Enhancing Fire-Rescue Human Capital: Trust in the Fire Service

A lack of trust is the kryptonite to any fire-rescue organization. Trust must exist among personnel within the organization, between different divisions in the organizations and between the organization and their customers (government officials, other department directors, the public). Without it, the organization can’t provide the public service required.

One big reason trust breaks down in a fire-rescue organization is because members are highly competitive. They want to win; they sometimes withhold information, intentionally damaging another member’s reputation with false allegations. Sometimes they reveal confidential information that may embarrass another member.

In a recent project with a fire department, fire personnel indicated what aspects of trust they value. These included:

  • Keeping confidences
  • Having each other’s back (meaning that fire personnel across ranks will support each other) during good times and bad
  • Earning and maintaining the public’s trust so they can rely on the department to protect them
  • Doing what you say you are going to – this refers to implementing policies that have been promised and behaving as promised
  • Developing self-esteem in members so they have the confidence to do their jobs effectively
  • Believing that members will do their job as assigned on the emergency scene

There are many other reasons why trust breaks down. One big reason is that information isn’t shared in a timely manner.

For example, if a policy is going to be implemented but then a decision is made to hold off on the policy or change it, the expectancies of the line officers won’t be met. In some instances, they conclude the decision makers don’t know what they’re doing; in other cases, they believe they’ve been lied to. Both lead to a lack of trust.

Another example of lost trust is when personnel share confidential information with other personnel who aren’t authorized to hear it. This creates an extreme lack of trust in people and often the entire system.

Oftentimes, firefighters feel that when they make a mistake, neither their executive team nor their coworkers support them. In the same vein, they often feel that when they implement a decision, these same folks won’t support them. They even feel that when they have major successes in their personal or professional life, no one’s there to support them. This creates a lack of trust.

Interestingly though, many fire personnel feel as if they have earned the public’s trust. So, can we therefore conclude that lack of internal trust is the crux of the matter? Perhaps.

How do you build and rebuild trust? One way is to hold meetings where trust is defined by the organization and trust vision statements are created. Once such statements are created, members must indicate what aspects of trust they value most. Then, behaviors, actions and policies must be developed to move the organization in the direction of the trust vision.

Here’s one complete example.

Fire-Rescue Department Trustworthy (FRDT) decides to sit down with focus groups that consist of members across ranks and identify their trust vision statements. An example of may be “FRDT will create internal trust among all members that will be visible to the community to garner and maintain their trust.”

A trust value for this vision statement may be “We will create a policy that defines confidential information (types and levels) and we will create consequences for violating them.”

This policy will send a clear message that keeping confidences is valued by the organization.

Next, we create practices that support the new policy. For example, if a serious confidence is violated:

  • What is the action plan for addressing it?
  • What is the root cause of the violation?
  • How do we share confidential information differently in the future to better maintain security?

As with any strategic plan, it’s always good to know where you want to go and how you want to get there.


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