Fix your Memo: Business Writing in Fire Service Promotion Exams

Drawing of a psychadelic skeleton fire fighter sitting at a laptop computer and typing chaoticly.

Weak written language skills cost people promotions.

You’re already aware that in your upcoming promotional exam, nothing is likely to cause more movement in the ranking than reading (multiple choice exam) and writing. Other activities (tactical exercise, interview, role play, etc.) don’t seem to have as much scoring variance. In other words, one of the best things you can do to dramatically improve your outcome is get better at writing.

Keep in mind that promotional exams are a surrogate for personal development. During the promotional process, the intent is that members will become more valuable (whether they successfully promote or not). And writing is one of the most important areas for improvement. When all members of the fire service begin to treat the art of communication in written word with the same respect as the glamorous disciplines in the operations sector, the fire service will be better, more adaptive, and more effective.

But that’s not really what this article is about. In this article, I want to lay out a specific algorithm that you can apply to a writing exercises in an assessment center. The goal here is to help you improve in just a few days. (But promise me you’ll keep improving your writing even after the assessment center.)

The overall process is simple and you need to memorize it. There’s three steps that are designed to keep you from getting stressed, distracted, or aimless. Let’s get started!

Make quick fixes by using a consistent method.

Step One: Find the hidden theme.

Every department has a stated mission and list of values. Invariably, the values are things like accountability, courage, honor, professionalism, and service (this list is from Colorado Springs Fire Department).

So if the assignment is something like:

A citizen has complained to you about an ambulance crew in a near by station being rude while on scene; write a memorandum to your captain explaining how you handled the event.

don’t just start writing. Start by addressing which of the values are in question. I would say professionalism is the theme here. At some point, explicitly state:

One of our fire department’s values is professionalism.

This step is more important than it might seem. Don’t get baited into writing firefighter level content. Consider this assignment:

You notice that one of your firefighters skipped several important safety steps while raising a ladder during training. Write a memorandum informing your battalion chief how you plan to correct the issue.

The theme is not ladders (or even training). Don’t go on and on about how much you know about ladders. The theme here is accountability. So write what you know about that and why it matters to the department.

Step Two: Write the major parts of [every] memo.

Admittedly, this step is pretty common sense. But if you can break the memo into 3 parts, you will find it easier to keep focused.

Imho, these are:

  1. Problem and Context
  2. Solution (Methods)
  3. Follow up & CTA

If you can remember this, long provocative questions will be less likely to throw you off. I won’t describe in detail what each of these things should be; if you want more detail, lmk.

CTA stands for call to action, btw. Start with a generic one and develop it as necessary. It might be something as simple as:

Please contact me at if you have any questions or comments.

Step Three: Proof read at least twice.

The process of scanning your work for errors should involve one repetition with major edits and one repetition with only minor edits. Here are some key tips that will clean up the most common grammar problems.

Cut every sentence into its simplest parts.

Look at this sentence:

Although these members begin their careers with good intentions, after five to ten years, the stress of the job leads not just to avoidance issues, but even integrity problems.

It sounded great inside the writers head. But this type of complex structure causes unnecessary confusion for the reader who cannot hear the tempo and tone that the writer intended. So anything that can be made its own sentence should be. As with all fire service communication, clarity is everything. Instead:

These members begin their careers with good intentions. But after five to ten years, stress from the job leads to avoidance issues and integrity problems.

Btw, apply similar principles to every other component of your writing:

  • If you can use a simpler word (or less words), do.
  • If you can use simpler punctuation, do.

Properly format bulleted and numbered lists.

Inevitably, every memo has a bulleted (or numbered list). I recommend them. Assuming that your memo does, let’s do some quick checks to make sure it won’t cost you grammar points.

Is the list ordered or unordered?

If you could change the sorting of the list and it would still make sense, the correct list type is bulleted. If the list needs to stay in order (such as chronological), use a numbered list.

Are the list items complete sentences?

They don’t necessarily have to be. If they are, use punctuation. If they aren’t, don’t. Whichever route you take, be consistent. Every item in a list should be formatted the same. A list with periods terminating some of the items but not others is likely a syntactical flaw.

What is the tense?

Be consistent in how each list item is tensed. This is best explained with an example. See if you notice anything awkward in this list:

The fire department has been successful in these risk reduction efforts:
• Full-time certified fire inspectors and fire fighters conduct thousands of fire-safety inspections annually.
• Our highly-trained professional fire fighters spend much of their time in the local schools as well. They help to conduct fire drills to help make certain that students evacuate safely and efficiently.
• Increased the number of Advanced Life Support units available during peak times by 40%.

Unlike the first two items, the final item in the above list is past-tense. Additionally, it is not a complete sentence. Both problems make this distracting to read.

Alternative punctuation choices might signal doubt in your writing.

Be careful with anything that isn’t a period or a comma. Inserting hyphens, quotes, underlines, colons and semicolons where they don’t belong is a mistake.

If you’re not quoting someone, don’t use quotes. Quotes are not a way to excuse the fact that you are using the wrong term, slang, or inappropriate jargon. The following sentence is an attempt to use quotation marks to lazily convert slang into formal text, I consider this bad writing:

The Commander has attempted to be more collaborative by regularly requesting feedback from “the boots on the ground.”

Exercise: Clearly, there must be a better term than “the boots on the ground”. How would you fix this sentence? Answer in the comments.

