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Multitasking
By Chief Ron Richards

Since you are reading this article on your computer, you obviously have a working knowledge of how computer's work. You are probably using Windows or a similar operating system which allows you to access the internet and at the same time type a memo while music or live dispatch is playing in the background.
Your computer's operating system uses some criteria to decide how long to allocate to any one task before giving another task a turn to use the operating system. In some operating systems, some applications can be given higher priority than other applications, giving the higher priority programs control as soon as they are initiated and perhaps longer time slices.

Obviously the more stuff you have opened on your desktop, the easier it is to miss something. If the applications you have opened are various intensive, they can have a "slowing down" effect on your computer's system. Since we all have become so dependent on our laptops or desktops, we've all grown accustomed to doing more than one task at a time. We may use audible alerts to let us know when we have a new email message in our "in-box" or check out Instant Messenger  when we hear the "door open" sound come across the computer's speaker.
 
 

The real world in not much different than your computer's desktop. It is not uncommon for you to have several items that need your attention all at once. Like the desktop, you chose the ones that will get you attention and can avoid those you don't want to deal with.

Unfortunately, there is usually more at stake with the issues you chose to deal with or avoid than trying to decide if or when you will open your e-mails.

A good leader can deal with more than one issue at a time.

Imagine a CEO of a corporation spending all this time focused on the advertising while neglecting to deal with other issues. As we all know, he has a staff that helps him gather information and and provides him pertinent information so that he can make informed decisions.

Marissa Peterson, executive vice president of worldwide operations for Sun Microsystems. Peterson is a great example of a person who can multitask. She not only does it as an individual she applies the same principle at the office. Everyone on her more than 2,000-person staff knows exactly what role she expects them to play and the larger goal that the team needs to meet. "My top priority is developing the strategy for achieving my operation's goals and then laying out that vision to my team," says Peterson.

Good fire service managers and supervisors have to take the same lead. Do you know of a fire service manager who cannot deal with more than one issue at a time? Does he get focussed on one issue and neglects other pressing matters.Why do you think that's the case?  Is it possible that the manager is choosing to deal with issues that are near and dear to his heart, or maybe those that give the appearance that is is making decision, but in reality is an in effect manager by not handling the big stuff?

How about the company officers who won't deal with issues head on when the occur but end up bitching at everyone in the station about how bad things are. For example, if a company officer is having a problem with one particular firefighter then he should deal one on one with the firefighter to air things out. After all, isn't that why he's the company officer  and not riding the tail step?

At the company officer level there are going to being time at several issues are brewing all at the same time. The BC is on your butt about company drills, you have personnel issues with two firefighters, the wipers still only working when the want to on the pumper and, if that's not enough, it looks like somebody has their fingers in the till in the house fund. All issues that require you attention. Some that are easy to fix and some that will require tactful intervention on your part.

The ineffective officer will probably chose to deal with those issues that are non confrontational. Let's please the boss, get the training done and let see if we can get the wipers fixed in-house, since the rig has been to the shop four times and they still haven't got it right. The personnel issue.... naw.... let's avoid that one. One of the guys involved rides to work with you. He's your homey. When it comes down to it, you really don't want to take side or deal with this, so you choose to bury you head in the sand and let the confrontation fester.

The rest of the station is watching. They know what's up. You are undermining your own authority and responsibility by not dealing with the issues. Soon all the firefighters will  begin to question you effectiveness. You've chosen in your own mind that you don't want to be the bad guy. By not resolving the problem, you have become the bad guy. Why? Because that's what you job is! Handle the issues, the popular ones and those that stink.

And how about the case of the missing money? Do we call in Columbo for this one? Are you going to handle this or let it become a bigger problem?

"If you saw the movie 'Top Gun' (1986), you'll remember what all you see Tom Cruise doing in the cockpit He's got to pick and choose when he does what, multitask very carefully. The chance that he'll conclude a flight in a fighter jet successfully depends not only on his capabilities and limitations but also on his equipment, "  said David Meyer, Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. Meyer and his counterparts conducted a detail study on multi-tasking in 1992.

"Insofar as we can understand his capabilities and limitations, we have the opportunity to improve his equipment to take advantage of his capabilities and protect him from his limitations. On an aircraft carrier, operators perform in command information centers. They have to process lots of information across many, many channels that require all sorts of different decisions to be made. In order to do that job, the operator must multitask -- and if not, figure out how to cope with the limitations."

"It's kind of like one of the 'Dirty Harry' movies with Clint Eastwood. At the end of the film Clint says, 'A man's gotta know his limitations,'" Meyer said. 1

We can come up with similar examples at every level.....battalion chiefs who don't want to make waves, just wanting to make it through the shift, not burn down a block and retire in three years. Or how about a chief officer who is bucking for the next promotion and don't want to piss of the chief or look bad in the mayor's office. Maybe it's the department chief who sweeps stuff under the rug. Sooner of later the is going to be a big hump in the floor and someone is going to ask what is there!

So what can we learn from this? First of all, we live, work, and volunteer in a dynamic environment. People issues will take up probably more that 80% of your time. Secondly, you will have to deal with various issues and various times and more likely than not simultaneously. If you are a good administrator, manager or supervisor, you should be able to prioritize what demands you immediate attention, what can wait, what is a non issues  or what can be handled off for someone else to resolve.

Realize early on in your career as a manager that you will have to make decisions that will be unpopular. Don't imagine for a second that everyone in the firehouse or department is your friend and they like you. They don't. What is more important it that they respect you. You'll gain that respect by dealing with more than one issue at time.... multitasking. Most subordinates can take a no for an answer. All they want is an answer.

(1) "Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching," Joshua S. Rubinstein, U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, Atlantic City, N.J.; David E. Meyer and Jeffrey E. Evans, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich., Journal of Experimental Psychology - Human Perception and Performance, Vol 27. No.4
 
About the author: Chief Ronald Richards has over 28 years of fire service experience, both career and volunteer. He rose through the ranks in the Forest City Fire Department, in Forest City, PA and became Fire Chief in 1995 holding that position through 2000 when he retired. He currently serves as the Chief for Training and Safety for Browndale Fire Company in Wayne County, PA. Chief Richards has over 24 years of service with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, having served as a Fire Marshal with the Department of Public Welfare, a Fire and Safety Specialist with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Currently, he is a Superintendent Assistant within the PA Department of Corrections, responsible for media relations, litigation coordination, accreditation, and the writing of policies and procedures. Chief Richards graduated from the State University of New York with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Service Administration.  Richards is a PA State Fire Instructor and an instructor with Command School.  He is the founder of WithThecommand.com. 

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