Just Be Nice. Is it Time for a Kinder, Gentler Fire Service?
Joseph Kitchen, Bath Twp. Fire Department (Lima, Ohio)
Several years ago Chief Brunacini unveiled the Phoenix Fire Department mission statement: "Prevent Harm, Survive, Be Nice." The idea of firefighters being nice is not a new concept. There are many articles and programs about customer service and improved community relations. Overall, I think many fire departments across the U.S. are doing better at this. We understand the importance of strong community support now more than ever before. That being said, I feel that there is still a place where being nice is often forgotten and needed. It’s not out on the fire scene or in the back of the medic unit. It’s right inside of our fire stations.
All firefighters will tell you that they are willing to risk their lives to save another. This sentiment is even stronger when the life is that of one of our own. The mayday call of a lost or trapped firefighter sends chills down the spine of even the most seasoned veteran firefighter. We believe in brotherhood, teamwork, and ensuring that "everyone goes home." These are pillars of our fire service culture and they are a true picture of what we, as firefighters, stand for and believe in. I have seen firefighters do amazing things for fighters who are ill, injured, or have a family member in need. This is one of the reasons I am so proud to put on the uniform each day.
However, I have to admit, despite all of the amazing things firefighters do for each other, the culture inside the fire station can unfortunately breed a spirit of bullying and negative relationships among coworkers. Sometimes it comes in the form of hazing and, sadly, the line between "good clean fun" and painful initiation can be blurred. When asked why this behavior exists, I’ve had firefighters state, "I went through it too." Others disturbingly say that it’s "tradition." I’m comfortable with the new guy getting stuck on toilet duty, but when he or she is told they aren’t allowed to speak, eat meals with the crew, or many other harsh "traditions, " then perhaps it’s time to rethink our values. I want new firefighters to fall in love with the fire service the way I have. I want them to ask questions, get engaged, and begin to feel what this awesome brotherhood is really all about. I do not want them feeling anxiety, like they have entered into some type of rogue fraternity.
I am not advocating a culture of "anything goes" where all we do is smile and give each other compliments all day while we sit around the campfire singing "Kumbaya." There are times we need to be tough and direct. Strong leadership is paramount in this life and death career of ours. However, when it comes to day to day operations, being kind to each other will make an immediate and dramatic improvement at the fire station. Kindness is a behavior marked by ethical characteristics, a pleasant disposition, and genuine concern for others. It is a virtue that we learn early in life but often forget as we get older, more stressed, and cynical about life.
It’s not just our new firefighters that sometimes become victim to unkind or insensitive coworkers. Every department has had a member begin to struggle for various reasons. Divorce, financial issues, problems with children, loss of a loved one, can lead a firefighter or paramedic to begin to be alienated by their crew. Often we have not created a culture where it’s acceptable to talk about personal issues with our coworkers. Firefighters may fear that they may be
perceived as "soft" or "weak." With the increase in firefighter suicides across the nation, we must immediately take action to correct this. We would all die to save a trapped firefighter at a fire, but how many of us would walk out into the apparatus bay with a coworker and say "Hey man, are you okay? Do you need to talk?"
Being nice. It’s not a difficult concept. Celebrating the success of our coworkers or giving positive feedback and encouraging words could immediately change the tone within many firehouses across the nation. Letting go of this "tough guy" machismo would go a long way to improving morale on the shift. We have accepted that some employees conduct themselves in an unfriendly manner. Many firefighters have asked, "What’s the deal with that guy?" only to be told, "Oh that’s just how he is, ignore him" essentially giving employees a free pass to be rude and cause havoc within the organization. As leaders, we need to draw a line in the sand and set the example that kindness and compassion are not only desired qualities in the fire service, but that it is "right" way to treat people.
So here’s your challenge, starting on your next shift. No training class to take, equipment to purchase, certification to obtain. Just walk in to the firehouse and be nice. It’s that simple.
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.