Hot-button issues: How to manage contentious conversations at the station

The company officer is the first line of defense when debate escalates

Elections. The Supreme Court. Immigration. Gun control. Homelessness. Abortion.

These are just a few current hot-button issues that might lead to contentious conversations in the fire station. What is a company officer’s responsibility in managing such discussions? And how can they better manage this role while still maintaining openness of expression among their coworkers?

When teaching classes on conflict management, I use actual fire service scenarios where the situation turned sour. One question I always ask is, “What was the company officer doing when this was going on?” There are really only two possible answers to this question – hiding out and avoiding the situation or enabling and/or participating in it.

Company officer actions

Part of the company officer’s job is to manage conflict among the crew. Differences and conflict among groups are inevitable and, when managed well, can even be a good thing. You want your crew to bring new ideas, to challenge bad assumptions, and to stand up to inappropriate behavior. But company officers must take a leadership role for effective conflict management.

The first thing company officers must do is pay attention. Many firefighters are conflict averse; they like being “the good guy.” But as a company officer, it is your responsibility to maintain a functioning, safe crew. And just like on any emergency scene, situational awareness is key. You may try to dismiss the ongoing war of words between two firefighters as just a personal problem or an annoyance. But what if those arguments escalate into physical assault, as has happened in more than one fire station? That is a serious problem for the individuals, the crew and the department, and the company officer has direct responsibility.

How can a company officer mitigate conflict that arises from contentious conversations? One strategy is diversion. If the conversation is getting tense, get the crew busy doing something else. Physical, useful, team-oriented projects are best. I’ve often said that the solution to conflict in the fire station is more fires. But in the absence of an actual emergency response, fulfilling work or activities will suffice. Don’t make the diversion a punishment (“If you guys keep going like that, I’ll have you scrubbing the bathroom floor with toothbrushes.”) Such tactics will only alienate you from the crew. Redirect the energy to meaningful activity.

Sometimes the strategic use of humor can break the spell of a conversation that is going too far. But be careful with this. Humor as a problem-solving technique only works for very low-level problems and when you know the players well. The key to using humor effectively in any situation is clarity. You want everyone to understand your true intention. If that is not possible, because you are not naturally comfortable with using humor in this way or because the problem has already grown, then it is better to avoid trying humor to mitigate conflict.

If conflict between individuals is clearly escalating, the company officer may have to actively intervene. Talking to individuals privately and one-on-one is the first step. It is best to plan this type of intervention. Make notes about specific incidents you have observed. Talk about the negative outcomes for the individuals and crew if the conflict persists. Be clear about your expectations. If necessary, say things like, “That language is not appropriate in this station among this crew, and I don’t want to hear it.” If someone is promoting damaging rumors, ask for the verified source.           

If conflict is escalating between two people and these strategies don’t have a positive effect, it might be necessary to get outside help. The company officer may be able to formally mediate between two individuals, but this process is one that requires some training and preparation, and if done badly, can serve to intensify differences and draw the officer into the dispute. Company officers need to know what resources are available to them to help with mediating problems among their crews. These resources may exist at a departmental, city or community level.

First level response

A critical piece of managing conflict, even at the early stages, is common understanding about why it is important. One of the company officer’s primary responsibilities is keeping people safe. Most officers take this role very seriously when on an emergency scene and spend much time and energy training and preparing for the unexpected and the worst-case scenario. Yet those same officers may have no training or preparation at all for their role in mitigating interpersonal conflicts that may lead to real harm among their crews.

Very few people are naturally good at communication. Listening well, the ability to respectfully disagree, knowing how to de-escalate situations – these are skills that can be learned the same way operational skills are learned for emergency response. Everyone needs training and support in these areas. But for company officers, the need is even more critical.

These are often contentious times we are living in. It is not necessary to agree about everything to be an effective crew. But conflicts, when they arise, must be recognized and managed. The company officer is the first level of response for this.

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