Tips for Helping a New Officer Cope with Personnel Problems

BY FRED McLEOD

One of the universal basic tenets of the fire service is that we take care of our own. This is a good thing. Yet, all firefighters, from newbie to chief, know that some members take advantage of that tradition. I have never read an article about incompetent firefighters; yet, as a firefighter and an officer, I’ve had to work with and manage men and women who were not capable of doing the job for which they were trained. Few books deal with the managerial relationships of the officer and the firefighter. The information in them is useful when you take a promotional exam but not as useful in real life on the job. What should you do when there is a personnel problem in the station house?

Firefighters who choose to become involved in the promotional process often learn some management techniques. Unfortunately, my experience has shown that none of these techniques truly prepare the new officer for an unacknowledged problem of the fire service. In a seniority-based system, the good officers are usually in the good stations. The stations that first become available to a newly promoted officer are often stations with a problem. How does an officer deal with a firefighter who can’t safely drive a fire truck? A medic who consistently makes rash diagnoses? Hazing of a newbie that started before you arrived and is now out of hand?

You’ve had years of experience as a firefighter. You knew these problems existed. Now, as you’re trying to master the art of command at the scene of an emergency, you come to realize that your most important asset, the firefighters under your command, may be flawed in their ability, training, or personality. There are no cut-and-dried answers, but there are some reasonable steps you can take to protect yourself, your crew, and the citizens.

I have found there are two general types of personnel issues an officer may encounter. I have categorized them as the “problem child” and the “sick” station.

PREPARING TO MEET THE CHALLENGES

Officers can take steps, including the following that can better prepare them for handling such personnel matters.

  • Study your department’s administrative protocols. Do the drug and alcohol rules come into play? Research your city’s Civil Service Commission; the Equal Employment Opportunity Office that works under the commission will have standards that you must meet.
  • Make sure your own house is clean. At some point, you will be bringing attention to yourself. Conduct inspections, maintain logs, and complete the necessary clerical work involved in running the station house.
  • Buy a notebook and create a private officer’s journal/log that contains accounts of behaviors and events not appropriate for public view in your station house log. Detail your responses to occurrences in terms of discipline and remedial training. If possible, keep this journal in a secure computer file. The advantage of using a computer is that each separate entry is date and time stamped. The journal is not a legal document but, when corroborated by other personnel, can be an important account of events at an administrative disciplinary meeting.
  • Consider establishing communication with your peers and immediate superiors. They probably will not be surprised by your concerns and may serve as a good sounding board. It is important to lay the groundwork in case any conflict should occur. Sometimes it may be difficult to lay out the issues and your responses to them in a manner that will gain you support. If it becomes apparent that support will not be forthcoming, it is better to hold your own counsel.

ASSESS THE LARGER CONTEXT

Consider the larger context of the actions you might undertake. How does the department’s administration support officers’ disciplinary efforts? Large departments often have a separate investigative unit, but politics, Civil Service, and personal relationships may intervene. They sometimes have more nonemergency positions.

In smaller departments, the chief or senior officers usually investigate. Personal relationships can have a major impact. There are fewer nonemergency positions, and there is less chance that the problems have gone unreported.

Unions can become involved at any part of the disciplinary process. They often tend to defend members. The union’s relationship with the fire administration can have a huge impact on the more serious disciplinary problems an officer may encounter.

Civil Service provides another level of protection for the employee, often with the result that any discipline provided by the chief is lightened and it is nearly impossible to release employees for incompetence.

I have found that when good firefighters suddenly start to have problems on the job, the most likely cause is problems at home. The officer cannot solve crises that occur off the job. Yet, it is crucial that officers develop a relationship with their crew so that they are aware of problems when they occur and can provide support or arrange for other support. The tradition of taking care of our own proves its worth in these situations. The efforts members make on behalf of a fellow firefighter can be astounding at times, but the social and psychological support they provide can be even more important.

