Transitioning into the Fire-Rescue Service

The cost of recruiting, hiring, testing and training new recruits runs into tens of thousands of dollars, and a loss of even one recruit is too costly.

Many fire and rescue departments spend even more recruiting minorities and females. Even so, in 2011, the fire service had about 4% females and 7% African Americans (PDF); the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Service has noted that the number of females is dropping. Asians and Hispanic employees are part of this under-represented group. It's difficult to attract and retain minorities in fire-rescue.

An ineffective transition into the job may be the biggest reason a recruit is lost in the first two years.

The Transition Period

The first two years on the job, including recruit school, determines whether a recruit or probationary firefighter remains or separates from a fire department.

A department establishes rigorous entry criteria that consist of multiple tests, designed to evaluate if a potential member possesses resolve, persistence, social intelligence, cognitive intelligence and physical strength. They also measure how similar potential members are to current team members.

Firefighters work in teams and a new member must find a way in. “Team dynamics are created by the nature of the team’s work, the personalities within the team, their working relationships with other people, and the environment in which the team works.”

A group that works together closely will develop a set of characteristics called norms. In fire-rescue, team norms become unusually strong because the team works in situations that increase the strength of their bonds: life-death scenarios and social environments that include eating, sleeping and socializing together.

After selection, team members challenge new members through undefined verbal and physical tests so they can decide if they approve of them. These tests are extremely rigorous—much more challenging for those who are dissimilar to the norm—and they last for about the first two years of employment.

Many more issues impact a new firefighter’s transition into the team. Firefighters work in a competitive environment with their peers; some firefighters feel threatened by a new employee, particularly one who doesn't possess similar characteristics. They may treat the new firefighter badly and make the work environment unpleasant. Particularly in the fire station, in the engine, inside a structure or several blocks down at a hydrant, firefighters can secretly make life extraordinarily unpleasant for a new employee.

In the extreme, inappropriate behavior may lead to grievances, litigation and injury.

Transitioning

Most new fire employees will overcome the team boundaries they face, but those who are different from the norm have a much lower chance of successfully assimilating. If their goal is to change the norm, they must remain long enough to do so.

If lucky, they may enter recruit school or their first assignment with a group of welcoming coworkers. If so, the resistance they encounter will be low. Those new employees have a very high probability of being accepted and learning the culture or changing the culture for the better. They may even develop advocates who protect and defend them.

However, employees who are different and initially encounter extreme resistance are less likely to stay. They may encounter rigorous interpersonal tests, ranging from taunting to extreme verbal and physical abuse. They're prevented from developing a support network and become unhappy at work. They often find that coworkers intentionally sabotage them throughout their careers.

The Transition Plan

Researchers and fire-rescue personnel have long concluded that mentoring would solve many problems encountered by new firefighters, but mentoring programs have proven to be inconsistent at best. A transition plan is a formal monitoring program that can replace or enhance a mentoring program. It can be developed easily and applied to all new employees.

A well-developed transition plan includes:

  • A written plan to observe new employees each day of their shifts
  • A description of who will be the observers
  • Discussion sessions with new employees
  • Documentation of observations and discussions
  • A strategy for management to use the information gathered by observers to change improper behaviors within the department’s culture

Qualities of the Transition Plan:

  • It must be written and formal.
  • Observers and interviewers may need training to know what, when and how to observe and document their observations. An observer can be a person at any rank.
  • Daily discussion must be held with each new employee during the transition. If the transition proceeds successfully, discussions can be reduced to once per shift and later to once per month; if the transition isn't going smoothly, daily discussions must continue.

Designing the Two-Year Transition Plan:

  • Define observers and interviewers (e.g., training staff at the academy, first-line supervisors).
  • Create a discussion schedule.
  • Prewrite the discussion questions:
    • How new firefighters feel about the job and their coworkers
    • How the team is interacting in various situations: on the fireground, during patient care, in the fire station, in the engine, etc.
    • The content of one-on-one interactions between new firefighters and their teammates, along with questions about the other teammates’ interactions
    • Examples of verbal or physical exchanges, where they occurred and how they concluded
  • Document the discussion times and outcomes.
  • Identify how transition problems will be managed:
    • Immediately
    • Discussing the issues with the chain of command
    • Prohibiting certain behaviors, actions, verbal exchanges in the team
    • Transferring in a strong supervisor who is better able to prohibit inappropriate behavior or has stronger counseling/mentoring skills for new firefighters
    • Sharing the information with all employees in a way that teaches employees how to change their behavior

This transition plan is only a starting point; fire executives and human resource professionals need to discuss and expand on these ideas.

A successful transition plan will help new employees feel satisfied and supported so they'll continue to fight resistance to their entry. If a plan includes inconsistent monitoring and inconsistent discussions, it will fail.

A comprehensive transition plan ensures new firefighters work in a stable environment where they successfully gain entry to the team and develop coworkers who'll support them throughout their careers.

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