Does the Fire Service Have a Culture Problem?

One word we hear a lot in the fire service lately: culture. It’s used to explain many things from why rookies are expected to show deference to experienced firefighters to why some firefighters don’t wear seatbelts to why firefighters routinely risk their lives to save complete strangers.

But what about negative attitudes and behaviors within departments? Are those part of our culture?
As firefighters we must always seek to better ourselves. Our primary focus must be “service before self.” However some people do the opposite. Their negative attitudes and behaviors upset the balance of fire departments. In this month’s PAR check I want to take a closer look at these behaviors which if not addressed will prevent your members from acquiring retaining or passing on a fire service culture rich in traditions that provide positive direction.

The negative forces leading to disruptive or counterproductive behavior include the following:

1. Guilt. Some personnel spend their entire lives running from regrets and hiding their shame. Guilt-driven people are manipulated by memories. They allow their past to control their future unconsciously punishing themselves by sabotaging their own success and the success of others. Example: a fire officer who has become tainted because the department (in their opinion) didn’t support them in a disciplinary matter. Now the fire officer will not engage (supervise train or lead) their personnel. This can lead to increased horseplay mean-spirited actions or words or improper demeanor toward the public and each other. Rather than holding their personnel accountable for their actions and to departmental standards of behavior the officer rationalizes the behavior blames the department or denies it outright.

2. Resentment. We’ve probably all known people who hold on to their hurts and never get over them. Example: the individual who was passed over for promotion. Now they’ve given up on the promotion process and become a zombie collecting a paycheck. In this case we must determine whether their hurt feelings are a result of a real or imagined wrong. Maybe the resentment is directed toward higher-status individuals or the organization. Some resentment-driven people clam up; others explode. Both responses are unhealthy and unhelpful.

3. Fear. Fear makes people pass blame on to others. They also become very cynical insecure untrusting stubborn resistant to change and unwilling to admit they’re wrong. They are sarcastic and spread a poison of negativity throughout the department. Example: the member who when held accountable to do their job injects irrelevant distracters to cloud the air in the hope of sidetracking you. Regardless of the causes fear-driven people often miss great opportunities because they’re afraid to venture out. Instead they play it safe avoiding risks and trying to maintain the status quo.

4. Materialism (entitlement). Sometimes firefighters’ desire to acquire becomes the primary goal. This drive to always get more is based on the misconception that having more will make them happier more esteemed and more secure—but all three are untrue. Self-worth and net worth are not the same; your value is not determined by your valuables. In California many fire service leaders and organizations have worked for years to ensure salary benefits and working conditions are at or above national standards. It concerns me when I hear the words “We’re entitled to it.”

5. Need for approval. Some firefighters allow the expectations of their fellow crewmembers spouses and friends to control their lives. They’re always worried about what others might think. No wonder many fire stations experience behavioral problems—because an adult failed to show up to work that day. Unfortunately those who follow the crowd usually get lost in it. I don’t profess to know all the keys to success but one key to failure is to try to please everyone.

Do you recognize some of these behaviors in your department? Over my next several columns I hope to explore how we can address them. I’ll provide practical management tips that will help you meet common leadership challenges confront negative behaviors and redirect negatively driven people to yield enormous benefit to them their careers and your department. Stay tuned!

Clarion UX