Burnout can occur at any point in a firefighter’s career. A couple of years on an active company, a problematic home life, and a traumatic emergency scene can combine to suddenly transform a good firefighter into a liability. The officer’s responsibility is complex; the resolution may involve multiple techniques.

PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT

Officers can grow through study and self-development. Working through Stephen Covey’s The Seven Steps to Highly Effective People can provide personal insight into changes that can be made to improve ourselves. Many other self-help programs can also be useful for officers.

One I would recommend for officers experiencing personality conflicts within their crews is Please Understand Me: Character and Temperament Types by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates. The authors lay out a system of personality traits-Introverted/Extroverted, Sensing/Intuition, Thinking/Feeling, and Judging/Perceiving. The 12 possible combinations of these traits generate personality types that can help reveal the source of conflict between individuals. In the chapter on leadership, the four styles of leadership that come naturally from each personality type are discussed, along with the strengths and weaknesses of each style.

Now that you have done the groundwork, it is time to face the task at hand.

THE “PROBLEM CHILD”

When you come into a station house with a “problem child,” or if the individual comes to you through a transfer, take some time to evaluate the individual’s knowledge, skills, and experience before reacting. What you hear through the grapevine rarely is completely accurate. Evaluate the firefighter’s strengths and weaknesses for yourself. List in the back of your journal the skills your department expects of its firefighters. Rate the skill level of the individual in question. If readiness is an issue, stipulate the training the new department member will need to bring up the skill level. Some flaws are innate and cannot easily be rectified by training. They are the hardest situations to resolve. However, by being aware of them and noting them in your journal, you are developing a plan of action. This may not fix the problem but should at least provide a guide toward resolution.

Since I’ve been promoted to lieutenant, I have had two firefighters in my companies who were not capable of safely driving a fire truck on an emergency run. That is somewhat a subjective opinion, but it is the officer’s job to make that judgment. These firefighters had 15 or more years of experience and work in a department in which all members are trained to drive and operate the apparatus. Training would not resolve these firefighters’ deficiencies-at least, not without placing the public and their fellow firefighters at risk. Perhaps such a situation would not be as likely to occur in a department that has an engineer’s position. Even if a “problem child,” like some broken piece of apparatus, can’t be fixed, you, the officer, must work toward some sort of a resolution.

BASIC RESPONSES

An officer can respond to a problem situation in the following ways:

Training

Make this the first response. The majority of firefighters respond well to education and hands-on job experience. Firefighters with a reputation for being lazy often respond positively when given training appropriate for their position.

Training should be a regular part of fire department life. When it comes to firefighters who may be problems, it’s a necessity. In many ways, training is the acid test for determining if an employee is a problem. If the firefighter’s abilities, confidence level, and competence increase with training, you know that, with experience, the firefighter will become a good crew member. If the firefighter rejects training, says he is already experienced, and continues to make errors on the job, you have a “problem child.”

Using the training option initially to address personnel concerns is a good idea in that it may solve the problem and, if well-documented, lay the groundwork for the future disciplinary process.

Training may not always be a viable option. Fires that can provide training do not occur often in many jurisdictions. There may be no remedial driving school. What training can the officer provide for a member who is physically unable to raise a 20-foot ladder? If the treatment choices made by a paramedic are suspect, what training is available to rectify the problem?

During my early tenure as lieutenant, I was assigned long-term to a station that had a member who was a problem. I had a long conversation with the officer I was replacing; he was retiring because of disability. His standing order for this firefighter was “not to get off the engine at an emergency scene.” The officer had already begun a journal, had contacted his battalion chief, and had attempted to start the disciplinary process on the basis that this 15-year veteran lacked competence.

However, the officer had not provided any significant training. This undercut the effort to deal with the difficult situation. Without retraining, the union would defend this firefighter’s rights, the prejudice card could be played, and discipline could not be effectively administered.

