A recent event involving my chief officers surprised me. Yet at the same time, it didn’t. I’ve been in this profession for 33 years and have served in a management capacity for about 30 of those years. So when confidential information was leaked from a meeting I had with my chief officers less than eight hours later—and after I specifically told everyone not to say anything until the information was presented to the fire chief for approval—I wasn’t shocked. Here’s what happened.
I called a planning meeting with my six chief officers to discuss reorganizing the base locations for a few of our ambulances. Memphis has 56 fire stations, and 33 ambulances are based in those stations. Over the years, as additional ambulances were added, no real plan was ever developed regarding where they were deployed or based.
With the planned additions of a 34th, and possibly a 35th ambulance this fiscal year (beginning July 1), I saw an excellent opportunity to strategically examine where existing ambulances were based and where new ones should be placed.
I decided to seek input from my one EMS division chief and five EMS battalion chiefs. I feel it’s important to create opportunities for ownership and tap into the minds of someone who may have a better idea than I have.
Armed with maps and data, we closed the door to the conference room and set out to develop a plan that my division chief and I would present to the fire chief four days later for his approval, disapproval or modification.
For hours, we poured over two maps, one showing existing locations of ambulances with 1.5 mile radius circles and the other with two mile radius circles. We examined where the current 56 fire stations are located and scrutinized the run numbers for each ambulance, ALS and BLS engine and truck company and their unit-hour utilization figures. We studied other information relevant to the optimal place to locate ambulances for the best response times and redistribute the work load of the busier ambulances.
By the end of the meeting, I was satisfied that we had come up with a workable plan, and we had reached consensus. Twice, at the end of the meeting, I told all six chief officers not to say anything to anyone until the fire chief had a chance to review the proposal.
I’m not secretive. I freely share information with personnel, regardless of their title or rank. I won’t disclose personnel information for obvious reasons, but I feel it’s important to share any other information to avoid rumors and gossip. Employees need to hear accurate information from decision-makers. In the absence of correct information, employees will usually fill in the gaps, which fuels gossip and rumors.
Everyone left the meeting acknowledging that they wouldn’t share the information. But within eight hours, my Facebook chat box opened up with a message from a firefighter/paramedic trying to verify the rumor that a new ambulance was going to be based at a certain fire station.
I was flabbergasted.
The person’s information was so accurate that it was obvious one of my chief officers had left the meeting and talked, or left their notes where someone could see them.
I copied the chat box and pasted it into an e-mail message to all my chief officers with the subject line, “That didn’t take long!” I expressed my displeasure that someone who was in the room had let information get out prior to the fire chief seeing it.
Over the next few days, questions and rumors reached me about ambulance moves, which also turned out to be accurate. I sent another e-mail to all my chief officers with a subject line reading, “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” and again voiced my displeasure.
I also indicated in the e-mail that a knee-jerk reaction would be to shut out all the chiefs from this type of information in the future, but I indicated I felt this would be wrong and create division within the chief officer ranks and upper administration. I asked them to remain professional and worthy of their titles and collar insignia.
This whole event caused me to pause and ask myself how I could prevent staff from leaking confidential information in the future. I realized there’s probably nothing I can do without causing complete alienation and discourse between my chief officers and me.
Confidentiality is a matter of the way we do business, especially with HIPAA laws, and violations can be seen in the news every day. So I still say trusting your subordinates is the best course of action until they give you reason not to. JEMS
This article originally appeared in June 2011 JEMS as “Can Your Staff Keep a Secret? Leaking information.”