The Shine Factor

 This is part 2 of a 3 part series on “The Shine Factor”

Part 1 of this series can be found here – The Shine Factor

Part 2 of this series can be found here – What Makes a Great Ambulance Service

Part 3 of this series can be found here – The Shine Factor – Grunts


You know what I’m talking about here. The distinctly subtle, but powerful mix of sights, smells, and sensory input you find when walking into the apparatus bay of your station. The faint smell of diesel exhaust mixing with rubber tires, the musty smell of damp hose drying on the rack, the smells of not-so-clean turnout gear (best right after a good fire), and all of the various cleaning products used to keep the trucks looking their best. My favorite is when I’m just walking in the station for start-of-shift. It’s about 6am and the guys before haven’t gotten up yet to turn on the lights in the bay or make noise. One of my favorite things to do is to walk around the bay with the lights off, with the sun just starting to glint in from the windows onto the dark floors. It’s quiet. I love the first sunlight making deep reflections off of the shiny paint and gleaming chrome. The trucks just seem to be anticipating the day, yearning for the next call to come in. The atmosphere is electric, and quite palpable. You could blindfold me and take me into any fire station in the country and I could identify it just by smell alone. It’s intoxicating. I think that I like it more than my fiance’s perfume. It’s ok, she’s a firefighter too. She gets it.

So, what I’m about to suggest here plays off of that knowledge that we’ve all got… It’s basically an EKG hooked right up to the morale of your organization. I call it the “Shine Factor”.

Fancy name, huh? Yea, I liked it too. I’d recommend that every person who works in any fire station or ambulance base walks into the apparatus bay every time they start their shift. Don’t go in through any other door. Walk right into the apparatus bay with the memory of the favorite time you’ve ever been there. Take a big whiff of the natural aroma and look to see how much your trucks shine. Check the corners for cobwebs too. Then, simply file the information away in your brain and know exactly how the morale of the troops is doing.

Why is this so simple, yet so powerful, and a lot of the time, so unnoticeable? It’s because every organization has grunts, and the grunts carry out the day-to-day operations of your organization. No matter how many policies are written, budgets are adhered to, or strategic plans are championed by administration, the grunts are out there actually performing the duties that make your organization do what it does. If your department is like every department in the country, the grunts have more tasks than just providing service to the public; they’re responsible for cleaning, maintenance, and upkeep of your equipment. The lower and more “gruntish” they are within the organization, the more responsible for the upkeep they are. This is where the Shine Factor comes into play. Every group has assigned or assumed maintenance and cleaning tasks. Administration can formalize it with all of the written plans, paperwork, and task sheets that they want to, but all those pieces of paper ever do is ensure that the tasks are done to the minimally acceptable level. They cannot and will not make the grunts put in the elbow grease required to get that extra shine out of the equipment. My theory is that only happiness and pride in the organization entice the grunts to go above and beyond, to put the extra few swipes with the rag onto the chrome to really bring the shine out. Think about it, when you complete a task and get it looking good enough to pass muster, you could stop… but if you really have the pride and desire to make the equipment look it’s best, you’re going to go get the magic cleaner in the storeroom and clean out the crust around the lug nuts to make it look perfect, to reflect the personal pride you have in the organization and your fellow grunts.

Do you think that the grunts will spend those extra few seconds, minutes (or in my case, hours.. but I’m obsessive) to make that floor it’s cleanest, or that chrome it’s shiniest if they’re ticked off about management’s latest asinine policy or off the cuff directive? I don’t. It’s human nature. It works on a subconscious level across all of the grunts you have who polish your stuff. If the morale of your department is in the tank, your stuff may be cleaned regularly because the grunts will be sanctioned if they don’t clean off the first layer of crud… but that’s usually where it stops. When morale goes down, the shine factor goes down. When morale goes up and people are uplifted, pride goes up and the grunts put forth the extra effort. It affects more than their performance at the station too, it affects how polite they are to the public, how clean and pressed their uniforms and presentation are reflecting your public image, it affects how much personal effort they put into training, and it may very well affect patient and emergency scene outcomes too. You can regulate all that you want, but the beatings never improve morale. The only things that can do that is respecting your grunts and treating them like adults.

