Trouble Maker? Don't Be So Sure

By Mark vonAppen

What makes a good probationary firefighter? You might answer any of a number of things. Words like diligent, considerate, quiet, and obedient come to mind. Certainly these are some desirable attributes for a new firefighter to possess but it begs the question. Are the traits that we romanticize in the ideal probationary firefighter stifling critical thinking and stunting the development of the individual and in turn the growth of the organization?

Are these the traits of a leader?

New firefighters must be provided with psychological safety in order to exercise their ability to think for themselves and solve problems. If they are allowed this individual sanctuary from sharp- shooters they will become stronger contributors to the company, the organization, and perhaps the fire service as a whole.

Be seen and not heard

Cultural mores in the fire service often dictate that new firefighters follow orders and established traditions without question. The (flawed) theory is that the new firefighter lacks any experience base to draw from and is totally reliant on the officer and other crew- members to achieve the goal- whatever it may be.

Respect for the officer, senior members of the department and for the scalar organization within the fire service is important so that the machine runs efficiently. This piece is not meant to confront the fire service org chart but rather to challenge the way that new employees are sometimes treated.

Do we teach our new firefighters to be irrationally acquiescent?

The parochial nature of our profession sometimes passes on toxic traditions.

A distinct problem potentially arises in the fire service when firefighters experience a lack of psychological safety and a marked fear of authority. This fear of authority can manifest itself either from the formal leader- the officer- or the informal leader- the station bully.

Stand still and look pretty.

Heard it before?

How about this one?

You’ve got two ears and one mouth so you can listen twice as much as you talk.

Almost anyone would describe a good new firefighter as one that is seen and not heard, who obediently follows orders, and doesn’t ask a lot of questions. Everybody loves the new firefighter who performs his/ her duties without question. They’re easy to deal with.

Are these firefighters always your strongest fire ground performers? Are they innovators? Are there times where it is appropriate to question how and why things are done?

Certainly.

Everyone is a safety officer, right? Irreverent statements such as, “Probies should be seen and not heard,” are completely contrary to telling everyone to be a safety officer.

If you see something important speak up.

Followed soon after by, “Don’t speak your mind until you’ve been here at least ten years.”

In other words, “If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”

Hmmm. What to do?

If a new firefighter is constantly told that their opinion is not valued at any time they will be less likely to speak up at a critical moment on the fire ground.

Research in the airline industry has shown that new co-pilots have failed to take assertive action when the pilot has become incapacitated either in simulations or during in-flight emergencies.These co-pilots failed to act because on some level they feared that they would upset their boss by speaking up or attempting to take control of a situation.

Deference shown at the wrong time can have catastrophic results. In 1979, a commuter jet crashed, in whole or in part, because the co-pilot (still on probation) failed to take over for the captain (known for his abrasive style) who became incapacitated.

Who’s calling the MAYDAY when the middle- aged (and grossly overweight) captain has a heart attack 100 feet in on the hose line? It could be the nozzle firefighter- perhaps a probie at their first fire- they had better be up to the task and know when to speak up. We need to teach our new people to be part of a team while at the same time teaching them to be self- assured, inquisitive, free- thinking problem solvers.

Questions affect learning

It is interesting- to me, anyway- that in IFSTA Company Officer, Fourth Edition, Ch 2- Leadership, the curriculum identifies the traits that differentiate managers from leaders. In short, managers maintain while leaders push the envelope. Here are some examples:

  • Managers ask how and when; leaders ask what and why.
  • Managers accept the status quo; leaders challenge the status quo.
  • Managers are classic good soldiers; leaders are their own people.

Supplant the word manager for firefighter and take a moment to consider how new firefighters are sometimes treated. We often tell our firefighters to accept the status quo, to be good soldiers, to be drones. “That’s how it is done here. We’ve always done it that way.”

Be a "yes" man and you'll go far my son. Challenge the conventional and you're in for a bumpy ride. Fasten your seat-belt.

In so many words, “Don’t challenge the establishment. Everything is fine the way it is.”

Now go back and look at what the traits of a leader are. If you have a firefighter, company officer, or chief who asks a lot of questions, who challenges accepted practice by bringing in fresh ideas, stands out from the crowd, and is their own person, what label are they given?

Remember, these are considered leadership traits.

Would you call them noisy complainers (a euphemism for big pain in the ass)?

I’ll bet in most organizations anywhere in the world the answer is yes, they are considered huge pains in the ass. Once again fire service literature and traditions are a study in contradiction.

As a whole we encourage new people to maintain, not innovate.

