By Thomas N. Warren
I recently read an article by Robert B. Reich, the former labor secretary who served in the Clinton administration, where he discusses his upcoming documentary “Inequality for All” about the income gap in America. Reich certainly has been an outspoken advocate for working Americans. In this article, he discusses many of the problems that working Americans face, particularly the income gap that exists today and its negative impacts. But in addition to this, he also spoke at length about employee loyalty to their employer in the private sector. He states the following:
“Loyalty is dead. Nobody is looking long term. It means every employee is looking over his or her shoulder at “What am I going to do if I get sacked? What is my next job?” Everybody is assuming they’re a free agent and they can’t count on their employer. And it means that the employer can’t count on the employees to go the extra mile. The employer can’t count on the employee to work harder than that employee feels is justified by the salary and compensation and overall possibilities in that company.”
This is a disturbing trend that workers in the private sector must endure. It was not all that long ago when workers were content to work for the same company for their entire career. Large corporations enjoyed the respect and loyalty of their employees and employees were proud to be associated with their employer. Together, they made America an economic powerhouse worldwide. Most of us can remember this prosperous time when our parents and grandparents enjoyed working for businesses that took care of their employees with respectable wages, benefits, and pensions. A lot has changed in just one generation: globalization of industries, foreign labor exploitation, the Great Recession, Wall Street greed, and a whole host of other social and economic forces have changed the workplace for our generation. It is very difficult for anyone to go the extra mile for his employer when he fears he may be downsized out of his employment at any time.
Fortunately for the fire service, in most cases, this is not our reality. Despite all the cutbacks, brownouts, layoffs, pension attacks, consolidations, furloughs, givebacks, and other numerous concessions that the fire service has witnessed in recent years, the fire service still enjoys a loyalty to its mission, unlike the private sector. Young candidates still line up to take entrance exams and physical assessments, anxious to land a firefighter’s job.
Firefighters and fire officers still study for promotions with great dedication. The trade journals and Web sites have not shrunk in size during the economic downturn but rather have grown in size and number. Firefighters are still being recognized for their acts of heroism and compassion in disciplines well beyond the traditional role of firefighters. A quick look at most any fire apparatus across the country will reveal company pride in the form of company emblems/patches, apparatus cleanliness, and company slogans. The firefighters are proud and of their company, its history, and its achievements. These proud traditions speak to the loyalty they have to their company and by extension to their department. We are truly fortunate to be part of this grand tradition.
How has this come to be in the fire service when workers in the private sector are struggling economically, professionally, and personally? How has the fire service managed to maintain the loyalty of its workforce in a way that eludes the private sector? I don’t feel that this has occurred by accident but because of the nature of the people who become firefighters and how they view their responsibility to their mission and their people. This high level of loyalty relies on a team of dedicated professionals at every rank.
As we all know, firefighters work in one of the harshest environments known to man; this creates the need to truly trust and rely on each other for our very survival. New firefighters learn this very quickly and carry that lesson into the leadership rolls they will assume later in their careers. Fire service leaders have learned through the years the need to support the firefighters who meet the fire service’s mission every day. Labor organizations, likewise, must support the activities and programs that breed loyalty for the fire service.
So, how is this loyalty built? It simply takes a consistent approach of respect for the firefighters and meeting their professional needs. Even in the face of economic hardship, the fire service can maintain the loyalty and respect of its members by incorporating some of the following programs and philosophies:
- Develop and maintain firefighter National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1582, Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments, physicals annually for every member of the department; this includes the chief of department. Aside from being a requirement of NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, incorporating physicals into the culture of the fire service that tells everyone that the department recognizes the hazards of our work and, more importantly, that it values its members. Through this program, firefighters can feel confident in their ability to perform their jobs.
- Maintain a strong focus on physical fitness. Fire service leaders should promote and allow time for physical fitness training programs while firefighters are on duty. Many fire departments across the country have been successful finding funding for exercise equipment through the Fire Act Grant Program. The overall goal for the fire department is simply the health of its firefighters. The next step is to work with the firefighters directly or through their labor organization to develop a peer fitness program. A peer fitness program will allow firefighters to develop a personal fitness program with the firefighters they already know and respect. Programs designed in this fashion usually enjoy great success.
- Carefully developed standard operating procedures, accountably systems, and incident command systems to keep firefighters safe. Firefighters operating at fires or emergencies need to know that the operations in which they are engaged follow an organized plan based on their safety. It is the responsibility of all fire service leaders to make every effort to keep emergency incidents managed in such a way that it keeps firefighters safe while they perform their duties. Also included in this concept is the use of rapid intervention teams, critical incident stress management, rehabilitation, staffing, safety officers, and sound risk/benefit analysis. Firefighters recognize that when a fire department demonstrates a commitment to these operational issues it also demonstrates a commitment to their health and safety. Coordinated and well-managed emergency operations exemplify operational proficiency that in turn builds pride in the organization.
