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Bullying in the Fire Service

In the United States, we see more and more students who have suffered continual bullying take their own lives. As organizations place people in close proximity to one another in office spaces, it's often hard to get away from someone who treats us with disrespect or intimidation. And now, someone can bully you from a distance using mobile devices and social media.

The issue of bullying became personal to me a few years ago after taking a job as chief in a progressive fire district. While assessing the organization's staff and operations, I discovered a continual theme: bullying. As I met with employees, one member was continually described as mean, threatening, abrasive and mood altering. When I met with him, I reported what others had said about him. He denied any wrong action and said some people didn't like him because he's "vocal." An employee for over 17 years, his personnel file was essentially clean.

As time went on, I received several misconduct complaints about him, include a violent criminal charge. It was clear this person wasn't going to meet the mission, vision and core values I was working to establish. As I began the process of documentation, his bullying turned toward me; he threatened me personally and used his size to intimidate me. Though I knew what he was doing, I can't say I wasn't scared from time to time.

In the end, this firefighter killed his wife and himself—but just two hours before he committed these terrible acts, he drove through the office parking lot near my window. I’m certain that if other employees hadn’t been in my office with me at that time, I may not be writing this.

These events are part of why I want to get this information out and why Minnesota changed its laws to allow fire chiefs to look at criminal contacts and records. This incident also made me realize there is, in fact, bullying within the fire service as well—something I never considered before.

Here are good definitions for workplace bullying, in five categories, from Workplace Bullying: What We Know, Who Is to Blame and What Can We Do? (Rayner, Hoel and Cooper):

  • Threat to professional status – belittling opinions, public professional humiliation, accusations regarding lack of effort, intimidating use of discipline or competence procedures.
  • Threat to personal standing – undermining personal integrity, destructive innuendo and sarcasm, making inappropriate jokes about target, persistent teasing, name-calling, insults, intimidation.
  • Isolation – preventing access to opportunities, physical or social isolation, withholding necessary information, keeping the target out of the loop, ignoring or excluding.
  • Overwork – undue pressure, impossible deadlines and unnecessary disruptions.
  • Destabilization – failure to acknowledge good work, allocation of meaningless tasks, removal of responsibility, repeated reminders of blunders, setting target up to fail, shifting goal posts without telling the target.

A bully's intent is to make life tough on the target. Bullying plays with others' emotions to show power over them.

A survey I posted on IAFC KnowledgeNet resulted in 164 responses:

  • 91% were from men and 9% were from women
  • 76% were career, 21% were on-call and 6% were volunteers
  • 63% were chief officers; the remainder were firefighters, lieutenants and captains

Here are some of the results:

  • Have you ever been bullied in your career?
    • Yes – 70%; 28% have been bullied in the past year
    • No – 30%
  • Who has bullied you?
    • Chief officer – 39%
    • Line officer – 27%
    • Coworker 25%
  • Has bullying changed your interactions and productivity at work? 
    • Sometimes – 17%
    • The remainder answering this question said they've never been bullied.
  • Is bullying a problem in the fire service?
    • Yes – 66%
    • Nearly 50% said their employer did nothing to respond to an identified problem.

As I teach around the state, I often ask students if someone in their organization changes their mood negatively. In most cases, over 50% raise their hands.

Why do we allow people to treat us this way? There was no draft into the fire service. Most of us came to the fire service to do good things for our communities. Somewhere, in some people, that changed. If we continue to allow this type of behavior, we condone an environment of negativity. Leaders of every organization must protect their employees from such suffering.

If bullying comes from the leadership, that needs to be addressed too. Many of us have worked for leaders who came from the old school of authoritative leadership, so we may have picked up traits the newer generation doesn't like. Leadership isn't about yelling at people and creating an environment of fear; it's about mentoring people and providing the tools and training they need to succeed.

The USFA's Retention and Recruitment for the Volunteer Fire Emergency Services study (2007) showed that individuals are willing to volunteer in emergency-service organizations if:

  • The experience is rewarding and worth their time.
  • The training requirements are not excessive.
  • The time demands are adaptable and manageable.
  • They are rewarded with a personal sense of value.
  • There is good leadership minimizing conflict.
  • There is ample support for the organization.

It's clear from these that bullying alone may cause volunteers to leave. The experience isn't rewarding if someone in the organization bullies you. There's no sense of value when people at your station tell you they're better than you are, and there's no value in your leadership if you don't control bullying in your organization.

To defeat the bullies in your organization, you need to identify them. If you feel stress just seeing someone walk into a room or have someone who always has to be right, you may have a bully.

Leaders should review their policies and develop language that protects everyone from bullying. A workplace policy of respect can help you defeat negativity in your fire stations. Let people know bullying won't be tolerated, whether from council members, vendors, visitors or department members.

As a leader, you must deal with this issue. Coach, mentor, discipline, document and react so your organization becomes the best it can be. Your staff will appreciate it and employee morale will rise to everyone's satisfaction.

The job of a firefighter continues to be one of the most dangerous and demanding jobs on the planet; bullying has no place in our business!

Jerry Streich is chief of the Centennial (Minn.) Fire District.

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