The sea-port area of Amsterdam ranks fourth in terms of economic significance in north-western Europe. Cruise shipping, tank storage, waste recycling, Seveso industry and renewable energy are just a few economic hotspots. Stakeholders in the area have chosen to upgrade safety and operational capabilities for emergency response, and to do that together in a new and independent joint venture: the Unified Industrial Fire and Rescue Service (in Dutch: Gezamenlijke Brandweer Amsterdam, GBA).
The GBA is a special organisation in multiple respects. At its foundation lies a unique public-private partnership agreement between the Amsterdam-Amstelland Safety Authority, the Port of Amsterdam and a cooperative platform of companies. They are connected to the venture for which the GBA will act as a collective industrial fire service. Aside from this unique public-private governance model, the team also differentiates itself in one other important aspect from ‘regular’ firefighting organisations: it is a firefighting team without management. It is an autonomous and self-steering team without manager and staff, directly linked to the board of directors; in this article you can read how all partners in the GBA have managed to achieve this.
Without a doubt it can be called a masterpiece. In a year’s time, the initiators of the GBA have managed to prepare a complete firefighting organisation with fire station, vehicles and equipment, gear, PPE and properly educated and trained personnel. The successful start on 1 April 2020, and the proven added value of this team is to the great merit of the 22 incident responders and their six team leaders, who have managed to raise up their organisation mostly by themselves. In the construction and start-up phases, they were supported by a project group and an external interim manager, but after a year she is letting go of the young firefighting organisation, with the confidence that team leaders and crew can run their ‘firefighting company’ independently.
Right from the early stages of the design phase, the collaborative partners knew that the GBA would not be a ‘regular’ firefighting organisation. The purpose was an ‘experimental’ firefighting organisation with broad visibility in the service area, a simple organisational structure, a 24/7 occupation according to a 9/15 schedule and a client-focused, enterprising culture. A wide-ranging staff was not part of the organisational plan, in order to make the most use of the talents of the employees and have them maximally involved with the control and management tasks, such as setting up building and materials management, planning, administration, finances, ICT, professional competence and logistics; and arranging the maintenance of contacts with companies and high-risk industry, the Regional Safety Authority and the Port of Amsterdam. The GBA executes these tasks fully independently and working together as a team.
Just as experimental is the shift schedule that the GBA works with, and which is also filled out by the members of the team itself. In contrast to most professional fire services of the government, which operate according to a classic 24-hour roster, the GBA wanted to try an alternative shift schedule. One of the focal points for the new firefighting organisation was making maximal use of the workable hours, in order to deploy personnel capacity efficiently and be able to spend as much time (and out of office hours) as possible on providing services for the member organisations of the GBA. In order to realise that goal, the organisation works with two shifts per 24 hours: one shift of 9 hours (07:00–16:00) and one shift of 15 hours (16:00–07:00). The daytime shift has two four-hour workable time periods, the night-time shift has six workable hours to spend aside from resting time. The schedule does not differentiate between week and weekend days, so a full week has 21 workable time periods.
While regular firefighting organisations (outside deployments for fires and incident) mostly work with two time periods of four hours for supportive work, the GBA thus has over three time periods available. This makes it possible to control operational continuity tasks within the team, without limiting the productivity and the visibility in the area. Employees of the GBA are well aware of the fact that they offer added value in their service provision to their clients due to this maximal use of workable hours. Relatively many hours can be spent on issues like planning, area and company orientation, joint practice and training, evaluation and other possible tasks for the ‘clients’. In the team, account managers feel responsible for servicing and ‘recruiting’ member companies. Within the first year, 15 companies have signed up to be a member of the GBA. Depending on the ‘cost-module’ that these companies choose, the GBA expends a certain amount of preparative effort in order to be best prepared for various incident scenarios. Different partners such as commercial managers of the Port of Amsterdam, inspectors from the environmental agency, colleagues from the Amsterdam fire service, the Regional Police and Harbour Customs have visited the new station (the Safety Center) at the Galwin to get further acquainted and make additional collaborative agreements. In short, the power of the GBA isn’t in passively waiting at the fire station for a deployment but can instead be found in an active relationship with the government and businesses, and in maximal serviceability towards these clients. All in all, this only benefits the safety and business continuity in the Amsterdam Port Area.
Learning by doing
Realising an entirely new, autonomous firefighting organisation isn’t an easy job. It is a process of puzzling, experimenting, stumbling, getting back up and learning. There is no blueprint for such an organisational model, which is also an international unicum in the world of firefighting. So learning by doing and sharing responsibility are the mottos. That starts with attracting the right talent: good fire team leaders in the field but also professional specialists with a pioneering mentality and various skills in the field of operational management and entrepreneurship and, above all, people with guts and a rock-solid drive, who can connect and enthuse and who are stronger together than the sum of their parts. Six team leaders with varying backgrounds from the maritime world, real estate, the chemical industry, inspection services and industrial firefighting form the core of the team together with the interim manager. The gigantic joint challenge to set up a specially trained, fully equipped and laid-out company in just six months has no doubt contributed to the necessity for mutual trust and the eventual collaboration! Together 10 functional domains were chosen, for which team leaders and responders took responsibility. Domains like housing management, professional competence, business continuity, preplanning and relationship maintenance with the board of the GBA, formed by the three clients of the public-private partnership. None of the intended team leaders had any experience with building up an organisation or autonomy without management. But there was no shortage of motivation, as gathered from the inspiring quote from Pipi Langkous made by one of them: ‘I have never done this before, so I think I’ll do just fine!.’