I haven’t formally named it, but I think that new officers and/or managers in the EMS and Fire industry who were promoted from the troops arrive to their new posts with a predetermined agenda. I don’t think that they can help it. Usually, it’s from the mistakes they’ve seen their coworkers make on the streets around them and builds especially upon their own pet peeves. They arrive to their managerial desk wanting to “fix” things and usually the result is a lot of new policy objectives and memos. They know who, at least subconsciously, they want to get back at for the aggravation that they’ve caused them over the years and think that the rest of the organization will share their personal pet peeve. Unfortunately, these attempts to “fix” things usually do just the opposite. The new managers with their personal objectives take things to the extreme. They fail to respect that the people who committed the offenses against the manager’s pet peeves are concerned adults that may have very different pet peeves, and they fail to recognize that every single employee’s pet peeve is micromanagement.

To some managers, paper seems to solve everything. If your ambulance turn-around times are too long in your opinion, you create a paper system to fix it complete with a memo and/or a new policy. The crews fill it out, and it’s supposed to make the management and crews aware of the time it takes them and it’s supposed to fix the problem. Got dirty floors in the trucks? Make a “clean floor” policy with a tracking sheet. Got a crew who uses too much gauze? Make a “Gauze Utilization” flowchart with a tracking sheet. Does your station go through too much toilet paper? You see what I mean. While all management wants to create measurable objectives, all employees hate being micromanaged.

Shortly after I got my first management position my boss, the COO, related to me a story about what he did one day when he found a truck that had been left absolutely filthy by a crew after their shift. Apparently this crew hadn’t been running more than usual that day, and had just left the ambulance filthy. Now, what he could have done, being the COO and all, is write an edict to be handed down through the chain-of-command to have the crew reprimanded from on high about the clean truck policy and the proper utilization of cleaning materials. He could have written a memorandum, or even a shiny new “Clean Truck” policy to enforce the rules. There could have been reams of paper and managerial-type fire power brought down on these guys. But that’s not what he did.

When the crew who had left the truck that dirty came back in for their day shift the next morning the COO met them at the door and lead them to their ambulance. At their ambulance they found a whole host of cleaning supplies… and two chairs. The COO then proceeded to have the medics sit in the chairs while he cleaned their entire ambulance, inside and out, from top to bottom.

Unorthodox? Sure.. Effective? Yes. The problem had been attended to, the desire for a clean
truck was reinforced, and the crews saw just how badly the COO wanted the trucks to be cleaned. Now maybe that’s not something that would work at your department, but it sure seemed to at this ambulance service. Maybe your shine factor would be increased if the grunts got the chance to work with the brass on solving problems like this. Maybe myriad policies aren’t the answer, and teamwork and mutual respect are the answer. Maybe communication increases it. Maybe the full realization by everyone within the organization that everyone has their roles and everyone has to be given the tools to take responsibility for what they own increases it.

Until now, this piece has focused on management, but us grunts can benefit from increased shine factor as well. Right now, you need to decide that you’re going to put in the effort to increase the shine factor in your department. Remember, it’s a subconscious thing. Everyone just feels better when it looks like people are taking pride in the department. Everyone from your partner, the guys, the brass, the public… even you. If the grunts make the effort, it can benefit the shine factor too and maybe the other stuff will come along with it. Positive attitudes breed positive results. It sounds corny, but someone’s gotta make the decision to be the positive change in the organization. Even in a perfect situation, if there even is one, someone’s gotta keep making the decision to keep it that way. Let that be you and others will follow suit.

Now get out there and polish some chrome.


 This is part 2 of a 3 part series on “The Shine Factor”

Part 1 of this series can be found here – The Shine Factor

Part 2 of this series can be found here – What Makes a Great Ambulance Service

Part 3 of this series can be found here – The Shine Factor – Grunts

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Chris Kaiser aka "Ckemtp"

I am a paramedic trying to advance the idea that the Emergency Medical Services can be made into the profession that we all want it, need it, and know it deserves to be.

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