You've got each other's backs on the fireground, but does your administration have your back? (Wayne Barrall photo)
When we think of how the public accesses the fire service during an emergency, they call 911. When the public is sick or injured or there is a fire, they call 911, and firefighters or emergency medical technicians respond to mitigate the problem. Firefighters are the last call civilians make when they are in fear for their lives or their families’ lives. Who do firefighters call? They call their local administration and elected officials who run the organization. But what do firefighters do when the person they call for help is causing the pain?
Betrayal is compounded on several levels that affect the firefighter when faced with administrative betrayal. Betrayal rips the proverbial rug of trust out from underneath. Firefighters are left stunned, and their ability to constructively cope with stressors on the job and in their lives is diminished.
A hostile or dysfunctional work atmosphere isn’t just difficult for employees--it also damages the fire department’s image and hinders employee performance. This stressful atmosphere leads to low or poor morale, poor work performance, increase turnover, and poor “customer service” to the community.
A fire department engulfed in mistrust and betrayal may lead to a lack of trust and communication, which prevents the firefighters and the department administrators from working together. In a workplace with low morale, employees are also less likely to take initiative or share their ideas, depriving the company of a potential source of innovation (“How Work Atmosphere Affects the Workplace,” Ellie Williams, http://smallbusiness.chron.com, November 17, 2017).
In many other industries where employees have low morale, job performance naturally drops when they feel disengaged or unappreciated. Absenteeism and tardiness rates go up, and civilian populations of employees may stop giving their best because they believe it doesn’t matter how hard they work (“How Work Atmosphere Affects the Workplace,” Ellie Williams, http://smallbusiness.chron.com, November 17, 2017).
Even in a highly competitive field like the fire service, where people take multiple tests, sometimes over years, before ever being appointed, firefighters may leave a hostile or dysfunctional work environment, even if it means taking a lower-paying job. High turnover also can cut into a fire department budget. As a result, the fire department must begin the process of hiring and training, which is costly and time consuming. The organization also creates a larger workforce of newer, less experienced firefighters. The department is left hiring new, novice firefighters and will have difficulty attracting more firefighters because they may be worried about working in an unstable environment. This puts a great strain on the command staff to properly manage emergencies, unlike a fire department that loses firefighters through gradual attrition and then trains new fire fighters gradually.
The effects of a negative work environment eventually trickle down to the taxpayer. In a dysfunctional fire department, the tension is difficult to hide from taxpayers served by those firefighters or emergency medical technicians. They quickly pick up on the fact that the employees do not like dealing with each other or that they are angry with their job. There may also be a sense of distrust from the firefighter toward the taxpayer. “Why doesn’t the public come and fight for us, like we fight to protect them?” These types of questions are steeped in the feelings of betrayal the firefighters experience.
Emotions and mood affect the firefighter’s temperament, personality, disposition, motivation, and perception. Emotions play a critical role in how firefighters behave and react on the fireground or emergency medical situations. A concern arises because firefighters tend to deal with stress individually and in silence. This makes it difficult to be recognized by family and coworkers alike, delaying help in processing and coping. Negative moods can affect physical and emotional well-being as well. Long-term exposure to negative moods or stressful environments can lead to illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and ulcers https://courses.lume(nlearning.com/boundless-management/chapter/drivers-of-behavior, November 17, 2017).
The negative atmosphere may lead members to tolerate or become complacent with poor behavior in other firefighters. Allowing someone to “act out” or not follow through with their job responsibilities can lead to more deterioration of the group. There is a trickle-down effect when one person can get away with poor behavior. Soon, another firefighter will expect the same latitude.
As firefighters fall into this rabbit hole of unhealthy coping and poor health choices to deal with the negative effects, like increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other unhealthy alternatives, the leadership of the fire department will start to see negative behaviors, whether in the form of “blowing off” chores; an outburst of disapproval; or, worst case, a physical altercation.
At the end of the day, firefighters need to be mindful that in the face of a hostile administration which they feel has betrayed them, the firefighters are there for 30 years and the administrations tend to last three to five years. We will be naturally resilient in our longevity.
However, by encouraging positive labor-management relationships and healthy communication among members of the fire department, along with resources to help manage stress, a fire service may provide the firefighters with the ability to grow as healthy employees. Improving job satisfaction for employees is another way that a company can influence an employee’s mood (https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-management/chapter/drivers-of-behavior, November 17, 2017). As satisfaction increases at work, levels of stress reduce and motivation increases. Providing organizational benefits such as a gym; training; or departmental functions like a social gathering, sporting events, and so on can also boost endorphins, facilitating mood stabilization, critical thinking, and coping strategies. An active lifestyle has been shown to produce an increased level of dopamine, which can enhance energy and mood and, hopefully, will help increase morale within the job, develop resources for multiple facets of assistance, and maybe leave what has happened in the past and start focusing on developing a stronger future.
Scott A Robinson has been a firefighter for 22 years. He is a member of IAFF Local 1363 and a firefighter with the Cranston (RI) Fire Department. After responding to the Station Nightclub Fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island, in 2003, he worked within his local union to develop a peer-driven, union-run assistance program where he was the chairman for 13 years. There he designed an assistance program for active and retired members, as well as their families, with resources for access to substance abuse and alcohol programs, family services, financial hardship, and suicide prevention and established a Crisis Response Team within the department. He recently took this design and established the Rhode Island State Association of Fire Fighters Members Assistance Program (MAP). He also has presented nationally on topics of assistance including peer support, EAP legal issues, establishing EAP prevention programs, and others. In the spring of 2019 he will present “Into the Fire: Understanding Fire Department Culture for Clinicians” at Rhode Island College's School of Social Work. He was recently appointed a peer support master instructor for the International Association of Fire Fighters, where he will teach peer support to IAFF locals in the United States and Canada.