On the single emergency run in which this firefighter was the driver, a freeway automobile accident that turned into an extrication, he displayed poor driving skills and could not get the pump in gear or charge a line without help. That was the only time this firefighter drove for me. I came to believe he was untrainable and a hazard to himself, his fellow firefighters, and the citizens.

Containment

This option is used when it is apparent that no amount of training will make the firefighter competent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the individual cannot make a contribution at the station. Most fire officers are problem solvers by nature, and it sometimes is difficult for them to realize they cannot solve the problem before them. Life safety is the prime consideration in the fire service. It is impossible for the officer to maximize life safety without a clear assessment of the abilities of his crew members. If one of the crew has a fear of heights, the officer doesn’t assign him to cut a hole in the roof-that is containment and furthering life safety. No amount of training is going to alleviate this individual’s fear, but it is a nonissue if his officer assigns him to the engine or a position in which he will not have to confront it.

Another firefighter, a 20-plus-year veteran with whom I worked, had standing verbal orders not to drive. He had been assigned to a ladder company most of his career and was experienced as a driver. Yet, after some months of evaluation, I concluded that his driving ability, especially in an emergency, was potentially dangerous. Perhaps, his confidence had waned over the years or his depth perception had become less acute. I believe he was relieved when he no longer had to take his turn driving. With good, close supervision, this firefighter was a willing worker at the emergency scene and more than willing to help around the station. At this point in his career, training probably was not going to improve his driving ability. Containment of this flaw allowed him to successfully finish out his career.

Referral

When training won’t help and you’ve provided for containment of your personnel problem, the next step is to consider resources outside the department. Many localities have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Often, when a firefighter brings problems from home to work, the EAP can provide training or contacts with professionals to whom the department has no direct access. Perhaps, this is where to direct a firefighter with a fear of height. I’ve encouraged firefighters to seek help for diverse reasons such as anger management, drinking problems, relationship counseling, and programs to stop smoking. Sometimes, they chose not to seek help. That was their choice. At least, they knew help was available. Document a referral in your officer’s journal. If a problem gets bumped up to a higher administrative level, you will have to establish that you made an effort to rectify it.

Transfer

Many departments frown on using transfers to resolve personnel problems. It should not be the officer’s first choice, but sometimes a change of scenery improves the attitude and relieves the tension that occasionally develops between personnel. The first time I asked for a transfer, for example, one of my officers made me so frustrated that I was afraid I would hit him. I am sure my departure reduced the level of tension in that station.

Shortly after I was promoted, I filled in at one station long-term while the permanent officer recovered from an illness. One firefighter, who had been assigned to this station since coming out of the academy 15 years or so earlier, was now a source of disruption. The officer and crew that trained him when he was a newbie had all transferred to less-active stations or retired. He was now the senior firefighter in the station, but the less experienced firefighters did not give him the respect he felt he deserved. His attitude and responses prompted feedback from the rest of the crew, and actions that would have been ignored or overlooked in someone else now became a source of conflict. One evening, we had a discussion about all his grievances with his fellow firefighters, the fire department, and the civilians we served. Finally, I suggested to him that he consider transferring. I listed my reasons and shared my experience of changing stations. He gave no indication that he would follow my suggestion, but he was listed with a new station on the next transfer list. I believe he has continued his career successfully.

Another type of transfer to consider is a transfer in duties. Many fire departments train their personnel in the dual role of firefighter/paramedic. In my experience, paramedics at stations with a high rate of runs during their shift are more likely to suffer the symptoms of burnout. Usually, firefighters recognize the symptoms and find a different position within the department on their own. However, if a good paramedic begins to have problems, the officer should be aware of it and able to provide options. Sometimes short-term options, 30 days on a ladder company or as an assistant to a chief, may help. Longer-term options depend on the size of the department and the support of the administration.

Sometimes officers should consider making transfers themselves. Often, the desire to fix what is wrong overrides the realization that you may not be the right person for that job.

