Enhancing Fire-Rescue Human Capital: The Four Dynamics of the Fire Service

We know we’re different, but can anyone explain why?

Since the beginning of the fire and emergency service, members have told anyone who’ll listen, “We’re different than any other job on earth.”

From the perspective of an industrial/organizational psychologist who studies organizations for a living, that statement needed further investigation. As it turns out, all individual organizations have nuances that make them unique.

However, it’s true that the fire and emergency service may win the first-place prize.

The fire and emergency service is a very different work situation, and perhaps one of the most challenging ones, because employees work in four distinct and dynamic environments:

  • The emergency incident
  • The station/business office
  • The domestic/family life
  • The public exchange

These require them to change their actions and behaviors quickly and radically each time the environment changes. In other words, the changes in a fire-rescue worker’s day are more varied and faster than any other job on earth. As soon as fire-rescue personnel are introduced to these four environments, they have an ah-ha moment.

Here’s a definition of each environment:

  • Emergency Incident (EI) This environment is clearly defined; fire-rescue personnel respond to the need for public service. In this environment, we are highly trained to speak and act. Our actions and emotions are directed at one common goal: rescue. We are highly trained to recognize and adapt to this environment when responding from any other environment.
  • Station/Office Business (O) This environment is comparable to an office in any other industry; supplies are ordered, employees perform paperwork, phone calls are taken, interactions occur on business matters, personnel matters are addressed, business conflict exists and so on. In this environment, we receive very little training. In the station, we train to prepare for the EI, but we don’t train to speak and act in a manner that optimizes success in the station or office itself. We don’t train to recognize and adapt to this environment when responding from any other environment.
  • Domestic/Family Life (D) This environment is comparable to our home lives. We eat our meals, we sleep in the same quarters, we clean, we cook, we watch television, we workout, we have interpersonal conflict about living and so on. In this environment, we receive no training. We are not trained to speak and act in a manner that optimizes success in the domestic/family life. We don’t train to recognize and adapt to this environment when responding from any other environment.
  • The Public Exchange (PE) This environment is when citizens and fire-rescue personnel interact outside of the EI, the O and the D. It may be a public education, a verbal exchange outside the station and so on. In this environment, we receive no training. We do receive training on how to instruct, but we don’t teach sufficiently about the verbal exchanges that may occur with the public. We are not trained to speak and act in a manner that optimizes success during our public exchanges. We don’t train to recognize and adapt to this environment when responding from any other environment.

Let’s ask some questions about each of these environments:

  • To what extent are we trained to work in each environment?
  • In which environments do we excel the most?
  • Do we and should we behave the same in each of these environments?
  • Do personal interactions change in each environment?
  • Are our emotions different in each environment?
  • Do we supervise, manage and lead differently in each environment?
  • Do we recognize when the environment changes and do we adapt quickly enough?

I identified these four environments and the need to adapt quickly about 10 years ago and have been training leaders in the industry to recognize them and to adapt. Those who can’t recognize and adapt—both traits are required—can’t succeed as well as others who tend to rise to the top.

Lately, this concept has been catching some steam because of personnel breakdowns in the industry. Our personnel failures occur in each of these environments, and knowing these four dynamics exist is the first step on the road to change.

We can talk about these four environments in many ways. For example, we can discuss behavior, philosophy, failures, successes, mission, vision, values and objectives, and the list goes on.

Compare this to any other job. In the military, there seems to be more of a unilateral focus on military action even though there may be some valid comparisons. Office jobs such as accountants, lawyers and doctors work throughout the day in one general environment, and their purpose doesn’t change to the extent it does in the fire-rescue industry.

For example, if a lawyer were to leave her office and go meet with a client, she’s still functioning in a business-office dynamic. If that lawyer then has a party with her office, that may occur on or off duty and probably doesn’t lead to the degree of intimacy experienced among fire-rescue personnel because they don’t live together 24 hours a day.

The premise is this: those who fully adapt and modify their behavior to each fire-rescue dynamic are probably your most successful employees. Those who don’t recognize or adapt to their current environment, probably fail.

Take, as an example, a supervisor who intermixes the operation of the station with the domestic situation he or she lives in. In other words, that supervisor doesn’t create a clear distinction between the two. This is the buddy-to-boss problem in a nutshell.

 

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