Grammar is a journey. Learning the rules of writing shouldn’t end in grade school. This is for a few different reasons. Namely: the rules change, which rules you should follow will change as you mature as a writer, and there are a whole lot of rules in the English language.

Step 4: Breathe and read. The mistakes are hiding.

After you think you are done, read your work. Come to this step with the expectation that it is perfect and no more changes are necessary. If you find problems and need to fix them, that’s fine. But that means you are on step three, not step four. The reason I say this is because many mistakes are resultant of last-minute edits. Fixing one part of a sentence might render another part of a sentence ungrammatical.

Your final read-through should involve no editing.

Great writing solves problems.

Once you have memorized and practiced this process, you are one moment closer to taking on a leadership role in the fire service. Therefore, it is now even more important that you constantly improving yourself for the sake of your department and community.

Rather than starting this article with the heading “Weak written language skills cost people promotions,” I should have started it with “Weak written language skills cost people their lives.” Obviously, that would be unnecessarily forceful for an article about writing. But it’s true. Because the quality of the service we provide is reliant upon the ability of our leadership to strengthen and adapt the complex public safety systems within which we operate. And our business is saving lives. The point is that I’m offering a mandate to every fire fighter: get good at writing.

Which is well outside the scope of this article. Because great writing requires vision. And the development of vision is a wholistic process. Writing is more than just a way to convey a message. It is a way to develop a thought. So good writing suggests sound thinking.

I hope this helps. Please feel free to let me know in the comments or on social what you think of this article. And good luck in your assessment center!

Respiratory Distress + Altered Mental Status = _____

Have you ever had a Coke?

How about a flat Coke? What was the difference? It was still good, right? But it was not as good. Why are the bubbles so important to the flavor? The Coke was missing something. Kind of like fries without ketchup, fish and chips without vinegar, lemonade without lemon, or a reuben without sauerkraut. What’s missing from each of these is quite often the final important thing that makes food tasty: acid.

Acid is so important to cooking good food: think pickles, lemon zest, vinaigrette, coffee. This article is about medicine, I swear.

But what’s with the Coke example? There’s no acid taken out of Coke to make it flat. Just bubbles. Right?

Let’s do some firefighter level science for just a second here: the bubbles are carbon dioxide. Under pressure, dum dum dum dada dum dum, the carbon dioxide liquifies and mixes with the water. And liquid carbon dioxide is acidic. Hence the name carbonic acid, which is the name of the molecule created by combining water and carbon dioxide. (If this simplified version of chemistry is offensive to you, you are too smart for this article, so please feel free to correct me in the comments or just go to doctor school or whatever.)

So as the carbon dioxide (CO2) breaks free from the water, the carbonic acid is destroyed. The acid disappears from the Coke.

In a roundabout way, what I’m trying to explain here is that as an EMS worker, when you think CO2, think acid. Acid in cooking is good. Acid in the blood? The body would rather not. But we know that acid occurs in the blood due to certain processes.

Respiratory rate? What’s that?

Exactly. This is the most overlooked vital sign in EMS. Get in the habit of checking respiratory rate (RR) as one of the vital signs you evaluate on every patient. And if it’s elevated, think acid. (There might be other reasons, of course. But until you have ruled out acidosis, they’re not really worth considering.)

If the blood becomes acidic for any reason, the respiratory rate will increase because more respirations means more CO2 out and more oxygen (O2) in. Counterintuitively, increased RR is not the result of decreased oxygen. It’s the result of acidosis. Which means that it is entirely possible for a patient in profound respiratory distress to have a peripheral capillary oxygen saturation (SpO2) over 90%.

Failure is between distress and arrest.

Most respiratory distress (not all) in the elderly in Colorado is caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). The distress is the result of poor gas-exchange–carbon dioxide is not efficiently escaping the body’s circulating blood. Oxygenation is also diminished but the key factor is trapped CO2. As carbon dioxide continues to be spilled into the blood by cells as a byproduct of energy production, the body responds to ineffective gas exchange with increased respiratory rate.

The RR can only increase so much. It’s ability to compensate is finite.

I’ve wondered whether patients in respiratory failure are completely incapable of following directions or if they are just so focused on breathing that they consciously shutout all stimuli (including the directions of the attending paramedic). At one point in the process, the one turns into the other. Either way, it is an archetypal death-stare presentation. Short choppy breaths. Suddenly the patient that has been leaning forward trying to move as much air as possible will lean back and start to list to one side.

As a paramedic working in the field (I can’t speak for anyone else), a diminishing mentation is the key finding that distinguishes respiratory distress from respiratory failure. Inside of the failure patient, the feedback loop has been overwhelmed. The RR can only increase so much, it’s ability to compensate is finite.The respiratory distress patient compensates and the respiratory failure patient cannot. Once you observe this sign, cardiac arrest is near.

Oh dear! What do I do?

This isn’t a JEMS article. It’s not an excerpt in a paramedic textbook. And it’s not your protocol. So while it might feel like I’ve reached the point in the article where I tell you what treatment plan is most appropriate in what setting, that just isn’t what this is blog about. I only mean to help explain some things that used to mystify me. I hope there is something useful to be found in my particular method of explaining this subject.

The bottom line is that medicine is not about intervention. Treatment is simple. Your patient has x problem, you provide x treatment. Assessment is hard. The real question is not what is the treatment? It’s what is the pathology? And answering that question takes experience, understanding, and (most of all) compassion.

And if this little explanation helps you help your patients, I’d love to know it. Put it in the comments.