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Hotwashes and Personal Growth Potential

Through all of my four decades of working in emergency services, I have noticed that one principle of one discipline has a direct correlation on another discipline. After a few hurricanes, flooding events, add a winter storm and throw in a liquid tank farm explosion for good measure, you learn a few things about emergency management, life and supervision. Now add up all of the young officers under your supervision, field training recruits and academy recruits during this time span; these will add equal amounts of career disasters to manage as well. Some disasters are naturally occurring; others man-made and some personal ones are self-inflicted. If you are a supervisor of any rank from FTO to chief, you have got to learn to manage these career crossroads of your personnel as well.

After Action Plans for Careers

One thing that totally amazes me is the total lack of focus of some younger officers when it comes to career planning. Most are happy to get the job and in today’s economy, any job for that matter! One of the biggest issues that continues to perplex me is one key position that law enforcement does not have but every high school does, a guidance counselor. Even when I was in the US Army we had career counselors who were the Re-Up Sergeants in masquerade, but they gave you answers if you wanted to stay in and pursue a career. Most good first-line supervisors perform this feat as a collateral duty. Some excel at this, some struggle and others pass it off to somebody else who may be more adept. Still, do we do this all the time in Policeland? The answer is no. When I was assigned to the academy and training unit it seemed that I was the departmental career counselor. I sometimes felt like the cartoon character that the psychiatrist was in and advice in my case was for free. 

Most of the time a young officer comes in to meet with their supervisor about an ‘issue’ that is often not the real core of the major issue. If this happens post incident, supervisors pay attention and capitalize on this and now!  In the emergency management world we use the term “hotwash” for post disaster debriefings. What may be a career bump in the sergeant’s eyes could be a looming disaster for the officer. For my young supervisors here, not all of your staff will react to life’s challenges as you would have. How some handle a career counseling or even a simple verbal reprimand could be conceived as the end of the world by others. Never miss an opportunity to sit down and discuss lessons learned from life’s training moments. 

Of course if the officer gives reasons why the rest of the world is wrong and he/she is correct then we now have a problem identification issue. Their transfer of accountability towards others makes it bad for their growth potential. I have often said I do not want excuses but results. What the most important point here is to turn every one of life’s mistakes into a learning experience. Why is it so important to ‘debrief’ this officer so rapidly? If this is not a major discipline investigation or internal affairs process (which both have protocols and timelines), deal with the problem now. My mentor chief Dave Gellatly always said “to deal with little problems today before they become bigger problems tomorrow” (sic).

The reason for this is that if a behavior is not broached today, you are validating the behavior by no intervention. It is important to explain why all behavior has good and bad ramifications and long term issues with these. It amazes me that we don’t mince words when it comes to unsafe acts or unsound tactics. However work behaviors (on and off duty) that can have career ending probabilities are often avoided. The issue is too sticky or you hope someone else addresses it. This is not a counseling statement but could be only a ‘how are things going’ conversation over coffee. When you became a supervisor the rose colored glasses that you thought you’d be peering through do not have selective vision. Often some will say that you may have validated an act through your omission to intervene. I am not trying to be a lawsuit is coming monger but here is the question that beckons. Having had to respond to officer suicides, officers arrested and too many press conferences to deal with a personnel tragedy, I remind you of this. Time after time, I have listened to front line supervisors state they should have done something back when they first noticed this or that. Now, my goal here is to prevent this tragedy and for supervisors to quit beating themselves up. It is our job to maximize our staffs’ potential and career growth. It is also our mission to minimize mistakes and injuries. To me, an officer losing their job over something that could have been corrected in the past is often a major loss. We have lost their knowledge, skills and abilities, the vast amount of money to train, equip and deploy them. It also takes a toll on the remaining staff, you lose focus and energy.

In emergency management we are taught to do ‘sit-reps’ or situational reports on the evolving situation. Now your department may do yearly employee evaluations. I think that is too, long of a time. There is nothing wrong with monthly, bi-monthly sit downs with your staff and keeping them on the compass reading to success. I do not like these yearly ones, reminds me of Santa Claus coming and even I slipped a few past the jolly old elf a few times.

What is your personal sit-rep?  To all supervisors, commanders and those who are the future’s command staff, I remind you that it is not your departmental achievements that you are measured by. It is how your staff excels under pressure and handles business. A good commander is the example for their staff, you do not excel if they don’t excel. Let’s maximize our greatest asset, which is our staff.


About The Author:

William L. "Bill" Harvey is a native Virginian. He served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Military Police Corps. He has a BA in criminology from St. Leo University and is a graduate of the Southern Police Institute of the University of Louisville (103rd AOC). Harvey served for over 23 years with the Savannah (GA) Police Department. He served in field operations, investigations and support services, and completed his career there as the director of training. He has published several articles in professional periodicals and has lectured nationwide. He is serving as a chief of police in central Pennsylvania area; a duty he’s performed for the past nine years. He is on the advisory board of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association and other professional associations.