Reigniting the Personal Flame

Dear Nozzlehead,

I am a five-year veteran with our local volunteer station in a small town. I am also a woman. I am writing to you about some concerns I have been having with our fire station and the way it has been running lately, as well as some issues I have had to deal with. I started in firefighting as soon as I turned 18 and hit the ground running. Previously, my grandfather was the chief of the station, as was my uncle, and my stepfather is a captain. It has been in my blood, and it was my lifelong dream to be on this station as a firefighter. I worked hard and it paid off. At the beginning, it was great learning the ropes and watching how things were done. There were a lot of rules and red tape because I was a rookie, so I watched and learned.

During this time, I was having troubles with another firefighter. I knew going into this that I needed to have a thick skin and there would be joking. What I didn’t know is why I was picked on and bullied the way I was for the following years. I was singled out and told that I was worthless and that I should go home. This happened for years and started to get to the point where I was singled out in front of the whole department and scrutinized for my every move. I was picked on to no end but just thought that this was the norm.

Eventually, I had had enough. I went through my chain of command, which included my captains first. Nothing was done. Then I went to my deputy and chief and they defended the firefighter. I had no one on my side. After all this had happened, one night another firefighter in the department decided to take things too far in one of the fire apparatus on our way back from training. I was shy and didn’t know what to do. We got back and I said nothing. It took a while, but I confided in a fellow firefighter, and he told me I needed to tell someone what had happened. So, I went straight to the top as nothing was dealt with properly in the past and went to human resources (HR). This started a whole investigation and, in the end, HR decided to involve our township chief and deputy. I was not happy about this, as I went confidentially to HR.

After my chiefs were brought in, they were dealing with it from then on. They brought me in and, long story short, told me to let it go, that it would be easier and make everyone’s life better if I did. I didn’t agree, but I didn’t have much of a choice. So, after all this happened and after all the bullying and harassment I went through, nothing was done, and it was “brushed under the carpet.”

These two firefighters were able to continue with the department and act as if nothing had ever happened. Now, I continue to go to calls but that fire or “spark” is gone. I no longer have that passion or that dream. That respect is gone for so many of the men I have to work with. I cannot call them my brothers. I cannot trust them going into a burning building. And I cannot bring myself to leave for something that was brought on me by others. So, I ask you, Nozzlehead, what would you do or suggest that I do to maybe, possibly get that spark back that once was there?

—A Tired Rookie

Dear Rookie,

Your letter comes at a time when people are starting to speak up against harassment and inappropriate treatment. This morning, a news commentator stated, “We are starting to turn the tide and raise genuine awareness about harassment toward others.”

Sorta. Had this situation occurred decades ago, no one would have been surprised. Yes, some have come out against CEOs and Hollywood big shots who expect personal favors for promotion and stuff like that. But, on the other hand, some of the top political leaders of our nation have set horrendous examples, and that seems to be getting ignored. Just sayin’.

I could spend many columns discussing my thoughts and opinion on this important subject as I have witnessed all sides of it, but time won’t allow it. So, instead, I will provide you with some opinions, and then we’ll talk about reigniting your flame. Let’s start with this opinion:

Firefighters, and probably all people, should act as if their mother is on one shoulder and their chief is on the other—both watching with video cameras. Now, go do your job.

While it seems silly, it’s really a great way to maintain focus and appropriate behavior. What would you do or how would you act if “they” were watching? Yep—exactly. Years ago, I had a firefighter come in my office to talk to me about his libido problem. It was extraordinarily active. That wouldn’t be an issue other than his wife was a weapons expert, and he wanted to live a long, fruitful life. So, I told him the above, to imagine the chief and his mom on his shoulders and now behave in a way you wouldn’t be ashamed. He seemed to get it.

A few hours into that evening, we turned out for a stabbing victim at a bar. While I wouldn’t normally go to that, I was in the area and responded to assist given the nature of the call, it being a weekend night and a crowded place. I was in the lot observing the crew working. Around them, as they worked on the victim in the front outside, were some well-dressed men and women, not unlike what you would see at a club. While this was going on, I saw that same firefighter from earlier working on the victim, but he was also looking at the many women watching him. He looked at them, then his eyes met mine. He smiled and patted himself on the shoulder as to let me know he remembered our discussion. On his shoulder was his mom, so to speak … and he went back to focusing on his job. 

It’s a simple story but drives home the point on how we should behave—and behave naturally, not as an afterthought. Of course, these days there’s always a very good chance you are on video.

For a variety of reasons that psychiatrists could help us better understand, we don’t always behave as we should when in the firehouse. And while that’s no excuse to do anything other than behave, it is our personal responsibility to act in a manner that we would want our children, grandchildren, or spouse treated by others. It’s “Golden Rule” stuff that we expect to be followed. So, what happens when we don’t behave?

We need systems in place. Systems in place means that there are “built-in” ways to correct initial problems when our personal or professional behavior starts to slide off the rails. It’s the speed limit sign. It’s the officer in the front seat telling you to slow down. It’s the reminder to wear your seat belt. It is WHATEVER reminds you to behave properly based on POLICY and LAWS to slow down, to wear your gear, to treat that other firefighter like you would want one of your own children treated. It’s policy and training firefighters exactly what is expected of them—and what is not tolerated. It is also the training and APTITUDE DETERMINATION used to determine if someone who may be a great firefighter can be a great officer. When the officers “get it,” the problems can be avoided. Or, when problems do pop up, they can be immediately, properly, legally, and fairly corrected. It’s about being in an organization that certainly likes to have fun when the time is right, but not at the expense of another person. I can’t cover much more of that here, but I urge you to reach out to the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC); it has a very active bullying, harassment, and workplace violence prevention task group that has produced some excellent materials and videos. More on that later.