Transferring should never be the first choice. The options above should be tried first. It is detrimental to the department to transfer problems instead of resolving them. However, there are instances when a firefighter who is a source of trouble at one station becomes a good employee at another station.

Removal

One of the most difficult positions for an officer is to realize that a fellow firefighter should be removed from his position. The officer who believes one of his firefighters is incompetent to the point of being dangerous to civilians and fellow firefighters faces hard choices. No fire administration wants to deal with the bad press and potential lawsuits that could occur if it dismisses a firefighter. If the firefighter involved is a member of a minority group, the local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will examine the case whether or not discriminatory actions have occurred. Be forewarned: Most firefighters dislike incompetence, and that dislike may be revealed by behaviors that closely mirror prejudice. Unions will not allow a member to be released without a fight unless criminal charges have been proven. The Civil Service will almost certainly have a hearing to review the case. In other words, no one will be on the officer’s side if he is recommending dismissal. Do not recommend the dismissal of a firefighter. Marshal the facts, and report them in a document, such as in the following example:

Chief,

Having discovered that Firefighter/EMT-B John Doe was unable to perform blood pressure (B/P), I provided training for him and the rest of my crew. On January 5 and 8, we had B/P training in the station house. Firefighter Doe seemed to understand the procedure and was able to perform it adequately at that time. This June, I discovered that he again was reporting all B/Ps as 120/80. I had Firefighter Doe do the B/Ps on five consecutive EMS runs. He reported all the B/Ps as 120/80. The medic personnel, at my request, repeated the B/Ps and found the readings significantly different in every case (see attached reports).
As far as I know, Firefighter Doe passed his last physical with no hearing deficits.

Sincerely,

Lt. -----------

By writing the letter, you inform the department of the situation and provide an opportunity for feedback. This is the department’s chance to inform you of the further actions you need to take. Complaining to the chief that “this idiot has been in the company for 15 years and can’t even do a B/P” will have no positive impact on the situation. If you recognize a problem, address it in training. If the problem still exists, then notify the administration. Often, officers are expected to solve problems and make recommendations. Certainly, that is appropriate when dealing with equipment or fire department procedures. When it comes to the more difficult disciplinary situations, however, the wise officer lets the administration lead the way.

NEW HIRES

I don’t believe that new hires, no matter how raw, can be considered problem children-not until they have at least three years on the job. Sometimes the most important factor in firefighters’ development is experience, or lack of it. How busy is the firefighter’s truck or engine?

The officer can be another important factor affecting the development of new hires. Did the officer provide adequate and appropriate training, share his experiences, and serve as a model of how firefighters should perform their duties at the station house and the emergency scene? If you’re the officer of a new hire who isn’t performing up to standards, consider these factors before judging too harshly. Training and mentoring should always be the first responses.

“SICK” COMPANIES

The most difficult position a newly promoted officer can be placed in is to be assigned to a dysfunctional station house. These stations still manage to do the work of the fire department; they just don’t do it well. Training is irregular. The house cleaning is minimal, and inspections may not be performed on time or properly. Fires are still put out, but sometimes the crews do not adhere to procedures. Although I’ve never seen a study to confirm this, I suspect one of the markers of a dysfunctional station house is a high rate of injuries combined with a high use of sick leave. Each “sick” company is sick in its distinctive way. My experience has shown that the problems can be traced to a single source-the officer.

No promotional exam is 100-percent effective. Some very intelligent people do not have the qualities to be an effective company officer. Usually, the firefighters assigned to a company that has an ineffective officer make sure, one way or another, that the necessary tasks of the fire department are accomplished. As a firefighter, I was assigned to a station house in which it was known, but officially unacknowledged, that the officer would not enter a burning building. It was always deemed necessary to “establish a command post” in front of the building. Yet, the crews did their job, the station house survived, and there were no disasters. This company didn’t become “sick” because of the lack of maturity and experience of the firefighters assigned there.

