Dealing with the ‘Shrapnel’ of Other People’s Decisions

The fire service has always served as a great example when it comes to that of serving and taking care of others. We do it without hesitation and for anyone who needs us. It doesn’t matter what neighborhood you live in or what status you carry in the community, we take care of you and your loved ones. In return, the fire service has reaped the reward of unwavering trust and support from those we serve, those who let us into their homes, their businesses, their lives. That trust, mind you, has come from decades of hard work from those before us, those who created that image of the fire service you see in all of the children’s books. The “good guys.”


So what happens when one of those bestowed with that trust, one of our own, betrays that trust and blows it all up? A blast that does big damage up front and even more with the shrapnel wounds that come as a result of the explosion. It’s usually just one individual who accidentally or at times deliberately does something that takes thirty years of good positive PR and throws it in the garbage. Without thinking or caring about the consequences of their actions, they end up blowing up everything that so many others put so much hard work into and it’s a shame.


Dealing with the initial blast


When it happens, the amount of damage often can be controlled by acting on it quickly. Not to cover anything up, but rather to run ahead of it a bit and control as much of the bad publicity that can come when one of our own steps out of bounds. The following three guidelines, suggestions if you will, are from our good friend and Emmy Award winning journalist and blogger Dave Statter from STATter911:


  1. Get it out first.

If you can, get it out there yourself first before the media gets a hold of it. If you are handling something that is going to or could blow up, you’ll have a lot more control over who says what and how the information is put out there if you’re the one pushing it out first. Look, you can’t control what people say, but you can help stop the misinformation from being out out there if you’re willing to jump on it first. You’ll have the facts and details that are correct and accurate, and waiting, delaying, or dragging your feet just gives someone else the opportunity to make up their own story, their own “truths,” and then everyone is playing catchup and running after the truth train.


  1. Get it right.

Work hard to make sure you have the facts and all of the details right. What happened, who did it, what it did, and what you’re going to do about it. Nothing makes it all fall apart faster than finding out you didn’t have it right or didn’t have all of the details you should have and someone calls you on it. Then they question everything, including the stuff you got right. Makes dealing with the initial blast even harder.

  1. Get it behind you.

After doing the best you can to knock out steps 1 and 2 above, now it’s time to get it behind you. Move on. Notice we didn’t say run from it (though you might feel like it at the time), we said move on. We’ve got the rest of our business and operation to take care of, and many times after dealing with a bad situation the best action you can take is to get things back to business as usual.


I personally know a fire department that recently went through a bad situation. Again, a great department with one person who screwed things up, but its members did exactly what Dave is talking about above and came out of the whole thing in good shape.


Treating the shrapnel wounds


The shrapnel, the “stuff” we all end up defending in the media, in our firehouses, at a city council meeting, on the Internet and in the grocery store, is sometimes the greatest challenge many of us will face in our careers. Fire chiefs have lost jobs by not getting out in front of something or not following up on an occurrence when it is reported, thinking that if they ignore it, it will just go away. Not true! As we discussed above, not taking action, ignoring it, and not gathering all of the facts leaves the public, the media, and the rest of those in the firehouses with no other recourse but to make up their own version of the story–with it many times being blown out of proportion. Just like throwing gasoline on a fire, it just makes it all worse.


Some of the best steps you can take is to get out even more with your public education programs. Be visible doing the good stuff that people know you for. Most citizens will realize that it’s not a reflection of the entire fire department but rather that of just one or two who acted inappropriately. And when faced with a question or one of those negative comments from the public, first make sure you have the ability (permission) to answer it and deal with it. If not, then push it up the chain of command to someone who can. If you can, answer them honestly, try to not get defensive, and most of all stay professional. Try not to make a bad situation worse.


The rehab and long-term care


One of the best practices you can work towards is to do something about it ahead of time. Meaning, prevent it. Restate your values and mission to the incumbents, educate and train your new firefighters, and don’t forget to cover everything with your staff. A lot of our day staff personnel interact with the public on a regular basis. Train everybody. Make sure they understand what they represent and the cost for making poor, bad, and in some cases inexcusable decisions.


Another really big area is to work hard to have a good relationship with the media. Those who choose to be confrontational with them or treat them poorly or turn their backs on them will suffer even further when one of those bombs goes off. Having a good if not great relationship with the press helps your efforts when it comes to damage control.


Come up with new, innovative ways for reaching out to and engaging with those you serve. Again, take those steps necessary to prevent it from happening again or from happening in the first place. Solid SOPs, rules and regulations, and training are all a good start in preventing something bad from happening or in handling it if it does, but good solid leadership up and down the rank ladder is best. It’s all about leadership!!


In closing, we all pay a price from coast to coast and state to state when someone acts inappropriately. It makes us ALL look bad. The blind faith we receive from the public needs to be protected at all costs. Remember those before us who worked so hard to build a reputation that others wish they had and remember to make decisions because they are right and in the best interest of everyone. Simply put, do the right thing.


Be safe and let me know what you think.


If you’d like to have Chief Lasky out for a presentation, please contact him at

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