Your chief, your officers, and your township leaders need to wake up and understand what is and what is not morally and legally acceptable. And, the fact that you raised the issue, it is clear that their handling of it was based on protecting their butts and not at all about doing what needs to be done to fix the problem. Since you mentioned them, where are your uncle and stepfather in this? I hope they are involved and are standing up as both fire officers and family. I hope this is not a case where they are “brave, tough firefighters” but are cowards when it comes to facing real issues. 

SNIFF, SNIFF. I smell policy-less and untrained cowards who blew an opportunity to make things better for you personally, for the offenders, and for the organization as a whole. I smell untrained and unqualified “investigators” who are so close to the problem that they couldn’t possibly see clearly the facts or propose appropriate resolution. A fair and legal policy-based investigation ensures that the accuser and the accused are treated fairly. 

So, where do you go from here? There is much to talk about, from your retaining an attorney to your confronting those who wronged you (with a chief present; that would be leadership on their part) to the accused genuinely apologizing with clear steps forward. I hope one of those can be considered. 

REIGNITING THE FIRE. Since I can only write about what you have sent me, I will assume you DO want to stay at that fire department. Then stay. But stay and push for some sensible level of short- and long-term resolution. I am not sure what happened (probably the Internet) but years ago (and some of us still do it), we would actually take people in a room and TALK about a problem with resolution as the goal. Since they asked you to “let it go” (which was BS), you still have an opportunity to go back to them and state, “OK, I would like to move forward, but here is what I need from you,” and that would include personal and organizational resolution.

Personal: The jerks need to talk to you face to face and apologize, and there need to be systems in place to make sure their apologies are backed by behavior modification.

Professional: The department and township need to read the information below and use the IAFC Toolbox. They probably ought to speak with their attorney on your issue specifically as well as risk management for the township and the fire department, because this is a very significant RISK that needs management and leadership. 

Rest assured, you are FAR from alone. A friend of mine did an informal fire service survey with more than 4,000 responses. Of those responses:

• 91 percent were from men and nine percent were from women (interesting because only three percent of the fire service are women).

• 76 percent were career, 21 percent were on-call, and six percent were volunteers (interesting because the fire service is more than 70 percent volunteer in personnel numbers).

• 63 percent were chief officers; the remainder were firefighters, lieutenants, and captains.

 

Here are some of the results:

1. Have you ever been bullied in your career?

Yes: 70 percent; 28 percent have been bullied in the past year.

No: 30 percent.

2. Who has bullied you?

Chief officer: 39 percent.

Line officer: 27 percent.

Coworker: 25 percent.

3. Has bullying changed your interactions and productivity at work? 

Sometimes: 17 percent.

The remainder answering this question said they’ve never been bullied.

4. Is bullying a problem in the fire service?

Yes: 66 percent.

Nearly 50 percent said their employer did nothing to respond to an identified problem.

Sounds slightly familiar. I am again reiterating that you google “IAFC bullying” and it will bring you to the totally free fire service “Bullying and Workplace Violence Prevention Toolkit.” You should read through it. Your chiefs must read through it. Your township officials must read through it.

This phenomenal toolkit is a collection of policies, tips, tools, and resources for fire and emergency service departments about the prevention of bullying in the workplace. This resource is a mix of existing and new resources from the IAFC, other fire service organizations, private industry, and local model practices and standard operating procedures. They range from simple, no-cost, commonsense solutions to those that are more resource intensive. 

Note from Billy Goldfeder (Nozzlehead):

As I was writing this column, I learned of the untimely and sudden passing of Chief Alan Brunacini. While I could write volumes on the impact “Bruno” has had on the fire service, so much will have already been written and stated by the time you read this. While he led changes that made many of us very uncomfortable, in the end his focus was always on taking care of those we serve—as well as all of us. And, quite frankly, he was absolutely right in that focus. He led us to understand that the “customer” is our focus, be it people trapped in a fire or simply needing to be put back in bed after a fall. He reminded us that these are people and must be well taken care of. And, again, that absolutely includes our firefighters as well. For me personally, the top three things he helped me better understand are true command, control, and accountability on the fireground; the responsibility of risk; and, lastly, being nice. Simple but powerful stuff. Thanks, Chief. Rest in peace; you’ve earned it. Condolences to the entire Brunacini family, the PFD, and friends.

 

I would also encourage you to reach out to groups of professional women (in the fire service or not) that you can talk to directly. One option is the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services (iWomen). The goal is to see if they can connect you with people you can relate to, share with, and get specific suggestions on how you can and should respond. You don’t have to deal with this alone. 

You have been around that firehouse a long time. It’s “home” in many respects for you, and you want to feel comfortable at home—no different than anyone else. But it needs to be comfortable for everyone, not just a select few. If these measures can happen, over time, it is my hope that you feel gung ho once again with that flame burning brightly. To be clear, it will be tough but not impossible. With genuine effort, this can be fixed for you and for others in the fire department today and in the future. This will then allow your department to refocus on its mission: taking good care of those in need—including their own members.

Got a fire service question or complaint?

Let Nozzlehead hear all about it. He’ll answer you with 2,000 psi of free-flowing opinion. Send your letters to: Nozzlehead, c/o FireRescue, PennWell Corp. 21-00 Route 208 South, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410, Attn: Diane Rothschild (dianer@pennwell.com)

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