By Derek Rosenfeld
On the morning of April 8, 2019, another FDIC International commenced with firefighters from across the country (and, in some cases, the world) bussing out to the many Hands-On Training sites around the city or staying behind to fill the halls of the Indianapolis Convention Center to take part in pre-conference workshops.
Presiding over what was among the more informative and educational workshops was Andover (MN) Fire Department Chief/Emergency Management Director Jerry L. Streich, who presented “Dealing with Difficult People and Their Impact on the Organization” during the 8 a.m. sessions.
“This topic came out of a personal research project after my experience with very complex employee situation. I was hired from the outside as a new fire chief and, over time, realized there was a firefighter inside of the station who was causing people to leave,” Streich said. “He was threatening and bullied people inside of the station. This, of course, was of great concern for me and I could not allow it. The problem was, I did not know how to handle it. My brain searched for the slide on how to deal with these complex personnel issues, but very little came up. I became stressed, drained, and tired.
“I continued to put pressure on the employee to change his behavior. He became more and more upset, which led to violence in his home, arrests, and disfunction. There was a time when he was not allowed to report to the fire station. Over the course of a few months, and after many threats toward me and my family, he returned without warning to see me. Fortunately, I was in my office with another employee, so he left. A few hours later, the fire department was paged to a shooting call at his address. He killed his wife, called 911, and then himself.
“But who were the ones shot? Was he in the home waiting for firefighters to arrive so he could shoot them, too? Was he waiting for me? The story made headline news with the police stating they knew this firefighter was violent. How did this not get passed on?” Streich asked himself.
“Why did the former chief not take care of this problem BEFORE I arrived? This led me into a deep research project on employee law, criminal history checks, and management. After this case, I was able to testify at the Minnesota State Capital to change our laws related to public safety criminal history checks.”
Here, Streich talks about the tangible and intangible costs a fire department and its members may incur if it has a toxic, difficult person in its midst:
“I have presented to hundreds of people on this topic and the common theme is, no one is ready for these issues, and the majority of the classroom has the same problem. There simply is no focus on preparing company officers and staff on how to identify and prepare them for complex, high-risk personnel issues.
Streich continued, “I have had people tell me that the class has helped them learn THEY were the problem. Bad people make good people leave! Being a leader and not having the tools to correct the problem is like showing up to the fire scene without water. Personnel issues can create a tremendous amount of personal stress and anxiety on the leader. I also believe significant events of this type can create PTSD as well. It is a different scar on the brain, but it is real.”
“The fire service is so operationally focused, we fail to prepare real world training and scenarios that challenge our number one asset: people.”
“Bad people can have a negative impact on your organization and YOUR professional career. Failing to deal with these types of people will affect recruitment, retention, and your trust as a leader. There is no better time than now to act,” Streich said.
Here, Streich talks about the importance of learning people’s body language and making eye contact while talking:
“You can change the outcome and professionalize your team to the point where they team itself will not allow such behavior. Defining a clear mission, vision, and core values for your organization helps drive success. This class helps you do that. We are an elite team and have become the ‘Swiss Army Knife’ of our community.”
“The demands placed upon us are tremendous, and no one cares if you are volunteer, on-call, full-time, half-time, or sometime. We have a duty to act, and there is no time for incivility in our organizations.”
Streich continued, “There is a problem in the fire service with the way we handle those causing a negative impact. We need to give people tools on how to handle it. One of my favorite parts of the class is when I define a ‘difficult person’ and ask how many in class has someone working in the station today who meets the definition. In most cases, 90 percent of the class raises its hand. My next question is, WHY?”
In 2010, Streich created a survey on bullying in the fire service. Today, it is the largest known survey on the topic with nearly 5,000 firefighters responding, which clearly shows he was not alone.
Here, Streich talks about being confronted with a hostile employee, how to deal with the “constant complainer,” and saying “I’m sorry” too many times at the firehouse:
“Our number-one asset is people. It is our role as good employees and leaders to protect those who want to come to the station to serve. Although we spend a lot of time managing those who don’t, we need skills and tools to help us manage difficult people more swiftly,” Streich said.
“Yelling, threats, and chaos is not how winning teams operate. By effectively setting a few simple rules, you can protect your organization from these threats so your employees stay engaged and want to come to work.”
Derek Rosenfeld is an associate editor for Fire Engineering. He has a BA in Communications: Writing from Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey.