By: FD Hacks
Are you a volunteer fire department that has to conduct monthly business? A career union preparing for labor negations? A new apparatus committee that has to design and acquire a new fire truck? No matter what the topic, meetings are an important way to conduct business, especially as our administrative responsibilities expand. However, time, both our own and our colleagues, is a required input for meetings. Increasingly scarce, it is important time is not wasted. As Leslie Perlow put it in her article in the Harvard Business Review, “Time is zero-sum. Every minute spent in a wasteful meeting eats into time for solo work that’s equally essential.” Banning meetings from your department is not an option, as tempting as that may sound. Collaboration is critical in our team-oriented environment. Let’s review what you can do to maximize your fellow firefighters’ time in department meetings.
Why Have An Agenda
Unplanned or poorly run meetings have consequences. According to Leslie Perlow in the same Harvard Business Review article, 71% of senior managers responded that meetings are unproductive and inefficient. In addition to wasting time, poorly run meetings reduce team morale and innovation. Agendas can fix these problems by providing structure and organization to your meeting. Good agendas produce specific deliverables for the designated time period. If you’re running the meeting, creating an agenda is a helpful thought-exercise to plan the discussion and identify what you want to accomplish. Distribute your agenda in advance and your committee members/attendees can prepare for the discussion as well (and plan to attend), producing better dialogue and maximizing their time.
Specific to emergency services, agendas are a great tool to provide historical information and to document activities. If you’re meeting regularly with other departments in your Town, such as Public Works and Police to plan for a certain hazard, the agendas for those meetings will capture that historical data to be referenced later, if needed. When applying for grant funding or federal reimbursement, documentation of activities and stakeholder engagement is useful. We’ve been able to submit agendas as part of documentation packages to FEMA or other agencies as evidence of critical planning activities.
What Is An Agenda?
There are different agenda formats, but in its most basic form, an agenda is a list of meeting activities in the order in which they are to be taken up, beginning with the call to order (start of a meeting) and ending with adjournment (end of the meeting). Agendas usually include specific items to be acted upon by the group assembled to meet. When conducting official business, most governments follow a specific parliamentary procedure, a set of rules for conduct at meetings that allow everyone to be heard and make decisions. The most common set of rules is Robert’s Rules of Order. I would highly recommend the Robert’s Rules of Order for Dummies book if you frequently run meetings. A chief officer provided me a copy about 10 years ago and it has served me well since (I still refer to it today when questions arise about meeting conduct). The Citizens’ Committee for New York City has put together a useful Introduction to Robert's Rules of Order, which includes the standard agenda layout. (Official public meetings may require a specific format and you should check with you Town leadership for clarity).
My fire department holds a business meeting once per month. Since we’re conducting official business at this meeting, we use Robert’s Rules and our agenda generally follows:
Call to order
Roll call of members present
Review and approval of minutes from last meeting
Officer’s reports (starting with Chief, ending with Lieutenant - list out in subullets)
Committee reports (standing committees first, then temporary committees - list subullets)
Old/Unfinished business (list items on agenda here as sub bullets)
New business (list specific items here as sub bullets)
Announcements and reading of correspondence
Second Roll Call (members get attendance credit, so it’s important)
Motion to Adjourn
Let’s be clear - you do not need to follow Robert’s Rules of Order for every single meeting you ever hold. That’s daunting and ineffective. There are many administrative and business duties in the fire service that require us to meet internally and would benefit from a more simple agenda. Adjust the level of formality based on the audience or group your meeting with. An apparatus committee holding meetings every two weeks will benefit from a well-planned meeting, but will be bogged down by too much formality amongst colleagues if you use the exact agenda above and require a “second” for every decision. So, how do you create an effective agenda for regular fire service meetings?
How Do I Create an Effective Agenda for the Fire Service?
As mentioned in the previous section, agendas can range from a variety of formats and formalities. They range from being scratched down on a notepad for a quick conversation to the full blown Robert’s Rules of Order for official business. We’re not going to talk about Robert’s Rules agendas anymore. There is much literature on the web about Robert’s Rules and you should develop a strong understanding if you’re conducting official organizational business.
For the committee meeting, workgroup, or shift briefing, here are some thought exercises to get you started:
Does everyone meeting know each other and their roles/responsibilities?
Does everyone attending know the purpose of the meeting?
What background information do you need to provide? What updates need to be provided to the group to ensure they are acting upon most recent information?
What are the specific action items that need to be accomplished at this meeting?
Who is going to accomplish each task?
What are the next steps and next meeting?
I find this to be a useful flow of information to develop my agendas and run meetings effectively. If for question 1, there are only a few group members that don’t know one another, it’s worthwhile to hold introductions. It gets everyone in the group talking and all will feel comfortable know roles of each colleague.
Here is an example from an initial pre-planning meeting with the staff at Town Hall:
Welcome and introductions
Purpose of pre-planning meetings
Background Information (current situation)
Review of current emergency plans by department (round-table discussion)
Next steps and timeline
Tip: Firefighters are go-getters, so there are many instances where we take lead and facilitate a meeting with other stakeholders, but aren’t necessarily the ones who should be doing all of the work. Use the agenda to your advantage in these situations. Put the names of the individuals you expect to speak next to specific agenda items, such as a certain task under “next steps” or next to an update. Distribute the agenda in advance of the meeting. This will signal to everyone in the group who should be prepared to discuss that topic and will better assign responsibility for certain tasks and topics.
Do I Always Need An Agenda?
The simple answer – yes. That said, it is up to you to determine the level of formality and structure appropriate for the task at hand and meeting audience. There may be legal requirements for a public meeting that require official agendas. Your fire department may require certain agendas for business meetings. But to run an efficient and effective meeting for all of the other business you conduct at your fire department, you should have some type of agenda. It’s important to sit down and do some thought-work in advance of meeting with the group to determine what you want to get out of the meeting.
As the administrative responsibilities of the fire service continue to grow, it is critical we are capable of effectively and efficiently conducting business. Time demands on firefighters are at an all time high, so every moment is valuable. Our collaborative environment requires we work together, so meetings will be necessary. Don’t be the person that holds the meeting everyone dreads. Plan it out ahead of time with an agenda.
What do you think? Do you have any of your own tips for agendas in the fire service? Do you use agendas to run meetings?