When officers play favorites, manipulate duty rosters, overlook personality conflicts, allow excessive hazing of newbies, fail to provide training, or fail to serve as a role model, they are creating a climate for a potential dysfunctional station. At some point, perhaps because of a specific event or a gradual realization, the officer comes to understand that in some way he has failed and moves on to another position. When that finally occurs, the new officer comes into a situation that is probably different from any other station house to which he has been assigned.

Firefighting is a profession that inspires passion for the job. Those who have studied hard enough to become promoted are most likely to feel a desire to do the job well. However, when coming into a dysfunctional station, one of the more difficult challenges is to balance one’s desire for camaraderie with the detachment necessary for addressing the crew’s shortcomings. If you are at a dual company house and are the junior officer, your ability to lead and effect changes may be limited. At a single company house, you may find that the crew is happy with the status quo.

If your desire to do the job right leads to confrontation with your crew, you may find yourself in a defensive posture-officer vs. firefighter. Whether at a large station house or a small one, take the three steps listed at the beginning of this article. Then perform an honest assessment: Did the previous officer’s actions lead to the current situation? Which firefighters are the leaders? Does their leadership cause problems or solve problems at the station house? Who is a “problem child,” and who may be salvaged? What departmental policies and directives are not being carried out in the intended manner? Which firefighters will be your allies as you try to change the dysfunctions you recognize?

CHANGING THE CULTURE

Firefighters, like most people, don’t like change. Take your time. Start making changes that are clearly delineated by your department’s procedures and protocols. Be clear about what is important to you, whether at the station house or at the emergency scene; but don’t make it personal. In one sense, you want the station house to change around you. By simply doing things right, you will have an enormous impact.

To help you in your objectives, create a task list and develop a consensus with your firefighters on the list’s components. Expect transfers, and don’t be surprised if a stalwart of your crew is one of the transfers. Be patient. Some behaviors you dislike may take awhile to fade away. Seek input from your crew. Provide training, especially in obvious areas of weakness. Join in physical training-volleyball, horseshoes, lifting weights, or whatever activity is common. All can help to increase camaraderie.

Although there are no set answers for fixing personnel problems in a dysfunctional station house, I have noticed that an authoritarian approach is counterproductive. The nature of the fireground requires a military command structure; in the station house, that style of leadership leads to conflict. In the past 20 years, firefighters have grown to expect that their input will be a valuable part of life while on duty. An officer who fails to respond to that input soon will be in conflict with his crew.

Sometimes an officer continues to act as “one of the boys” after promotion. When this happens, the strongest personality in the station becomes “in charge.” The social relationships in this case may seem strong among the core group, yet there always seems to be a group looking in from the outside. This group is not happy. Whether true or not, there is a sense that tasks may not be assigned equally. Certainly, those firefighters not in the core group would not consider their officer a mentor or a person in whom to confide.

Each officer must balance the need to retain authority with the personal relationships that develop over years of working together. The best way to maintain that authority is to show a high level of competence on the fireground, during training, on administrative issues, and in upholding appropriate guidelines for station house life. The best way to develop appropriate personal relationships with your crew, even if you’re not the social leader, is to be fully involved in station house life. Whether it’s playing cards in the evening, volleyball in the afternoon, or intramural baseball or basketball; union activities; or whatever aspect of station life is going on, be a part of it if you can. Even if there are conflicts that make you feel uncomfortable, don’t hide in your room. Sometimes, the most important conversations occur at the oddest times. There’s no way to predict when or where they will happen. If you create a sense that you’re available for them, they will happen when you’re around.

There are no experts on dealing with a “problem child” or “sick station.” It is a sensitive and difficult area. Since I have been an officer, I’ve been forced to deal with enough of these issues to know that it is an important subject. Personnel issues are too often quietly ignored. My goal in writing this article is to help officers address their concerns.

FRED McLEOD is a 22-year veteran of the Columbus (OH) Division of Fire, where he is a lieutenant/paramedic on the second rescue.

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