As I’ve said countless times with the blog, I am a seeker of all sorts of “cures”. Cures for diseases, better fitness, better wellbeing, better health, better firemanship, and sometimes just being better. A significant portion of my writing and work is truly about leaving this place better than we found it. This post is one that truly fits that bill as I see organizations, businesses, departments, and my media feed showing this trend of how damaged our methods of communication are.
As I’m constantly on the run and going here or there, I have a wide variety of ideas that come to mind that I want to come back to. This article is just one of the many that’s sat in queue for quite some time. A frustrated thought, brought back up to the surface by a remake of the song “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel by current artist Disturbed. The original has always been a favorite of mine, growing up exposed to a plethora of music as a child, the 60s and 70s genre were one that I loved with a passion.
Lyrics to the deep song have exactly the same meaning today as when the were penned. Their thoughts are very pertinent and almost scary that they are a reflection of our society. The inability for man to communicate. They called it out in lyrics and today even with all the modern advances in communications technology, we are doing more harm than good.
Myself, born in 1978, we had a phone on the desk in the house, or on the wall, yes I used the rotary phone, knew what a party line meant, and experienced life before a lot of the techy stuff. You wanted to talk to someone, your choices were picking up the phone, sending a letter, drive to their house, ride your bike, or walk your butt over there. There were no cell phones (got the family bag phone in high school). Internet was scarce, slow, and a lot of text more than anything. Not everyone reading this remembers what came before “Windows”, AOL, the “sound” of getting connected, what a pain it was to keep connected, or understand what it was like to press LOAD and come back to a program running in a few minutes. Now we are angry when our Internet ping is over 17ms and a program doesn’t open in a few seconds. Pagers, yeah those little boxes on your belt (not the Minitor) were king for awhile when you could get nothing more than what amounted to a “Tweet”. Texting, back when you started with T9, then the full Blackberry keyboards, bigger messages, and now the novel you can write in iMessage.
Present day we now we carry devices in our pockets that can be a full computer, phone, Internet hotspot, GPS, resource library, take pictures, record video, record audio, stream something live that once only the news crews could, have an array of apps, and with the right adapter even be a thermal imager! Our homes have faster connections and more technology than they had on many NASA space missions combined. Has technology changed us, it sure has! At what cost however have we changed, with all the good that we gained, what have we lost? While we gained all of these abilities to communicate and do our jobs, we lost the ability to communicate adequately. All of these technology changes, all these “improvements” that make things better all have a place and can help us if we augment, not replace how we communicate.
What does this have to do with the fire service or life in general you ask?
Communication, or the lack thereof, is damaging our fire service. Modern technology and trends have hampered and affected the way that we interact with one another. Communications, roll calls, and meetings modified greatly by emails, texts, and memos hung on the wall. For a calling that is so personal, so much about people and reaching out to be neutered in this fashion absolutely turns my stomach.
Impersonal… It is far easier to tell someone of a mistake or to address staff issues through an memo because it is completely one sided, you feel nothing as those under you feel everything and bear the whole burden. It is easier to tell of decisions through an email because you don’t have that face-to-face where meaningful discussion can be had. What used to be talking with your people has been replaced by talking AT your people.
Are our leaders afraid to talk to us? Perhaps there is some truth to this and that there is a fear, a fear of confrontation and dealing with situations in person. Don’t be afraid, you’re a firefighter at heart for Gods sake. No matter how much brass is on your chest or no matter if you’ve turned that brass in for a suit and are above the chief in another role, you are a firefighter at heart, have some courage! I believe there is some fear in our leaders to actually verbalize their thoughts and opinion. I think partly that fear is that they will actually have to listen to their people disagree and state their own opinion, which may not align with their own. Part of leadership is hearing that.
A crutch? More so I think they feel that technology is an “easier” way out and ability to feel that they are communicating better and faster with their people. Technology is used as that crutch because who has the time to talk with the masses? You’re too busy, your people are busy, and we are an “instant” type society where we need to get our message out NOW. Don’t let that crutch that should be used sparingly completely hamper your abilities.
If it’s not written… I get the legal aspects of communication. If its not written, it didn’t happen. Certainly with a background in business and the fire service I truly understand the concept of having a paper trail, but how many trees must die? You can still talk with your people; you can still engage in meaningful conversation about the topic and follow up with the necessary paper/digital trail.
Two-way? Not talking radio, but a similar concept in how you’re communicating with your people. Everyone has that officer or that Chief that’s on the radio all the time, maybe even carries two radios and a spare battery because they’ve been known to run one dead. It’s that officer that believes there is an NFPA guideline to “talk” the fire out. Over the last sixteen-and-a-half years I have yet to see a fire/rescue incident be talked out. That chief or officer standing there barking orders through a mic with the death grip on the button with their antenna held high like the Statue of Liberty. Do your firefighters some good and let that finger relax off the switch and take a listen to some feedback and open two-way communication with crews. If you’re spending more time penning emails, letters, and memos than you are taking to listen to your crews, you are contributing to the demise and destruction within your firehouse. Text, email, and memos are only a one-way form of communication and provide absolutely zero ability to show emotion, body language, or for the intended recipient to get a better feel for the message. In print or on a screen, there is nothing more. It is not talking with, talking to, but talking at. The same goes for businesses with their internal and external customers. Business managers, are you listening to the input from inside or just telling them the results without getting feedback on how to get there. Worse yet, if you’re doing that, are your customers feeling they are being told what they need?
Get in the kitchen… Look around your firehouse to where the members congregate and go about their business. Do your members constantly hang out on the computer to check their email? Do your members fill the Chiefs office? Are your guys hanging out around the memo board aching for that next fun filled memo to be posted? The answers are no, your guys are solving the problems of the world in places like the apparatus floor…or the kitchen! While there is a great amount of bullshitting, “ball busting”, and the like in a firehouse kitchen, there is a large value in the communication that can occur in solving problems. The solutions are all around you if you allow yourself to hear them. Use that opportunity to your advantage and open up, you might be surprised! I’ve had the opportunity in my time already to visit and experience some of the smallest and largest houses and the kitchen or around the table is where it’s happening, on the bay floor…its happening. This is somewhat different in the business world, but regardless those that are leaders in the company need to be engaging the employees in their areas. Engage, interact, listen to hear, don’t just listen to figure out your reply, let them be heard. Your employees are out there hammering out the details and discussing how to fix the problems, you just aren’t a part of it. Its not that your employees don’t feel they will be heard, its the proven track record that business XYZ has for not hearing the employees.
Think your department, organization, or business is exempt? Think again! The ones that say this isn’t an issue or scoff at the idea typically are the ones suffering the most, but fail to heed the feedback. I’m sure we’ve all seen it at some point during our career and in varying levels. It starts out slow and then begins to be the norm. First it’s a disgruntled person, which turns into a member leaving, which turns into a few more, which keeps repeating. Before you know it, the damage is done and it seems almost impossible to remember what it was like to actually have valuable conversations on matters.
Are there matters where technology or these other forms of communication be used effectively? Absolutely! As with anything, moderation is key.
Every now and then; pick up the phone, write a letter, or go visit someone. Talk to your firefighters in person, force yourself to show some emotion, open up, listen to what’s being said and take it in. Life is short, let us not be transformed and manipulated by technology to the point where we lose our abilities completely.