- Maintain the apparatus, tools, and equipment members use every day. When fire service leaders pay close attention to the tools, equipment, and apparatus on which firefighters depend, it creates a personal connection to the firefighters and for the challenges of their work. Old rusting fire trucks, chain saws that don’t start, gas detectors that are not calibrated regularly, ladders and pumps that do not get tested annually, and firehouses in need of repair send the wrong message to the firefighters. It is vital that fire service leaders maintain the infrastructure of their departments and put on record those who oppose funding for this purpose. Closely related to this maintaining of fire apparatus, tools, and equipment is planning for their future replacement. Fire service leaders should use the expertise of the firefighters when developing and designing future fire apparatus, tools, and equipment. Placing firefighters in advisory positions builds self-esteem and places value on the firefighters experience and opinions; this in turn builds loyalty for the organization.
- Rely on efficient human resource management, which is a complex and challenging discipline. Many colleges and universities offer master level and beyond degree programs in this subject alone because of its scope and complexities. The fire service is no different than the private sector; it relates to human resources. Both employ people to carry out their respective missions. The difference that allows the fire service to be more successful in creating loyalty with its people is that there is no profit to be made or stockholders to satisfy. This allows the fire service to concentrate exclusively on its core mission and its people. As complex as human resources management is, there are several challenges that must be met when interacting with firefighters and developing loyalty. These challenges are not so formidable when they are placed in the context of how members would like to be treated. Everyone likes to feel that their employers support them, treat them fairly, and respect them as professionals. The best human resource management practices can include sound policy development, consistent disciplinary practices, emergency action plan programs, ethical decision making, fair conflict resolution, fair and transparent promotional systems, compliance with existing collective bargaining agreements, personnel confidentiality when required, professional accountability, dedication to the fire department mission, and inclusive program development. Firefighters, like most people, will recognize these character traits in their leaders and naturally form an allegiance to them. Embracing these concepts forms the basis for loyalty to the organization that we see in the fire service. It is incumbent upon fire service leaders to consistently comply with these principals every day in a visible way. Doing so will strengthen the loyalty of the firefighters in their command. The organization as a whole will be the beneficiary.
- The presence of a strong chaplains, who have served fire departments and the military for a long time on the scenes of major fires and emergencies (particularly where there are serious injuries and deaths), projects a sense of calmness and a placid tone during chaotic events. In my experience, all firefighters appreciate the presence of the chaplain at both social events and emergency scenes, regardless of their religious affiliation. A chief that provides for this emotional and spiritual need will instill a loyalty and recognition by the firefighters that their organization is meeting their needs.
- Recognize firefighters’ achievements. This can be difficult, but rewarding achievements serves a basic human need. In the private sector, this can take the form of a bonus or a company paid vacation. However, most fire departments do not have the ability to reward achievements with monetary bonuses or additional vacation time, so they are left with department awards and citations. Chiefs can establish and formalize a review board that can request input from all members of the department for nominations each year. The review board can assess all nominations and award those that they deem worthy of a citation or award for their achievement. The awards program should include all divisions of the department and establish different levels awards in several categories. The colorful metal bars that firefighters wear on their uniforms validates their achievements, much like the military. Award ceremonies are an important component to this program. Most firefighters enjoy being recognized for their achievements in the presence of their family, friends, and colleagues. A program such as this will send the message that the firefighters’ work is appreciated and recognized by the department.
- A chief must establish a formal or informal program that makes available a group of senior officers to provide mentoring, training, and professional development to every member of every rank. Leaving firefighters out in the field to make it on their own will make firefighters feel abandoned. Chiefs must constantly engage firefighters and challenge them professionally. Providing training that concentrates on the latest technology and trends as well as mentoring by more experienced company officers and chief officers will keep the motivation high with the department. A program such as this serves two needs at the same time. Company and chief officers will feel that their knowledge and experience is respected by the department and, at the same time, younger department members will benefit from the experience of these more seasoned members. This type of program will build strong team allegiances, or in another word, loyalty.
These are just a few of the concepts that your fire department can employ to develop and maintain loyalty. Loyalty should never be taken for granted because once it disappears, it is almost impossible to rebuild. Developing and maintaining fire department loyalty should be a daily priority for every chief officer; it should be part of the operating philosophy of all daily operations, and it should be woven into the very culture of the department at all levels. These concepts should by no means be considered the only tools available to maintain loyalty, but these are just the basic concepts that demonstrate to the members of a fire department that they are respected and valued members of the organization.
Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Karen Nutini
Thomas N. Warren is a 40+-year fire service veteran in career and volunteer departments. He retired as an assistant chief of department for the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program, teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.