After Action Incompetence

I am a volunteer firefighter in a combination fire department. I recently responded on a structural fire (with both volunteer and career paid crews) where a series of errors on a few levels resulted in things not going as well as we would hope. While the building didn’t burn down and no one was hurt or injured, it primarily didn’t go well because of staffing. While that was bad enough, when we were done, the incident commander (IC), a career employee, held a critique.

I have no problem with critiques for the obvious reason that we can learn what went well—and what didn’t—and what we can do to improve, but wow, the IC proceeded to scream, yell, and absolutely rip my butt in front of everyone. I was shocked; his behavior was right out of the “how NOT to be a chief officer” book! While I am respectful, I wasn’t going to stand there and take it, so I yelled back, defending what we did and why we had to do it (primarily because of the lack of adequate staffing on the initial alarm). It was ugly, with the ego-driven IC completely unwilling to even attempt to be professional; sadly, he has this reputation and “that’s him.”

I welcome your opinion on how to deal with this screaming lunatic who has way more brass than I do.

--Hiding in a Compartment on the Apparatus

Dear Hiding,

That’s probably a good place for you, at least until that chief gets his meds regulated. Or someone shuts his radio off so he THINKS there are no runs for him to go on, and the runs then miraculously go better than ever. Or his superiors decide that they won’t allow him to abuse the members of the fire department. Mic drop.

There was a T-shirt sold at FDIC years ago that said, “Heat, Fuel, Oxygen, or Chief—Remove Any One of These and the Fire Goes Out.” That was often a humorous but reality-based solution back in the day, but the hope was we have learned and gotten better—obviously not everywhere and definitely not in your neck of the woods.

There is little worse than an abusive boss (yep, that’s what it is, abuse) to make you reconsider why you joined the fire department in the first place. Now, don’t get me wrong. A raised voice during an emergency may be required: “HEY, TRUCKIE, YOU DROPPED YOUR PARTNER. GO BACK AND PICK HIM UP!” may be perfectly acceptable, but after the fire or when things aren’t tactical? No.

Screaming Tactics

We have all been there, dealing with a screamer, and there are a few tactics that will help you survive if this situation happens again.

Listen but don’t yell back. Yelling back only makes you look as bad as he did (and he IS looking for a fight AND a way to show or somehow prove his power and authority). Don’t give it to him by responding with emotion.

Let the screamer scream. Let him rant, rave, and scream, but you say nothing. NOTHING. Eventually, he will run out of air and pass out because of the lack of oxygen (often the best solution, so when he does pass out, quickly place him on a small boat or raft or airdrop him on a small island with adequate supplies). If that’s not an option, let him rant. When he is done, and if he is looking for a response or asks you a question, CALMLY ask him (without being cynical) to talk privately, but do your best to NOT engage.

Let the screamer explain how it should have been done. Let him have the stage so he creates his own performance and, more importantly, his reputation. If the opportunity presents itself and he does calm down, simply and CALMLY state, “Chief, I would have done what we are expected to do but staffing was low so I did my best because of the conditions. What would you have liked me to do?” And then shut up and listen. But DON’T be a wise ass; he has that covered.

Improve what you can improve. If, other than the staffing issue, you and your crew can improve under those circumstances in the future, do so! Train, drill, and do whatever else needs to happen so that you ALWAYS know you are doing the best with the resources you have to operate with. That’s also known as silent revenge. Sort of.

Fixing What You Cannot, Part 1

There are factors here that you can’t directly control, such as the staffing. The problem is not yours, yet you are forced to perform under the department’s problem. This is a failure at the levels above, so in this case it’s up to your supervisors (your direct ones, not the screamer) to face the problem and deal with it.

Solving the staffing problem can be done both short and long term. In the short-term case, the agency needs to decide how many TOTAL firefighters it wants on any scene and within what times. Then dispatch needs to add however many companies to the first alarm to make up the difference—quickly. And that can be a problem as well: When the troops arrive in different vehicles at different times, it has been proven many times that fire company efficiency drops.

As far as long term, the agency needs to decide WHAT its deployment and standard of cover model POLICY will be and institute it through funding, automatic aid, or whatever it decides. But to ignore it and then have it fall on those on the fireground is unfair and dangerous.

Fixing What You Cannot, Part 2

I have to tell you, as I approach my 45 years as a firefighter, there are few things that get me more riled up than the excuse from cowardly bosses who are afraid to do their job, “Oh, that’s just him.”

Let’s try a few of those out, shall we?

• “She drives drunk, but she’s our only daytime fire apparatus driver.” Oh, that’s just her.

• “He is disruptive and never takes any training.” Oh, that’s just him.

• “He takes money out of the union treasury.” Oh, that’s just him.

• “He physically abuses the probies.” Oh, that’s just him.

• “He has the worst attitude and takes four minutes to get on the apparatus.” Oh, that’s just him.

When that stuff is just him (or her, yada yada), there has been failure for a long time in dealing with the real problem: HIM. Maybe it’s friendship, relationships, or whatever getting in the way; the fact is that “he” MUST function as a part of the department or it will damage the department and VERY clearly show the membership that the leadership is afraid or unable to deal with the problem. Understand also that when “he” keeps doing whatever he is doing, it then unofficially gives EVER MEMBER permission to do whatever “he” is getting away with ... and the walls come tumbling down.

You have a tough situation where you engaged with the lunatic (and I get it, you were shocked into responding to him). Next time, try to avoid that by using some of the above advice.

In the longer term, your department leadership has some serious issues to deal with and should absolutely be forced into dealing with them.

They are well aware of that chief being a problem, and while I don’t know exactly where you are located in North America, I do know how fire service communications work, and trust me, within three to five seconds of the “screaming” match at your fire, EVERYONE knew about it at all ranks and levels. We can’t always communicate important policy stuff, but when there is some “gossipy” stuff we have full, reliable communication capability. Can you hear me now?

Other Options

You do have other options such as placing a formal complaint through whatever process you have, and that may be the best option. The problem with that option (and people don’t like to talk about it publicly) is that it will put you in a position of retaliation. It makes YOU be the one forced to deal with it center stage, whereas if those company officers and chiefs above you did their jobs it would have not happened or won’t happen in the future. Unfortunately, it’s not rare to see where everyone is afraid to deal with good old “oh, that’s just him” because it requires time and energy to fix “him.” They fail to do their jobs when they ignore “him.”

The chief or top brass of your department needs to finally bring this person in and get him whatever help may be needed. There is a reason for him going, and that needs to be identified and reeled in. If a few missteps at a fire make him scream and go nuts, what will happen during a true emergency? Victims trapped? A firefighter Mayday?

That IC, by getting all excited, is subliminally calling his own Mayday without even knowing it. That message needs to be responded to by his superiors. Be it training issues, behavior modification, or something more serious, the department leadership needs to fix it before they are accused of failing to do their jobs because something really bad eventually happened.


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PennWell Corp.

21-00 Route 208 South

Fair Lawn, NJ 07410

Attn: Diane Rothschild (dianer@pennwell.com)

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