Xbox Hack#150104: The People Business

Fast Company-Cover-191-Dec2014-Jan2015Call me old-school but even with all the desktops and devices I own, I still love the feel and look of a print publication. [I hope the folks at FireRescue Magazine are reading this! lol] And I don’t know about you but, when I read a magazine I most often flip the pages from back to front, scanning for an article or image that catches my eye before I decide what to read first.

Such was the case as I was reading a recent issue of one of my favorite magazines: Fast Company. I flipped open the back cover and saw an article titled “Tech Needs a Hug” written by Baratunda Thurston in his regular feature “One More Thing,” aptly printed on the last page of the magazine. As happens often when I read non-fire service related insights, He made a statement that caused me to reflect on my focus on what I have dubbed “The Xbox Generation” of firefighters; what most folks refer to as Generation-Y.

In my facilitated conversation titled “From the Xbox to the Box Alarm: Understanding and Engaging Today’s Firefighters”, one of the first concepts we come to consensus on is that: Before, during and after everything else the fire department does for and in its community today; above all the new “businesses” we’ve jumped or been dragged into – we are in the “people business.”

Forget Fire, EMS, HazMat, Tech Rescue (including dogs from ponds and cats from trees), Utility Company, Appliance Service, Technical Specialist, Traffic Control, Roadside Assistance, Community Center, Public Education and every other imaginable job title, description or mission our citizens can throw at us – at the root of it all, we are in the people business. Everything we do is for and with people.

In our “Xbox Live” conversation we also come to consensus that 95% of the fires we fight are in the firehouse – not on the fireground. Yet we invest the majority of our time, energy and especially our money in the exact opposite proportion on all of the things that are 100% useless without the proper quantity and quality of people to make it all work. You can draw your own anecdotes about how a fire engine never extinguished a fire by itself and the jaws-of-life never pried anyone out of a crushed automobile by itself, etc. Whether high tech or low tech, it’s still equipment and it needs the proper quantity and quality of people to make it work.

In his column, Thurston writes: “Think about social media. Antisocial people are the ones making our social tools, which is highly unfortunate because they can re-imagine the world in code, but they lack the soft skills and everyday experiences to relate to the people they’re serving.”

As I do with virtually everything I read, I wonder how that statement about technology applies to those entering today’s fire service. While it can certainly be argued that the fire service is no place for anyone antisocial, it is easy to see how we can fall into the trap of conducting our business in a very impersonal way, inside or outside the firehouse.

Xbox Live CoverThurston’s statement that ends with “…they lack the soft skills and everyday experiences to relate to the people they’re serving” resonates as a common theme among the “more experienced” Xbox Live participants when I ask them to share their perceptions of today’s generation. As I respond to all of the other perceptions they share, I ask “Who is responsible for that?” I then raise my right hand and accept my fair share of responsibility that I have failed as a parent, a fire service leader or a community leader. But I argue that the more important question is: Who better to instill the right values and principles in our young people than the very people who built those values in our community in the first place? Who better?

As we continue to be challenged to crack the code of this generation and as we look for better and more reliable ways to engage them in our business and immerse them in our culture, it’s easy to fall victim to focusing on the just the hard tactics of firefighting and emergency services delivery while losing sight of Thurston’s call for more “…soft skills and everyday experiences to relate to the people they’re serving.”

Where are do the opportunities lie to trip over these traps in technology for the fire service?

  • In our Recruitment Process: As even the fire service moves more towards social media, the web and mobile apps to connect with their candidates. As we defy the age-old adage that you can pick your friends – but not your family, we need to continue to seek out more and more opportunities for face-to-face interactions as we step them through your application and on-boarding process, regardless of how long that process is. Each interaction is another opportunity for the candidate to test drive your organization and make sure its right for them; and another opportunity for you to feel out the candidate, not only for the potential to succeed in becoming and being a firefighter but just as importantly, another chance for you to gauge whether or not they’re going to be the right fit for your fire service family.
  • In our Public Relations efforts: At the same time social media and similar platforms offer us the opportunity to connect with more and more of our customer base every day, there also exists the potential problem of becoming disconnected from the truly personal side of  the people we serve. Regardless of how many Facebook page ‘likes’ you pick up or Twitter followers you add to your stable; balance your gains in reach (quantity) with matching or increased one-on-one and community wide interfaces (quality) like Santa runs, open houses, fire prevention activities, block and birthday party visits, etc. My 15-years of experience in sales and marketing management taught me that if you can get the customer to come into your (firehouse) environment vs. having to go to them, your chances of “closing the sale” increases exponentially whatever you’re selling, whether it’s the benefits of membership, your need for financial support or just the peace-of-mind that you’ve made good investments in the people and resources you serve them with.
  • In our Member Engagement programs: Advances in communications technology allows us to connect with our firefighters on a variety of platforms – channels. Simple text paging programs give us the means of sending one-way messages to our entire membership simultaneously at the click of a mouse. What it doesn’t do is provide for feedback. Text-paging to cell-phones often comes from a faceless generic system generated e-mail address. There’s no replacement for a face-to-face meeting to share ideas, solicit feedback and validate that everyone is on board with the program at hand. While setting up a members-only group on your web site or social media platform allows for interaction at the convenience of each individual, a well-timed phone call or personal visit to a member whose absence has been noticeable can make all the difference in the world to that individual and their attitude towards the organization. The personal touch of how you treat them will be remembered long after the text or Facebook message is erased.
  • During our “Customer Visits“: Regardless of why or when the customer called 911, extending the invitation to you to come into their home or business: Put down the device. While electronic patient care records and tablet based fire incident reporting are some of today’s response norms, ditch the device whenever possible and employ your keen listening skills and a genuine interest in the customer’s condition, unabated by the distraction of the technology. And whatever you do, don’t be “that guy” [or gal] who exudes disinterest and disrespect towards their situation by standing off to the side, staring at your mobile device or worse yet, pecking away at the miniature keyboard engaged in non-emergency communications while the incident plays out.

Adapting Thurston’s closing argument: We don’t need to come up with a new buzzword for customer service or effective communications. We don’t need to stop using technology. What we need to keep in mind is that, ultimately, it’s human beings – people – who are providing, using and being affected by the services we offer. We need to remind not only our newest members, but even the most experienced, that “It’s not about us – it’s about those we serve and serve with” – and that the qualities of real caring and compassion are low-tech skills that will trump high-tech any day.

Stay safe. Train often.