Organizational Response to Conflict in the Fire Service

Photo by Tony Greco

By Rusty Sullivan

We all have unique ways of looking at a single experience or event, and we will never perceive the same event exactly the same as others do or as we saw it before. These billions of event perceptions are the building blocks of Philologist George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory.

Each perception is hypothesized, linked to other perceptions, and calculated against our existing perceptions, thus, a construct or paradigm is formulated. We believe that these personal constructs will explain and predict future events in our lives, known as heuristics. They also give us our belief systems and our perception on the next experience. If we maintain a favorable response, our construct/paradigm is reinforced. If the experience is not favorable, our construct/paradigm is likely to change. It is important to understand that a favorable response will not necessarily have a positive effect on a person or an organization. These personal constructs also formulate our sense of justice and fairness, right and wrong, and even what is acceptable behavior. People that have had a personal construct of petting tigers are likely dead, and those that run with scissors found themselves sitting in a hospital room.

Although we see life’s events differently each time, recurring similarities or themes do happen. These recurring symbols form the basis of anticipation, biases, preconceptions, and heuristics. It is also the foundation of how we might deal with future events that fall in these particular categories or constructs (in the case of this article, conflict). This same theory of constructs or paradigms applies to professions, organizations, industries, groups and, yes, even fire departments. Each organization has a personality all of its own, similar to what a person might have.

RELATED: Resolving Conflict in the Combination Fire Department ‖ Conflict Resolution and Negotiation ‖ Don’t Get Mad, Get Promoted!

I live and work close to the Missouri/Kansas state line. Fire departments on the Missouri side have a vastly different personality than those on the Kansas side. One department’s personality is not necessarily better or worse than the other; just noticeably different. This organizational personality, like the individual, is pledged by heuristics, biases, preconceptions, and beliefs that guide their decision-making processes, including those related to conflict management. These building blocks of preconceptions make for a solid—although not necessarily square—foundation. Once this foundation is formed, cured, and built on, it makes any change a difficult and uncomfortable task that is likely to seem insurmountable, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

In my department, we had always filled the apparatus with fuel on Fridays, sometime before 1600 hours. Many firefighters and their captains were disciplined or, at least, chastised for failing this standard operating procedure (SOP). One day, a young firefighter asked why we fill the apparatus every Friday; it seemed anytime the vehicle was below half a tank, we filled it with fuel anyway, regardless of the day. He asked why Friday afternoons were so special that they caused a literal rush for position at the fuel pumps? After asking and digging around, we found out from one of the “ole’ timers” that, many years ago, the fuel pumps closed Friday at 1600 hours and remained closed until Monday at 0800 hours. Getting fuel over the weekend was a huge endeavor, first in finding and then forcing someone to come in and open the fuel station. Getting fuel on Friday remained a construct at my department many years after each apparatus had total and continual accesses to fuel pumps.

As a young firefighter, I remember hosing off the apparatus’s tires no matter the weather and no matter where from where it returned before it entered the apparatus bay. This custom of washing the tries was handed down from the horse-drawn pumper days. Firefighters found the manure and mud picked up from 19th century streets by the pumper’s wheels made for a foul “potpourri” in the station. Nonetheless, these traditions continued for many years after the horse (and some firefighters) went to pasture. As the popular saying goes, “Two-hundred years of tradition unimpeded by progress.”

According to Costantino and Merchant’s book, Designing Conflict Management Systems, organizational responses to conflict do not occur separate and apart from the organizational culture or the attitudes, practices, and beliefs of its members. “The way we do things around here” provides the collective lens through which the organization and its key players view internal disagreement or external threat. Thus, as it is with people, no two departments will respond exactly the same under the same set of circumstances. According to Costantino and Merchant, a general set of behaviors that organizations (and people) exhibit when responding to a threat or conflict is based on the “fight-or-flight” theory, also known as the General Adaptation Syndrome (named by Dr. Hans Selye). This theory represents the effort to understand the three-stage attempt by the body to adapt to specific stressors. The General Adaptation Syndrome has three stages: Alarm reaction, resistive, and exhaustion.

Think of your last fire. When you heard the alarm, your heart rate and anxiety rose to meet the anticipated threat. On arrival, your body fought to maintain a balance between anxiety and completing your given assignment. Then, back at the station, relaxation and a nap is sure to follow. The same general adaptation steps take place when you are confronted by any threat including administrative or in-house conflicts.

 It is reasonable to assume that if heuristics, biases, and preconceptions are part of an organization’s constructs, so must the General Adaptation Syndrome and its process is part of the organization’s response to a conflict or threat.

 Costantino and Merchant break down the fight-or-flight response into several subcategories, each distinct to its primal category. If a person, organization, or department has constructed a threat reaction with a tendency toward fighting, they will normally fall into two paradigms: Arrogance and engagement. People, organizations, or departments that have a tendency to flee (flight) from a conflict display attitudes of denial, avoidance, or accommodation. It is possible for individual leaders inside an organization or department to embody either fight or flight, but as a general rule, the organization’s leadership and personality style will learn one way or the other. It is also important to understand that “leader” is not limited to the chief or even his designee.