This group of pioneers started in October 2019 with implementing their organisation, pending the completion of the fire station in Westpoort, which was then still under construction. Moreover, they faced the task of selecting a group of 22 incident responders from a group of more than 70 applicants in just two months – an ambitious task in order to start on 1 December with the industrial incident management training, the specialty of the team-to-be. That selection procedure provided a diverse mix of 22 men and women incident responders, who have worked at private companies and fire services in eight safety regions. Each and every one brought a wealth of knowledge and experience in the field of firefighting but also in the fields of planning, entrepreneurship, finances, technology and engineering, business operations, preparation and other fields of expertise that are useful when facing this ‘GBA adventure’. An intensive team-building process followed, in which the incident responders were educated and visited multiple training centres both nationally and internationally in order to be trained for specialisms in industrial and ship firefighting. Aside from this operational training, the incident responders were involved with the domains so that they could make optimal use of the knowledge and competences that they brought with them when implementing their own organisation and processes.
Basic principles of autonomy
With a firefighting organisation based on autonomy and self-steering team, the GBA has taken a daring step towards a new type of firefighting service, in which the members work mostly independently, without management, an open organisation in which everyone can make maximal use of their talents. And a learning organisation too, which can quickly and easily adapt to a changing environment and changing desires from clients.
The success of this model of autonomy rests on seven basic principles of a proved method of sociocracy 3.0 and are key to the method of operations of the team: transparency of conduct, equality in roles, realisation of the experimental character, the will to continually improve, solution-aimed thinking, effective handling, and ownership over areas of improvement. The basics: good enough for now, safe enough to try. Important focal points here are that building and maintaining the organisation is a team effort, in which each team member has their own role and tasks, like a well-oiled machine. That also means that all members have access to all relevant information, which is easily digitally accessible through the cloud.
Another important point is the direct link to the six-headed board of directors. All executive powers and mandates to work within the framework of an annual plan – set up by themselves – are granted within the boundaries of the annual business plan and budget. The board stands at a distance, but is concerned and approachable for the team representatives through a division of the managerial portfolio. Board meetings take place four times a year.
Equality is translated for the GBA through a strong feeling of community. The organisation only recognises ranks during operational deployment (5% of the time). For the internal work (95% of the time) only administrative roles exist. Decisions on issues that affect the whole team are thus also taken by the team, and anyone who would experience consequences from any decisions taken has a say in those decisions. All members of the GBA are aware that their organisation is an ‘experiment’. That has already been communicated with the newfound team leaders during the selection and acquisition process. A part of experimenting is taking risks and being allowed to make mistakes. In order to learn and turn the learned lessons into improvements. Operational deployments take place within the formal frameworks set by the Amsterdam-Amstelland Safety Authority. As a rule, deployments are evaluated, just like everything else in the organisation. The central message there is: ‘Mistakes really don’t exist, it’s either good or it can be done better.’ All that is asked of the members of the GBA is that they are not afraid to acknowledge that things can be improved, and to ask for help when necessary. That’s in line with the one-team motto that makes the GBA stronger as an organisation. In principle, the team should be able to solve issues and bottlenecks with the knowledge and capacities present within the team, but just in case difficult improvement processes occur, outside help can always be hired. This will only happen in extreme cases, because the GBA wants to make optimal use of the talents within its organisation.
The GBA started in April of 2020, from a temporary location on the terrain of the Logistical Center of the Amsterdam-Amstelland fire department, the public fire service of the Dutch capital. Two months later the team moved into its own fire station located in the middle of the port area. By now, the GBA organisation is running smoothly, with almost 150 deployments in six months, among which have been a few larger industrial incidents.
Mission accomplished: the foundation of the GBA is down and the organisation is migrating from the start-up phase into a new phase, in which the interim manager says goodbye, the relationships with the companies in the service area are expanded upon and the new service possibilities in the field or safety are being explored. The establishment of a fire station in the port area is the first step towards a broader collaboration with other industry and governmental services in a so-called ‘Integral Safety Center’.
Within that further progression, the talents and competences of the 28 men and women who run this unique organisation together will continually be called upon. Their primary task: providing the quickest and best possible capabilities during calamities at companies in the port area. And everything that is necessary to fulfil that primary task is fulfilled from their own expertise and insights, as a team – autonomously, independently, assertively. People: the power of the GBA: Gezamenlijke Brandweer Amsterdam.
For more information, go to www.gbamsterdam.nl
Leading principles for the Gezamenlijke Brandweer Amsterdam/GBA:
- Work and task fulfilment are decided by the principle: we are there for the organisations in the port, not for ourselves. ‘The work can be found outside’;
- Decisions on the activities and budgets in the new year are decided with the Board of Directors, the teams are mandated to do what’s necessary within those borders;
- The GBA is internally organised based on the task-oriented Domains. All the work should fall into one of the Domains and be executed within that frames;
- Decisions are prepared and taken within the Domains; there is no overarching platform for decision-making;
- For special and unforeseen situations, an escalation matrix is used to test whether involvement of the Board of Directors is required;
- Operational deployment takes place within the formal frameworks set by the Safety Authority Amsterdam-Amstelland;
- The GBA is aimed at improving and strengthening its people. People are encouraged to develop and grow in different roles. If you make people better, you make the GBA better;
- GBA participates actively in a large network of fifi and hazmat expertise partners, national and international;
- For issues that require specialist knowledge, a network of external parties is available. They are always advisory and supportive; decisions are taken within the Domains.