Can’t We All Just Get Along? Conflict Resolution in the Fire House
Joseph Kitchen, Bath Twp. Fire Department (Lima, Ohio)
Some call it drama. Many believe that it’s just a normal part of working with people. No matter how you classify it, there always seems to be some level of conflict whenever people are working together in a stressful environment. I believe that it’s even tougher for firefighters as we are living, working, eating, and sleeping together. Firefighters aren’t afraid to share their strong opinions and sometimes this leads to arguments, poor attitudes, and hurt feelings. As company officers and fire service leaders, it’s our responsibility to resolve these issues quickly and effectively before they boil over and create a negative working environment and poor morale within the organization.
Here are a few tips for shift supervisors and chief officers on dealing with conflicts within our fire departments:
- Never allow yourself to make a kneejerk reaction. Sometimes our response to a conflict can create a bigger issue than the conflict itself. Take a breath. Take a walk. Make a phone call. Count to 100. Do not immediately react and make things worse. Allowing yourself to be dragged into the mud isn’t productive. Take the time to THINK about your response.
- Don’t be afraid to let people know how their negative words or bad behavior has made you feel. Trust me, if a firefighter has a choice between a five minute butt chewing with some yelling and finger pointing versus a closed door meeting with a supervisor telling them things like, “I am very saddened and disappointed in you,” they will take the yelling every time. Be honest, open up and use words and phrases that are impactful and that will encourage future behavior change.
- Don’t take it personally. Just because someone doesn’t agree with you isn’t a reason to get upset. It’s okay for others to have their own views and opinions. Take a step back and try to see the situation through their eyes. Take into consideration their perspective on the situation.
- Never add fuel to the fire. Sometimes when people are mad and things are being said that are hurtful and unkind, we ramp it up by screaming, yelling, and getting into an individual’s personal space. ANY type of physical contact is totally unacceptable. Don’t ramp it up by making a bad situation even worse.
- Take one for the team. Once and awhile it’s okay to just agree to disagree. You don’t need to win every argument or dispute. What’s the big deal if you just throw in the towel and walk away? Why do we always have to settle the score? Maybe this isn’t the correct response in every instance, but once and awhile you can just “let it go.”
- Look at yourself. Are you the problem? Look at the last three or four conflicts on your shift or your department. Were you involved in each one? Are you always finding yourself at the center of conflict within the organization? If so, maybe it’s time to take a really long hard look in the mirror.
- Work on being more flexible. I understand that we have a chain of command. Sometimes we are dealing with life and death situations. We are a paramilitary organization. However, there are many cases in which we could benefit by changing our mind, or saying yes when we’d rather say no. Try being more open minded. Change is tough but sometimes it’s the best path for our team.
- Be aware of your body language. We all know the firefighter who turns red when he is mad. We’ve seen eyes roll, veins pop out, arms cross, and feet stomp. We’ve heard huffing and puffing and doors slamming. All of these non-verbal communications can negatively affect the outcome of a situation.
- Just talk to them! Regularly, when I am brought up to speed about a potential employee conflict, I listen to the details and hear how awful a person has been. I hear example after example of how this particular firefighter is horrible and how “everyone here agrees with me.” Then I ask, “Have you talked them?” As in, “really talked to them?” Often the answer is no. Most conflicts can be solved by face to face communication. We are all different and come from varying backgrounds and life experiences. But, at the end of the day, we are linked together through brotherhood, and we can usually find a solution by just talking it out.
- Forgive. Firefighters are master grudge holders. They can tell you about the guy on “B” shift out at station number nine who called in sick on Christmas of 1997. We have a bad habit of making an assumption about a fellow employee or volunteer based on something in the past and they never make it off the grudge list. You know, people screw up. They make mistakes. It’s ok to give people second chances, and sometimes a third.
Conflict is a normal and natural aspect of human relationships. We shouldn’t ignore it, but we also shouldn’t perpetuate it. Dealing with conflict through thoughtful and appropriate communication will help lead to harmony within your fire station.
Joseph Kitchen, OFC, is the Chief of the Bath Twp. Fire Dept. (Lima, Ohio.) He began his career in 1990 and has served as fire chief since 2002. He holds degrees in EMS and fire science, and in 2012 was named “Fire Officer of the Year” by the Ohio Dept. of Public Safety. Follow Chief Kitchen on Twitter @bathtwpchief and visit his department’s website at www.bathtwpfd.com