An organization whose leadership is arrogant or sees itself as above the other disputants often finds long-term conflict settlements out of reach. Its attitude of “What do you expect from subordinates? They are always unhappy about something,” indicates the organization’s unreal desire to resolve conflict or, at least, its understanding of conflict resolutions. It was once said by a local leader, “I’m not here to make friends; morale be damned.” This reminds me of a statement often quoted by sailors regarding morale: “Liberty is secured until morale improves.” The strange thing is these arrogant organizations can survive (although ineffectively) for extremely long periods of time before the fatal conflict brings them down.

Another response related to the fight construct is “engagement” or what Costantino and Merchant call the “Bulldozer” approach to conflict. The approach is predicated on a belief system that “We” are right and are the sole arbitrators of the best resolution. This construct of right and wrong is common among governmental and religious intuitions. Like a snowball rolling downhill, organizations with a belief system based on a zero-sum/fixed-pie/win-lose paradigm find engagement the only alternative to conflict. Once that organization has committed significant real and emotional investments, it becomes increasing harder to disengage from their position or perceived moral right. This steadfastness to a belief system and the reluctance to ignore the sunk costs of a dispute add to the cycle of engagement and aggression.

The constant “clashing of spears” from a fight attitude becomes the norm, a way of life, almost a religion. General George S. Patton said “Americans love to fight; all real Americans love the sting of battle.” Maybe he was right. Maybe it is part of our American culture. I had a professor in grad school tell me once, “Rusty, you’re assuming the sides want to resolve the conflict.” Maybe he was right also! Have the conflict, and the conflict dance inside the fire service becomes the norm; it may even be truly enjoyable!

Other organizations have a construct of avoidance, denial, or accommodation that all fall within the flight paradigm. Like the other constructs, this paradigm is a matter of evolutionary psychological conditioning coupled with a fear of failing and the desire to survive. We all have a tendency to freeze or flee when confronted by a significant threat. Fighting or collaborating is a conditioned response to a threat that is developed over years of action, rewarded, modeled behavior, and training. Organizations that embody the flight responses are reflecting their inexperience or unwillingness to deal with a real or even perceived threat, a “Nothing to see here, keep moving, keep moving” type of attitude.

The first flight response is simply denying that the conflict is real, a “blanket over the head” approach. As Costantino and Merchant put it, “We are one big happy family”—although dysfunctional, we remain conflict free regardless of the evidence to the contrary. The denier is sure to cause others in the organization to become frustrated at least and openly defiant at worst as they search for sustainable resolutions to growing conflicts.

A common strategy leaders use to challenge the grieved is, “Don’t come to me without a solution.” This avoidance attitude by leaders most often creates an even bigger culture of avoidance by subordinates. Simply because someone understands there is or may be a conflict, should we as leaders truly expect them to have a solution to the issue? Should we as leaders expect a young firefighter to understand the complexities of leadership, morale, and conflict, much less have a real and sustainable resolution? However, it is a great tactic for keeping people from voicing a conflict.

Another tactic for avoidance is to have a culture of exposure, i.e., force the antagonist to write-up or openly expose their supervisor or colleague, then expose the antagonist as the initiator or the troublemaker: “I (the leader) can’t do anything unless you do the paperwork.”

Another response to conflict that is related to denial is to move the conflict out of sight, a concept known as voidance (“out of sight, out of mind”). The idea is that if an organization moves one or both disputants, the conflict goes away. This so-called resolution merely spreads the conflict throughout the organization. Like a virus, the conflict infects other hosts compounding the issues and makes real resolutions more difficult. We have all seen or have even been a part of this solution; a conflict or issue arises, and the “problem” is moved to the “C” shift or Station 2, for example. We can also take the politician’s approach and just deny, deny, deny, as in the following example:

Member: “Chief, we are missing a tire on the truck.”

Chief: “No we aren’t.”

Member: “Chief, really, there are only three tires on the truck.”

Chief: “Nope.”

Member: “But, chief.”

The last of the flight responses according Costantino and Merchant is a construct of accommodation or appeasement. This construct is characterized by trying to accommodate everyone, usually at the expense of the organization. The leader that tells everyone what they want to hear, the “yes man,” the “yes leader,” the last person in the chief’s/union’s office wins. A mindset of fear and intimidation drives this destructive construct. As England, France, and other European countries discovered at the beginning of World War II, a policy of appeasement only allowed the aggressors more time to aggress. With no resistance from the appeasers, Germany started annexing surrounding territories while most counties just watched safely as the horrors of the war unfolded.

The other half of appeasement attitude is indifference. We know a symbol is wrong, but we hide and allow the antagonist to bully and force someone, less experienced, less educated, and maybe unable to defend themselves into a position that my not to favorable.

Neither the flight nor fight paradigm nor their subcategories in their extremes are a productive, conflict-resolution model. An organization will evolve as a product of conditioning, as positive results are rewarded those positive actions are reinforced. As any symbol changes under this theory, so do conflict resolution models. According to Costantino and Merchant, the effectiveness of conflict management involves looking at the results of the dispute resolution efforts, the durability of the resolutions, and the impact on the relationships.

