After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

Firemen Who Respond to Situations, Not Indexes

Posted on October 2, 2012
Filed Under Communication, Technology | Leave a Comment

We’ve come upon a website that looks like a great place to go for insights into effective organizational learning and communication. It’s the FireEngineering site at The post that drew our attention in Google-roaming is “TailboardTalk: Write More Rules or Empower Your Firefighters?”

It’s increasingly recognized that giving people principles, rather than indexed rules, to follow is the way to go in organizational communication and training. That way, they can size up challenging situations that may occur from their own insights and experience, instead of thumbing through an ever-thicker book of rules. It’s an approach more akin to experiential than rote learning.

You can’t have a rule to cover every variation of situations that may arise. Why not? Because not all situations can be anticipated and, if they could be, the rule book would likely be too cumbersome for ready use.

Even in potential life-or-death situations, the value of training and trusting employees, in this case firemen, to act virtually instinctively is recognized over resorting to indexed rules. Detailed rules are fine if there is time to turn to them, but often there is not. And there may be too many variations for practical rule-thumbing anyway.

The other approach is to attempt to envision the root causes of events that might possibly happen and train personnel to respond to classes of occurrences. Under such an approach, a fire department (or any workplace) entrusts employees not to resort to “an endless list of rules, but rather (to) use their good judgment, which is instilled by the department’s training and culture.” This sort of approach makes training more engaging and actionable.

“The department,” says these firefighters, ” expects crews to base their decisions on the department’s established service philosophy because guidelines and policies cannot possibly be written for every scenario they will encounter.” True enough. Technical writers who may be called upon to envision scenarios and write rules in response to each of them might recommend, instead, that a setting be depicted with an understanding of the challenges it might produce and the approaches for responding to them.

These aren’t just words. In an emergency, situational training can produce prompter, more effective action than scurrying for a rulebook. When firemen recognize that, we all should. – Doug Bedell
Dennis Owen notes that since the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, nuclear power plants all have a Shift Technical Advisor (STA) in the control room. That person is expected to know the plant so well that he or she can advise on actions independent of (or at least in concert with) emergency procedures. “I’m sure,” Dennis adds, “procedures are the first thing they turn to because they are so comprehensive, but the STA is always available.”

Also, Dennis wonders whether “we haven’t lost our way when it comes to ethical behavior. It seems, perhaps, we now try to codify everything and maybe that encourages situational ethics. I wonder if in times past our collective morality was greater because we simply learned basic moral principles…we didn’t try to finesse or fine tune our responses to situations that were gray rather than black and white.”

Quantity or quality again becomes an issue. – db


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