s realistic to set five to nine service expectations that embrace the desire to serve. Here are some examples of Desire to Serve expectations:

  • Employees will initiate interactions with the community to determine their service needs.
  • Employees will offer suggestions to invite the community into the fire department to see or participate in daily operations.
  • Employees will follow up on service they delivered to determine outcomes and offer emotional support to the community members they serve.
  • Employees will identify other employees in the department who have a low desire to serve and coach them on ways to serve and reinforce the positive aspects of serving others.
  • The department will recognize employees who serve the community unselfishly.
  • Employees will celebrate community recognition for their service.
  • Leaders will be held accountable if they don’t demonstrate the desire to serve.

For these expectations to be realized, they must be clearly defined and must have specific goals and objectives attached to them with realistic timeframes for realization.

Embed the Expectations

Once expectations are set, those expectations must be built into the department’s SOPs, mission and vision statements, and goals.

They need to be posted on the walls, enshrined in advertisements, engraved on coins and placed everywhere your members work.

Expectations must be reiterated to each new employee when hired. And supervisors must discuss those expectations with existing employees on a regular basis.

Set the Example

Next, all leaders in the department must set the example. While defining and communicating expectations (the second step above), leaders should identify concrete steps they can take to demonstrate the customer service attitude they want displayed. They should also identify methods to show their employees, in real time, who desire to serve.

Seeing the Change Take Shape

Attitude changes don’t happen overnight. Attitude changes can’t be forced onto members from the top-down. Further, not everyone will change. However, this four-step process will begin the change.

If leaders set the example and prohibit poor service attitudes through immediate behavior correction, mentoring and coaching, members with a low desire to serve will be marginalized. Those with a high desire will learn to fulfill that desire in more concrete ways, feel more appreciated and ultimately more satisfied in their job because positive reinforcement is highly rewarding.


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