We Try Harder

SC-TF1 Demobilizing From Chalmette, LA after Hurricane Katrina, 2005.

I had the opportunity to be part of a test rehearsal for a web conference going on Friday. In one of the questions, we were asked, “If you had to give your department a grade, what would it be?” I was the only one who gave my department an “A”. Of course, when you see that you have made a choice like that, you immediately begin to second-guess yourself.

I was pretty self-conscious about that decision, even though nobody knew who answered each question and nobody would have known it was me that graded us so. I actually thought about it long afterward, in an attempt to understand in my absolute certainty with 10 seconds on the clock, that we deserved the highest mark on a standard grade. It was, frankly, a little presumptuous of me.

The quick answer is that we don’t deserve an “A”. We are definitely customer oriented and we are definitely aggressive firefighters who use best practices and manage our risk appropriately. We are definitely on the leading edge of EMS delivery and while we are not THE organization by which all should be measured, many would be doing pretty well to do so.

But while we are definitely making huge strides and we have many accomplishments, we aren’t where we feel we should be. That is universally agreed upon in our organization. There is just too much to do, and while we are hitting the high priority items, there are so many things we want to do, and have begun doing, but there are only 24 hours in a day and finite resources otherwise at our disposal.

It is for the same reason, perhaps, that I should instead embrace the criticism of some in the knowledge that the minute we stop reassessing our service we become complacent. Don’t believe for a second that I don’t take the criticism personally, because although I shouldn’t, I do. Just as you know all the idiosyncrasies of your own children, you’d never stand for anyone else criticizing them. And, after 29 years of being part of the core individuals who pushed, pulled and shaped what is now known as our department, I have very little patience for the particular individuals who have come along since with a lot of criticism and no substantive contributions. My personal take on it, in fact, is that we have a list of people who would be happy to take their jobs.

Our line of reasoning, however, should be to embrace the constructive criticism that can be drawn from some of the comments. We should always perform self-critique, but self-critique is not self-immolation. We should always be pulling lessons from where we are and where we want to be, and the reason why we aren’t where we want to be. But this isn’t an effort to tell us what a bad job we are doing, but ways in which we need to improve.

The minute we begin to believe we are Number One in the county, the state, the region, or the nation, and we begin to believe we are “The Best”, we (all of us) tend to believe we can’t learn from others or from ourselves. It also demeans the rest of those who do an excellent job providing service with the resources they have in the community they must serve. Of all things, though, it’s pretty presumptuous again to suggest that we are the best at anything other than delivering the emergency services on Hilton Head Island, because really, that’s all that matters.

My own personal vision for our organization is to be one of those departments that others hold up to say, “This is the gold standard. This is how we want to be”. We continue to make leaps in that direction. We are, though, our own worst critics. We need to always be looking out for better ways to improve. Daily, we must try harder.

The effort must be placed on continual improvement. “Zero defects” is a pretty lofty goal, but in our business, zero defects may be the difference between life and death, between going home in the morning or going home in the hosebed of the rig under a pair of crossed aerials.

Never get complacent. Never believe you are the best, at least not for longer than it takes to get to the desired result, then to take a breath, look around, and say, “Where to from here?” The moment we stop, we die. We should always resolve to do better each time we are presented with a new challenge and to dig out whatever lessons we can observe from our current situation. There is no time to dwell on it, though. Digest it, make the adjustment, and move on.

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