Multifunctional employees

In the current economic climate, there is increasing pressure upon government to find ways to tighten their belt. A favorite target is public safety, which has been portrayed in the media as having a lot of free time. Since convincing elected officials that much of that so-called free time is often taken up in ongoing training and other activities (Who does maintenance and janitorial tasks at a firehouse? The firefighters.) is an uphill battle, public safety is often cut, risking not only the safety of the citizens, but also increasing their direct costs by changing their insurance premiums due to a change in ISO rating (http://www.isomitigation.com/ppc/0000/ppc0001.html). Another tactic is to invest in the creation of multifunctional personnel. This tactic isn’t new. Many public safety agencies have taken on multiple duties over time.

The most classic example if this phenomenon is still taking place and has been very painful for both the fire and EMS agencies, as they are combined over the protests of many of their members. Yet that particular blending results in a reasonably good fit. Other than each task reducing the availability of the rescuer for the other, there is little conflict. On the other hand, there have been some agencies that have tried to combine the duties of police officers and EMS personnel. Because of the basic conflicts between the instincts needed by a good cop and a good EMT, those experiments have ususally resulted in abject failure. Mexico is currently using a risky tactic that works well in the short term, but has undesireable consequences in the long term. They are using their army to reinforce their police and reduce corruption in certain key cities. The benefit here is that the army has the manpower and lacks the corruption of the police force. The hazard is that it is an easy step from martial law to tyranny.

I can’t say that multifunctionalism is always a bad move. When it works, it can save a government a lot of money, but even when it’s at its best, the more different tasks an employee is required to be competent in, the less expert they will tend to be in each, due to limitations on practice opportunities. This means that effectiveness will drop. The trick is to find the balance of duties that results in the best outcome for the community.

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Profile Photo Scott Horvath

Doing more with less is a poor approach to business for many organizations. It sends the message to employees and clients that we care more about you pounding out lots of products while sacrificing quality. There’s nothing worse then putting out quantity over quality. When people are multitasked, or have to perform more than one job (cross training), it can be effective in the short term…but in the long term it will ultimately cost more in quality, cost, and care.

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Profile Photo Charlene Sevier

Anne, in my organization people are trying to cover multiple areas because of vacancies. It seems to work well with the more basic tasks of a position but the learning curve presented by the more complex work is difficult to overcome. I think it can work for short time frames, but becomes very difficult over the long haul. After all, people put in years of education and experience to work at a certain level in their given field.

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Profile Photo Anne Guglik

Unfortunately, with public safety, the result of lost training and effectiveness is people being injured and killed. The number of firefighters killed each year plateaued years ago (with the exception of 2001) despite the number of fires continuing to drop, for various reasons, including more dangerous (for firefighters) construction practices, less ongoing experience, and more diverse responsibilities.

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Profile Photo Denise Hill

Anne, …am going to concur with the previous comments. Multitasking for the purposes of supporting the primary duty (maintenance and janitorial tasks at a firehouse are very important task that support the primary duty) is both important and necessary. It also contributes to curtailing cost. One can stop those functions in favor of the primary duty.

Cross training is a great. It provides a secondary set of skills, a different level of appreciation for the others work, a backup career plan, and many other benefits. However, Multifunction – doing more with less – in this case would require a whole new set of protocols for when to perform EMS vs. Firefighter duties that does add risk for public safety staff and the public. Who would make the determination on which duty to perform if both are required at a site? How would the public recognize the presence of staff serving in dual roles? Looks like increased cost for a new uniform for identification purposed and a communications plan to inform the public about the change in service.

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Profile Photo Anne Guglik

Actually, as I mentioned earlier, EMS seems to do reasonably well as a companion to firefighting, despite the kicking and screaming that goes on when traditional firefighters are asked to add it to their repetoire. Only at the highest levels of function do we see any degredation of the ability to excel. There is little conflict between the two duties, as long as staffing is adequate at incidents where both functions are needed. With policing, on the other hand, there are conflicts between the duties entailed by the two jobs, resulting in danger to the officer. The difficulty for the fire service begins when people are involved in other specialties that require a lot of constant training, such as technical rescue. It becomes impossible to maintain a high level of skill in ALL of the tasks involved. For a department that has a dedicated hazardous materials team, for instance, this isn’t a problem. A firefighter can maintain high levels of skill in HazMat response and EMS (even specializing their EMS skills in response to chemical incidents), while allowing firefighting skills to assume a secondary importance. On the other hand, only the largest departments have the luxury of having a dedicated team.

House duties are actually an important part of firehouse life, and one that is easily lost. If properly maintained, traditions regarding meals and clean-up can be used to increase cameraderie and teamwork, an important factor in a smoothly functioning company.

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