Why civility matters in firefighting

Maintaining civility isn't about adhering to political correctness; it is vital to running an effective fire department


If you think the world is a much ruder place today than it was even a few years ago, you are not alone. Study after study indicates that people experience incivility on an increasing basis in both their professional and personal lives.

The fire service has seen its share of fallout from incivility in recent years — arguments among firefighters escalating to violence, inappropriate social media posts that have led to discipline or dismissal, and fire personnel getting into verbal (or sometimes physical) confrontations with members of the public.

Within a station or a crew, a pattern of incivility can have serious consequences. Studies show that nearly everyone who experiences workplace incivility responds in a negative way, in some cases, with outright retaliation.

Even if rudeness among coworkers does not escalate to open warfare, a pattern of incivility at work always leads to decreased morale, diminished participation and buy-in, and increased attrition.

Bad P.R.
When rude behavior extends to the service community, the effect can be the loss of critical support, even if the incident involved only one person or crew from the organization.

People have a tendency to generalize from the singular example — if you are treated badly by one firefighter, you might draw conclusions about all firefighters. This may not be fair, but it is human nature.

Many factors contribute to the current state of civility in our society. Social media allows people to say mean things with little accountability. Popular culture makes celebrities out of people who behave badly. Children may not learn basic manners from their parents. Adults are distracted and in a hurry.

There is no question that social media has played a role in the loss of civility among us. In social media, reaction is a reward, so to be provocative to the point of uncivil can be seen as a positive thing.

Knee jerks
People who use social media may develop the habit of reacting quickly and at times thoughtlessly. They are often insulated from the fallout from that reaction by anonymity.

This type of reactionary communication can become habitual and not just in the realm of social media. The pace of life is faster than it used to be — people may feel they don't have time for considered response. And so they react rather than mindfully responding.

The effects of rude behavior have a tendency to infect many more than just those who are in direct contact with the offending person. If your company officer is a jerk and you can't do anything about it, your frustration is likely to surface through encounters with other coworkers, family or members of the public.

Company officers play a key role when it comes to bringing more civility into the workplace. Most importantly, they must model appropriate behavior.

Breaking the cycle
In one business survey, 25 percent of managers who admitted to having behaved badly said they were uncivil because their leaders — their own role models — were rude. Of course people are always responsible for their own actions, but firefighters tend to follow their officer's lead, for better and for worse.

Set a positive example in your own behavior. This is especially important for company officers.

If the crew starts going off on a "can you top this" rant, be the voice of reason. Speak to the middle ground. Stop inappropriate talk and redirect energy to more constructive activity.

Communication is key to creating a more civil workplace. Training in basic communication skills, including giving and receiving feedback, should be required for all department members. Every new company officer should have training on how to give direction, facilitate discussion, ask for feedback and establish boundaries.

Be nicer
There is no question that social media can fan the flames of incivility. All departments should have a reasonable social media policy and training on that policy. Never use social media to have conversations that should be happening face to face.

Demand accountability at all levels of the organization. Call people out when they're being inappropriate, but do so in a way that is respectful and professional. Don't stand by silently if someone is being bullied or harassed, online or in person.  

In short, be nicer, make a conscious effort, help someone out, do something unexpected for someone, and don't demand credit.

And, get your facts straight. Many times people will go off on a righteous tirade about some wrong that was done when the smallest effort to check facts would show that the person being attacked is not the person responsible for the problem.

Some firefighters might question the need to address workplace civility. It's a tough job, they say, and if you can't take the abuse, you shouldn't be here. But this attitude completely misses the point.

Civility is not about political correctness. It's about organizational effectiveness. Any organization that tolerates or encourages rude behavior among its members will see negative effects that may include loss of public support, member attrition and poor productivity.

Extreme cases could lead to violence and litigation. These are outcomes that no fire department can afford.

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