The Importance of Healthy Public Safety Communications: The Leader’s Role
Chief Sam DiGiovanna
In public safety, effective communication is critical. It can be the difference between life and death. If we are on a working incident such as a structure fire, the Incident Commander (IC) communicates to the responding resources.
IC: “Engine 22 you’re assigned to fire attack.”
Engine 22 copies fire attack.
IC: “Truck 31 you’re assigned ventilation group.”
Truck 31 copies ventilation.
IC: “Squad 101 you’re assigned search and rescue.”
Squad 101 copies search and rescue.
If any one of these resources don’t reply that their message was received and understood, the IC will assume they did not receive the communication. It’s called “accountability.” The IC will have to find another resource to ensure the message is understood and acted upon.
Beyond the fireground or emergency scene, much communication nowadays is electronic: email, phone calls and texts. Despite the prevalence of electronic communication, it’s not unusual for people to fail to respond to an email or return a voicemail or text. It’s an unnecessary communication breakdown that takes less than a couple seconds to resolve. Why does this happen? In my experience, it’s cultural. We’re all busy these days. Once it becomes acceptable within a culture to ignore communications, it becomes commonplace.
Most of the time it’s not a difference between life and death, especially in the private sector. But that’s not to say overlooked communications are without cost. Ignoring simple communications might lead to a slow death of productivity; damage employee morale; or generate a tense work environment. If you’re a leader, it can damage your reputation. It begs the question: Why? Is it because we think we are too big, too important or simply too busy to reply?
No matter who you are, what title you hold or what your workplace policy allows, showing respect for co-workers is as basic as it comes
On the other hand, there are legitimate reasons people might not get back to you. For example, sometimes an email system will block addresses it doesn’t recognize or send it to a spam folder. Sometimes we mistype the name, number or address. Sometimes people are truly so busy and overwhelmed that electronic communications simply have to wait.
But, of course, there are more forms of communication than email, text, phone and radio. In fact, there are more forms of communication now than at any time in history. We can still talk face-to-face or via written correspondence, as we have for millennia. Meanwhile, we now deal in social media and instant messengers and more. Bottom line: If you need to get ahold of someone—or if someone really wants to get ahold of you—there’s a way to make it happen; but it might not be your preferred way. These are complicated times.
The Leader’s Role
This is not to excuse unprofessional behavior, especially if you’re in a supervisory position. I have often observed managers ignore communications from their subordinates. But when their boss sends an email, the reply is instant and thorough. Why do they fail to respond to the folks below them on the organizational chart? In the fire service, like pumping water through a fire engine, we call it too much PSI.
The problem with this management style is it sets a standard within the organization. It slowly starts to show up from peer to peer. This results in alienation and an even greater communication breakdown in the organization among personnel. When a task or assignment is not completed or delayed, the finger pointing begins. The thinking seems to be, “If I don’t answer, I’m not accountable!”
Poor communication undermines leadership. When a supervisor consistently ignores an employee’s communications, it sends a subtle, yet profound, message: Your time isn’t worthy of my time and your input isn’t important enough to warrant a response. This is extremely shortsighted. The bosses people admire most are those most admired by their personnel. If the best people working for you and with you stop talking to you, there’s trouble.
Unless you are a narcissist, I think you get the point. No matter who you are, what title you hold or what your workplace policy allows, showing respect for co-workers is as basic as it comes. Good communication skills are a common job requirement for a reason. A simple “thank you” or “received” is all it takes.
There’s enough disrespect circulating in this world as it is. Be respectful. Be mindful of the impact of your actions and inactions. Once you start this practice, you’ll find the return on this small investment pays dividends in the long run.