Photo by Tim Olk.
By Madison Warner
I have a love/hate relationship with stereotypes. They are useful when attempting to understand a large group of people, but when forced on a small group or an individual, they can be incredibly harmful and disheartening. All stereotypes have accuracies and errors. However, for the purpose of this article, I will use a few stereotypes to clarify the point.
The fire service is not necessarily one of diversity. According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2016, 4.5 percent of all U.S. firefighters were women, 9.2 percent were black, and 9 percent were hispanic. Although this seems to be getting better (or not, you tell me), this is still the reality for many of us; some places likely have even lower statistics.
I have nothing against the “typical” firefighter (see my above example); these can be fantastic, smart employees that bring great customer service and leadership to the industry. They can also be terrible, lazy employees that don’t contribute anything at all. But what if you aren’t a typical firefighter, statistically speaking? Sometimes people don’t feel like they belong when facing these differences in the fire station. What do you say when everyone is talking about their hunting trips, and you are a vegan? What if you identify as nonbinary in your gender identity or sexual orientation? You may want to share something about yourself to help bond with your crewmembers, but how much is too much or not enough?
First of all, you BELONG! You have put in the work, obtain the certifications, take the tests, and put in the hours. If you are dedicated to consistently improving yourself, supporting your coworkers and department, and providing a high level of customer service, don’t let anyone (or yourself) convince you that you do not belong just because you see differences from your crew. You deserve this career and you deserve to be treated fairly. End of story.
You will likely face your differences at the firehouse, eventually. As you may or may not already know, firefighter love to gossip, talk politics, and stir the pot. You may even been directly confronted at some point. DO NOT CHANGE WHO YOU ARE JUST TO AVOID CONFLICT OR PLEASE OTHERS. The world would be a terribly miserable place if we were all the same. Embrace your uniqueness, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it!
Hide Your Goat
You don’t have to share your differences with your crews if you don’t want to. If someone confronts you about your status of dating preferences; gender identity; or opinion on politics, religion, or whatever, you are not obligated to answer. Your job is to be a public service professional—and a darn good one at that—not answer questions about your religious, political, or agenda views. Be careful, however, to not let them know “where your goat is tied.” If you have not heard this saying, it means to don’t let them know what gets to you.
For example, let’s say “Sally” loves to read. She can hardly put a book down—science fiction, fantasy, or whatever; reading is her solace. Her crewmembers nickname her the “Book Worm,” which she dislikes. Sally wants to be known for being a hard worker, not for reading. This bothers her, and she is constantly telling the crew to change her name, putting her books away, and so on. She gets flustered while even reading department memos because her crew calls her Book Worm. Sally has shown them where her goat is tied, and now they are going to go poke it with a stick. Even if something does rub you the wrong way, act as if it doesn’t. If you don’t feed the raccoons, they will give up bothering you and leave.
Sharing is Not Necessarily Caring
You decide when and how you share your differences with others. If something bothers you, don’t bring it up, and try not to react if someone else does. Just let it go, be professional and save those conversations for your friends and family. If you do decide to share, don’t downgrade your differences. For example, if you are vegan, just be solid in your beliefs. You will likely get lots of questions and even be given offers and opinions on why you are wrong or why you should change. You do not have to accept these. Firefighters LOVE to debate; just be you. A safe bet is to change the topic back to work-related matters, especially if you have questions about something you don’t know.
It seems that many young/new firefighters feel they are required to “expose” their life to the tiniest detail. They share hobbies, education, family life, history, and childhood, everything short of their bank account number, as if by offering up as much information as possible will cause their crew to be more trustworthy of them or accept them faster; as if by exposing their entire personality, they will show their dedication to the fire service. We need dedicated firefighters. However, holding a magnifying glass over yourself at work is not necessary. If that’s your thing, go for it, but know you don’t have to.
Many people find an identity as a firefighter, which is great, but it is not required. Your job does not have to be YOU. You owe it to the world to achieve all you can achieve, such as when we feel the most satisfied with our lives; when we are the most productive and happy, we share ourselves with the world.
That being said, you do need to bond with your crews; you will literally be toying with death with these people. You cannot just hole up in your room, on the rig, or on your phone and avoid all conversation, nor can you be so distanced from the job that you just look forward to going home every day. If being an amazing firefighter doesn’t get you excited and is not your commitment, maybe is time to find a different job (and that is okay, too). There is no shame in realizing that this isn’t for everyone. Do what makes you happy.
Trust and camaraderie must flow strongly in all directions with your crew. There will always be reasons to not get along (i.e., Millennials vs. Baby Boomers), but if you can find common ground with others, you can foster healthy working relationships. If you feel comfortable, share a few things about yourself to help others to get to know you better, ask about members’ likes and dislikes, and just generally try to establish relationships with each of your crewmembers. As a firefighter, you are likely already a “Type A” personality, so this shouldn’t be too hard. Even if you think you are the complete opposite of a crewmember, if you get to know them, I bet you’ll find that you share a love of a musician, food, or something else.
When dealing with generational differences, offer your opinion or view without demanding that you be acknowledged as correct. For example, many Millennial employees are judged for being on their phones constantly at the fire station. For an older-generation employee, this can be viewed as disrespectful. What the older employee may not know is that the Millennial is looking up the latest techniques for extrication or researching new cardiac arrest guidelines. Show the older employee these articles to show you are committed to the agency and not just messing around on your phone.
Harassment and Discrimination
As a new or young employee, it can be challenging to get a feel for company culture while also understanding situations that could be harassment. Depending on your differences, you might be a prime target for harassment or discrimination. In the first few years of employment, each department is full of intense learning, attempts to fit it, and laying the map for the rest of your career. Throw a harasser or discriminator in the mix, and things get confusing and disheartening. Great employees have quit for these reasons, so communication is key.
Some fire station cultures still glorify some not-so-healthy traditions such as hazing, dirty personal protective equipment, or stripping turnout liners in hot weather. I could go on and on about why these behaviors still exist while we are in a modern, science-based firefighting industry, but for the sake of this article, let’s just all encourage each other to make smart choices. Consider hazing; to know if you are experiencing harmful hazing, it is useful to have a definition. My consulting firm uses the following description: “Hazing is the imposition of irrelevant, humiliating, unnecessarily repetitive tasks that cause a person to feel powerless, isolated, and/or embarrassed.”
Note that the intention of the hazer(s) is irrelevant; it is up to the person experiencing the hazing. Always go with your gut. We have an acute sense to know when things are not what they seem, so trust that inner voice. There is a significant difference between hazing and general camaraderie. Humor, of course, is one of the best things in the firehouse; knowing the difference all falls back to power. When a person cannot communicate when enough is enough; have his right to privacy, personal health, safety, and dignity; or he is unable to return a joke, things have gone too far. When things go too far, it effects how we think, which effects the choices we make, which then effects the outcome of our lives. Being in a supportive, encouraging, engaging environment as a new/young employee is so important that accepting hazing as the norm can be harming your agency in massive ways.
Don’t allow yourself to be disrespected. Stand up for yourself and others, even as a brand-new employee. I understand that you don’t want to make waves, don’t want to stand out, and you need to be accepted by your crews, but by accepting mistreatment, you bring the entire industry down. Use the chain of command and policies that protect you in these situations. You will look back on your retirement day and be glad that you stood up for yourself and paved a prettier path for those that followed.
Madison Warner has been in public safety since 2011, starting as a canine handler for FEMA at age 17, then moving on to various EMS venues and events, obtaining firefighter certifications, ultimately working full-time beginning in February 2018. Warner also has bachelor’s and associates degrees in emergency management.