Psychological safety for these individuals who exhibit critical thinking is crucial in developing self- reliance in new firefighters. Firefighters who are noisy complainers and considered troublemakers are often the ones who inspire the greatest learning. They are the ones who talk about their mistakes and the mistakes of others in the interest of furthering knowledge. They are the ones who constantly question what and why to seek better solutions than what is simply accepted practice. These types of questioners sometimes annoy managers and their peers but are welcomed by those who seek to lead the fire service forward.

These questions cause others to be introspective- and sometimes reflecting on past practices is painful.

We must not crush an individual’s will to learn and innovate. The ability to trust in the leader to allow for mistakes and even failure in training situations is central to cultivating the spirit of learning and innovation.

Question your answers

Creation of a safe work environment where people have the confidence to act without fear of reprimand or mockery is key to building trust, the most important part of getting the most out of people.

A safe work environment involves the following:

  • Suspending judgement
  • Aiming high
  • Avoiding cynicism
  • Encouraging others

Firefighters are especially vulnerable to making mistakes when things appear to be progressing according to routine. When we don’t notice things are amiss we mindlessly apply SOG’s and go along with the program and may miss menacing warning signs from the environment. All firefighters must be able to think beyond the linear- the logical- and think with anticipation.

To guard against complacency we must constantly ask, “What’s up?” We must be wary of success and suspicious of quiet periods. We must teach and encourage firefighters to act with anticipation, to guard against complacency. Teach firefighters to ask questions and plan for potential problems no matter how normal things appear. When a nuisance fire alarm is received- in a building that you have been to a number of times without incident- you must be doubly cautious (see "Tragedy in a Residential High Rise, Memphis, Tennessee," Fire Engineering March 1995).

Remember- pride makes us fake- being humble keeps us real. We must maintain a beginner’s attitude in order to keep learning and maintain awareness. Beginners question everything- they should- in doing so their minds remain open to new information. As soon as we think we have figured out the situation it changes.

If we have our minds made up that there is only one right way to do something, new information will not be able to dislodge the notion. We must allow new information to reshape our mental models. Hence, maintaining an open mind has us constantly curious about our circumstances so we continually reassess our situation.

We must allow new firefighters to ask questions.

Some of our best ideas and plans come from listening to others. Take advantage of all the training available to you and ask a lot of questions of the veterans- they are a plentiful source of knowledge- all you have to do is ask.

Listen a little more

Cooperation is central to the function of a team. We must cooperate on all levels with our coworkers. If you want to be heard as a boss you have to listen. We must be interested in finding the best way of delivering service. The best way might not always be the old way.

It is all too easy to crush a new persons spirit. Nothing takes away initiative like not being heard.To continually engage those we work with we must listen to what people have to say. It takes courage for young people to stand up and speak. Likewise, it takes courage to listen to your subordinates.

There is a firefighter in my department who started an Internet sales company in his dorm room in college. He and some of his classmates- a euphemism for drinking buddies- at The University of California, Berkeley thought it would be cool to start an on-line shoe company; it’s called Zappos (you may have heard of it). He grew tired of the dotcom life and put himself through paramedic school so he could become a firefighter, his life- long dream. I’m sure the fire service could benefit from listening to a guy like that. He’s smart, innovative, and he brings a wealth of customer service and business savvy to the department.

When he was the new guy do you think anyone listened to him about his areas of expertise? Developing business models that work and the selection of quality employees might be something the fire service should explore.

I've got just the guy for the job.

It is a travesty that for years his ideas and enthusiasm were largely ignored. We run the risk of having much of our young talent die on the vine if their efforts a consistently disregarded.

Times have changed immeasurably in recent years. The fire service can no longer afford to have all ideas come from a central point at the top of the organization. We must regain the spirit of innovation that has propelled the fire service forward in days past and buoyed it in difficult times.

Don’t be so quick to silence those who raise questions. Are they really trouble- makers? Don’t be so sure.

Good listeners are not only popular everywhere but eventually they learn something. The next great idea could come from your firehouse, it might be trapped inside of the timid new firefighter who has been told to keep their mouth shut and mop the floor.

Think about it.

MARK vonAPPEN, a member of the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department since 1998, is assigned to the suppression division where he holds the rank of captain. He is a committee member for California State Fire Training and has contributed to the development of Firefighter Survival and Rapid Intervention curriculums. He is an instructor for the Santa Clara County Joint Fire Academy, the South Bay Regional Fire Academy, a recruit Instructor for Palo Alto Fire, and a member of the “Nobody Gets Left Behind” training group.

Bibliography:

Sutton, Robert I., “Good Boss, Bad Boss” 2010 Business Plus

Allyn, Dr. Kimberly, “Rising to Real Leadership” 2011 Fire Presentations

IFSTA Company Officer 4th Edition

by Mark vonAppen

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