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Enhancing Fire-Rescue Human Capital: Respect

Why do people like me cherish respect? Because of my children. I want my children to be respectful of their peers, their employers, their clients and themselves.

In the last several decades, respect has begun to erode. Respect for parents, for teachers, for friends and for institutions. How did it happen? Why does it matter?

The erosion of respect began in the 24-hour news cycle. What does one say for 24 consecutive hours and simultaneously retain an engaged audience? They say inflammatory along with inaccurate statements and conclusions. They make your audience want to hear more about the so-called facts that support those statements and conclusions, almost like a murder mystery—who done it?

The loss of respect continued because the engaged audience learned from watching that disrespect was not only acceptable but also rewarding. It improved and lengthened a story on television and in print media, and no punishment appeared to be associated with it.

Children, the greatest learners in society, absorb this lesson better than anyone. They begin to subtly change in their school environment by making fun of their teachers and not getting in too much—if any—trouble. They start calling many teachers and their friends’ parents by their first names. They battle their parents, as they’re expected to, but many parents battle back less because the system is perceived to be less supportive of a parental win and more supportive of a child’s win.

In the meantime, the media is now teaching a new and even more damaging lesson in disrespect. Our leaders engage in name-calling, bullying, personal attacks and liable. Yet, they stay in power and their behavior is rewarded by attention.

How does disrespect impact the fire and emergency service? It’s quite a tricky question because, in general, it employs a paramilitary structure. By definition, a paramilitary structure requires compliance with protocols, particularly communication chains. Most would agree that this environment naturally demands respect.

Based on my discussions with both fire and police chiefs just this month, I find that they feel frustrated that newer and younger employees dislike protocols and disrupt the chain of command.

It’s likely that new fire personnel disrespect protocols because rules were previously grayer, punishment for violating rules was less clear and these members were raised in an environment where using an iPhone at the dinner table or even during a one-on-one discussion is OK. Of course, this doesn’t apply to every American family, but it’s hard for us to deny that these problems exist.

What and how do we, as leaders, deal with this?

I teach public-safety leaders this lesson on a daily basis. We can’t control negative external influences. We can’t control how our recruits are raised before joining the service.

Instead, we can create a value statement for our organizations that is concretely labeled “Respect.” We can define objectives to ensure respect is realized.

We can teach and mentor respectful behavior. We can make rules about personal interactions and communications.

We can also set an example by following our own protocols to the letter, being transparent about why our behaviors sometimes change depending on circumstances, and by directly stopping and punishing, if necessary, disrespect.

Most importantly, we must respect the chain of command. Leaders must shoo away fire and rescue personnel who are talking to them about issues that belong with their supervisor first. We must set a line between acceptable conversation that falls outside the chain of command and that which falls within.

Disrespect is unacceptable and there must be clear consequences for any display of disrespect.

Last month, we talked about how the fire and emergency service requires trust—trust among personnel, trust from our citizens and trust from our leaders. Can trust exist without respect?

No. A lack of respect undermines trust. It undermines the mission.

Even though a small number of young people have remained grounded in that they see that giving and receiving respect feels better than giving and receiving disrespect, most have learned that degrading others and institutions is no less than fun.

As leaders in the fire and emergency service, we must retrain our employees and demonstrate the multitude of positives that come from an environment of respect for the system and respect for one and another.


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