As chief officers, when was the last time you went to the engine or the truck and looked at the equipment and power tools on them — the Jaws of Life, the hydraulic spreaders, the generators, the chainsaws?

These tools assist our personnel in saving the lives of others, and they are invaluable. But they are also dangerous, precisely because they are so powerful. As such, your firefighters employ them cautiously and with great thought before using.

They follow department policy, inspecting this equipment frequently to ensure it's in good working order. They wear the appropriate protective equipment and bring protective coverings to shield the patients from sparks or flying metal or glass shards that are often a byproduct of using these tools.

Have you ever considered that your words are like a power tool? Unfortunately, we don't always employ them cautiously and with great thought before using. We sometimes feel "entitled" to use our words recklessly. And occasionally, our position overwhelms us, and we lose some of our composure.

We generally swing or cut away with our words without thinking. We don't necessarily take steps to shield those around us from the powerful effects of our statements. All of a sudden we look around, and all we've got is a pile of "relationship rubble" with those we work and live with.

When you thoughtlessly sling your words around and tear people down, your relationships are going to suffer.

One of the reasons we're not always constructive with our words is we don't realize how powerful these tools are — the words God has given to us. We say things without thinking.

And people remember them. Certain things people said to you in a careless way — even as far back as grade school or college or when you first started working — you still remember today. That's how powerful words are. So when it comes to words, you've got to think of them as a power tool and be careful.

We are experts at using the powerful tools and equipment on our rigs because we train regularly with them until using them is almost automatic. We recognize that such complex equipment requires mastery, especially when we're working around vulnerable patients, so we repeatedly drill to get a feel for the equipment and how to control it.

But do you train yourself to use your words, to control them?

User manuals and department policies direct us on how to properly use our power tools. Although such documents can be complex, quite often good tool use comes down to some basic steps — steps that can also apply to our words:

  1. Know your power tool.
  2. Keep guards in place.
  3. Use caution around other people.
  4. Store idle tools when not in use.
  5. Don't overreach.
  6. Never use in an explosive atmosphere.

In addition to these universal steps, how can you use your words more carefully so you are using them to build relationships and your organization and not using them to tear people down? I suggest making a "personal policy" that will govern how you use words, and encourage you to apply the necessary caution.

Such a policy might look something like this:

  1. Stop making excuses. Stop saying, "I didn't really mean to say that. I'm having a bad day," "I was just kidding" or "It's just that blood sugar dip before lunch." Realize that what you say impacts everybody around you.
  2. Talk less. We often get in trouble because we just don't know when to shut up. If it's a power tool, you shouldn't have to use it much, right?
  3. Listen more. If you listen more, you can better understand people's needs.
  4. Start building. Let your first thoughts be, "What does that person need? How can I use a word of encouragement to build him up? What can I say to make a difference in his life?"

Regardless of rank, we can all create a personal policy that governs our speech. Those in leadership positions have an added duty: to ensure the policies of the department also reflect the need for speech to be cautious, respectful and reasoned.

Such policies should forbid harassing or bullying as well as obscene or uncivil language. But they should go a step further, too, calling on members to be courteous, tactful and patient in their interactions with one another and with the public, and to avoid arguing with those we serve.