Firefighter Training, Firefighting, Leadership

Stepping Up: Bonding, Part 2

By Ron Hiraki

Last month, we talked about the value and barriers in bonding. We gave some examples and asked how the participants in some hypothetical bonding scenarios (playing the roles of initiator, receiver, or facilitator, or key participant) helped or hindered the bonding process.

Example #1: The Deputy Chief

The fire chief could be the initiator if bonding were truly a suggestion. We can initiate and facilitate bonding, but something is missing when one of the parties is thinking, “I’m here to connect with you because the boss said so!” The battalion chief is the facilitator who (1) may have been a good leader by reminding the station members about the goal OR (2) may have set the deputy chief up for failure by creating too great of an expectation. Unfortunately, the station members (receivers) who did not get to talk with the deputy chief felt rejected when this key participant never appeared. Consider expectations, promises, and follow-through when bonding is the goal.

Example #2: The Assistant Chief

As the initiator, the assistant chief took a bold step to show appreciation and bond with the firefighter. Initially, the assistant chief may have felt dejected seeing that a good deed ended up being a two-hour gripe session. As the receiver, the firefighter could have chosen a positive or at least a more balanced agenda. However, the firefighter may have felt that this was his one and only chance to share his thoughts with a chief. Later, the assistant chief may have come to the conclusion that the invitation and time were given to the firefighter and that, ultimately, the time could be used as the firefighter wished. Needless to say, this is not the best way to start bonding. The firefighter might have considered cementing the bond before getting into the heavy stuff.

Example #3: The Captain

The captain deserves a lot of credit for demonstrating leadership in providing training or practice to the firefighters and for being the initiator who expanded the training or practice by bringing in the training chief. Additionally, the captain enticed the training chief to attend with a free dinner but also made sure the training chief did not have to do any preparatory work. All the training chief had to do was show up, eat, watch, and provide honest feedback. The training chief, a key participant, had a good time and volunteered to come back anytime. The firefighters, as the recipients, got some more training or practice and bonded with the training chief.

Example #4: The Lieutenant

How well work group members know each other depends on the personality of the members as well as the length of time they have been working together. You can work with a person for a long time and still be surprised by how much you don’t know about them. The lieutenant initiated and facilitated the bonding over cinnamon rolls. Everyone, including the lieutenant, was a recipient. It may be a little disappointing that one firefighter thought the conversation was “touchy-feely.” However, the firefighter participated and any step forward, even a small one, is good. The lieutenant may consider whether or not to adjust the content or style of discussions in the future.

Enhancing Bonding

Members working on duty together in a fire station are frequently in the same room and have the opportunity to talk. However, often that time is dedicated to another purpose, such as a work task, a drill, or even taking a meal, that gets in the way. So you can get the people together, but you will have to make sure there are no other tasks (work), functions (meal break), or distractions (TV) that will impede the bonding. Some people are looking for structure; others will just want to let the talk flow. The important thing is that the session be pleasant. Don’t let it become a gripe session, an interrogation, or even a “forced” introduction. Don’t let anyone push his agenda. The only agenda should be getting to know or connect with each other.  

Bonding with other members of the fire department must follow the same parameters as above. Additionally, you have to get those members to sit down in the fire station. Consider inviting the fire chief, assistant chief, division chief, or any other staff to you fire station for a meal or coffee. As busy as these people can be, they will probably make time if invited. Those members can invite themselves to your station by saying, “Could I drop by for coffee or just a visit?” I doubt that you and your crew will say no. One of you has to make the first move.
Firefighters often get together off duty for things like station or shift gatherings, playing sports, viewing sporting events, hunting, fishing, or skiing trips. These activities don’t always include everyone that you may want to get to know. Sometimes the larger groups make it hard for you to get to know people and bond with them.  You may have to think of alternate activities that create a bonding opportunity or that allow you to interact with a smaller group.
Non-uniformed members (e.g., mechanics, computer technicians, clerical staff, supply, and maintenance personnel), may not be comfortable inviting themselves into the fire station because they never worked in one. Firefighters will have to make the first step. They may invite them to sit down for coffee, or lunch, or come back for dinner. Make an effort to learn how another person’s job intersects with your job. By softening those business barriers and natural separations in work groups, we are strengthening relationships and building one fire department.
Off duty, you can invite a person to breakfast, lunch, or coffee. If you’re not into a meal or coffee, a brisk walk and talk may be appealing. Getting away from the fire station or office can eliminate many distractions and make talking easier. Make the invitation convenient. Find a good reason for the invitation (e.g., first day in a new job or temporary assignment). Remember to limit the time, and create a casual and friendly atmosphere. It should not be a “meeting,” which can be too ominous or too formal, and may need an agenda. You may be away from the formality of the office, but maintain an element of professionalism.
Conversational Topics 

The purpose of bonding is to get to know the personal side of people, but you can’t help but talk about work-related topics, sharing experiences, strengths and weaknesses, and eventually personal qualities or goals. The conversation may begin with work-related things. You may be working on a project and take an opportunity to share the information. The conversation may be an opportunity to see if an idea is doable. Once you develop a relationship, the conversation may progress to informal problem solving, career advice, or even mentoring.

Officers and Supervisors

There is some additional advice for officers and supervisors when initiating bonding activities. 

  • Both of you should know that the bonding is an informal, quasi-professional meeting, and a gesture of friendship, nothing more. You should not have to follow the chain-of-command to eat lunch with someone.
  • Be careful about showing favoritism. Is there is a professional reason for the meeting?
  • Be fair and open. In a small office, try to invite each person individually, or in a small group. Don’t exclude an individual from the opportunity. Once people know you do this, learn to accept an invitation from someone else. Someone may recognize your willingness to discuss things and develop relationships. Remember to be accepting of their invitation.
  • Be cognizant of the value of the hospitality. As the initiator, you don’t have to spend a lot of money. As a recipient, you should not receive anything of significant monetary value. An ordinary breakfast or lunch is probably fine, and coffee is a great alternative. I don’t know too many people who would be swayed by a cheese omelet or a sandwich.
  • Offer once or twice, and then stop. If the person declines the invitation, respect his decision.
A Simple Kindness

When I was a lieutenant and took my first job at headquarters, my immediate supervisor was a deputy chief. My first day in the office, in addition to the standard welcome and orientation, he invited me out to lunch. His kindness and openness sent the message that it was OK to eat lunch together professionally, and then more personally. Because he opened the door, he and I (and our wives) have been friends for the past 25 years. We are both retired now and live 100 miles apart, but we still meet up several times a year. I hope you will make an effort to bond with someone.

Ron Hiraki began his career as a firefighter in the Seattle(WA)  Fire Department, working in a variety of operational and administrative positions leading to his final assignment as Assistant Chief of Employee Development. Completing his career as an assistant chief for a small combination fire department, Hiraki has nearly 30 years of fire service experience in urban and suburban settings. He holds a Master of Science in human resources development, and is a consultant to a number of public safety agencies for their selection and performance evaluation programs.