Conflict is an agent of change and should be embraced as an opportunity. The common and accurate assumption that is change cannot occur without some type or level of conflict. This also holds true in its reverse; change is often the catalyst for conflict itself. The human mind is in a constant state of conflict between its natural desires to improve its environment (unfreezing) and the fear of the unknown (the frozen state). Once improvement or resolution begins, so comes conflict from the status quo.

Effective conflict resolution systems can result in maximizing satisfactions. Studies have shown that less than 20 percent of people involved in litigation are satisfied with the outcome of the case, and only about 40 to 50 percent are pleased with results through negotiations. In contrast, 70 to 95 percent report a satisfaction with mediation systems. The idea is that, with mediation, both parties have some control and impute in the process (procedural justice) and therefore have a voice over their future. This process narrows the gap of relative deprivation by both parties allowing for a sense of justice regardless of the outcome.

To manage conflict both emotions and logic must be addressed. Conflict by nature is an emotional undertaking, and all parties—to some degree—will bring those emotions to the table: The fight-or-flight reaction. It is best to address them openly and honestly before proceeding in conflict resolution. Knowing your and the other party’s hot-buttons are an essential part of preparations. The goal is to use the rational and logical portions of our brain (executive thinking) to create innovative solutions to real underlying interests. Two heads working together for a common goal is always the best approach to conflict resolution (or any problem, for that matter). Mediation systems are built on the empathic collaboration of disputants, allowing each to maintain their integrity and dignity.

The fire service has traditionally followed a fixed-pie approach to conflict. Negotiation, arbitration, and litigation are the tools the fire service has relied on for years. Although these three conflict management tools have their place, they certainly fail in party satisfaction and self-determination efforts. As time passes, these three processes are exponentially more expensive in department capital, relationships, and just overall department morale. The negotiation, arbitration, and litigation processes may resolve a single or immediate conflict, but rarely do they produce a long-term settlement between parties with different viewpoints. The most cost effective conflict management tool is one that creates long-term settlements which is, most often, a mediation system.

Over the years, organizations and some fire departments have sought out more effective ways to resolve costly conflicts. In general, according to Slaikeu and Hasson’s book, Controlling the Costs of Conflict; How to Design a System for Your Organization, an effective conflict management system is one that allows early and efficient resolution with minimal expenditure of time and other recourses while honoring and respecting the integrity and rights of all parties.

Mediation—sometimes known as conciliation—is the fastest growing Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) method. Unlike arbitration and litigation, mediation provides a forum in which parties can resolve their own disputes with the help of a neutral third party (the mediator). Mediation has proven itself to be an effective tool, with a 70- to 95-percent approval for long term settlements in virtually every type of organization, industry, and community. However, mediation does depend on the real commitment of the disputants to settle their own conflicts.

The mediator, also known as a facilitator, never imposes a decision on the parties. Rather, the mediator’s job is to keep the parties talking and to help move them through the more difficult points of contention. The mediator is an impartial third party that provides supportive, non-confrontational assistance, searching for a more effective and sustainable dispute/conflict resolution between parties. The mediator aids disputants in analyzing facts, issues, and support disputants in search for understanding of causes and underlying issues related to conflict.

Is it possible for the fire service to develop a culture of mediation, a culture of expanding the pie, a culture of “we all win”? The simple narcissistic answer would be “yes—we are firefighters, and we can do anything.” But, we need to be honest with ourselves. If the honest answer is truly yes, than there is no problem. Mediation has proven to be much more effective than what we are currently doing to resolve conflict. The use of mediation has saved private industry and other organizations millions of dollars in legal expenses each year as well as an untold increase in productivity and morale.

So, let’s do it; let’s start by sending people to alternative dispute resolution training. Let’s start rewriting our SOPs, our union contracts and, most especially, our grievance procedures to include mediation as a beginning step. If the answer is truly no, then we have a much bigger issue than we understand. If the answer is no, than we are back to my graduate professor’s commit “Rusty, you’re assuming the sides want to resolve the conflict.”



Costantino C and C Merchant. Designing Conflict Management Systems; A Guide to Creating Productive and Healthy Organizations. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 1996. 3-299. Print.

Nevid J (2007). Psychology: concepts and applications, second edition. Boston, MA: Houghton Miffin Company.

Schultz D and S Schultz. Theories of personality. 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub Co, 2005. 3-476. Print.

Slaikeu K and R Hasson. Controlling the Costs of Conflict; How to Design a System for Your Organization. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 1998. 10-196. Print.


RUSTY SULLIVAN is a captain with the Grandview (MO) Fire Department, where he has served since 1988, and the chief of training for the Metropolitan Community College’s Blue River Public Safety Institute. He has a bachelor’s degree in social psychology with an emphasis in public safety from Ottawa University in Kansas and a master’s degree in conflict management and dispute resolution/analysis from Baker University in Baldwin, Kansas.

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