How not to resolve firefighter conflicts

There are times you'll have to be referee between firefighters, and not properly playing the role will only worsen the conflict

You are the officer in a station where two firefighters, Sandy and Ray, do not get along. You have been aware of problems between them for some time and have occasionally witnessed arguments or confrontations.

You are also aware of rumors and gossip about both of them. The station atmosphere is being negatively affected due to this conflict.

One day, you witness a heated argument between Sandy and Ray and tell them to come into your office. Once there, are you likely to say one of the following?

  • "I don't want to hear any more arguments between the two of you. If I do, both of you could be looking at being transferred."
  • "Stop acting like children. It's ridiculous that you two argue over the things you do. Grow up."
  • "It seemed to me that Sandy was trying to end this argument, but you wouldn't leave it alone, Ray. What's going on?"
  • "If I hear one more argument between the two of you, I'm writing both of you up."

It might be tempting to follow any of the strategies above, but it is worth considering how all of them will only worsen the situation.

1. Avoidance
Telling crew members you don't want to hear something is an act of avoidance. And although there are some good reasons why firefighters should be moved to another station or shift, often times transferring firefighters with problems is an act of avoidance also.

Avoidance can seem to solve problems, but only in the short run. If a problem has escalated to the point where two people argue constantly and spread rumors about each other, just telling the players not to do it around you is unlikely to resolve the underlying conflict.

Avoidance leads to problems festering and going underground only to surface later, sometimes in a much more damaging form.

When so-called problem employees are transferred without the underlying problem being addressed, all you have done is spread the problem to more stations. And you have not done your job as an officer to address the problem where you find it.

2. Discounting
Other people's issues may seem trivial to you, but that is not the case for those involved in the dispute.

Discounting the problem or ridiculing the crew members will only make you seem like the enemy of both and eliminate any credibility you may have in helping them solve the underlying problem.

3. Taking Sides
Sometimes one person in a dispute is more at fault than another. But when conflict has been going on for some time and escalating, you can bet that both members are fully involved in making it happen.

As an officer, your most useful role in conflict resolution is by being a neutral third party. You cannot do this if you even appear to take sides in the dispute.

Sometimes it is impossible to be neutral — you're good friends with one of the disputants and not the other. In this case, you cannot credibly act as a mediator and should ask for help from someone who can be neutral, such as another officer or battalion chief.

4. Overreacting
When dealing with interpersonal conflict, many officers tend to choose from the extremes. They either under-react and avoid addressing the problem, or they overreact and make threats that may not be helpful or even realistic given the situation.

Can officers invoke formal discipline for interpersonal conflict in the station? Maybe. But should they do so as a first course of action?

In general, when resolving conflict, it is better to start out with the lowest level of action that is likely to be effective for that incident. Clearly, the definition of the lowest level of action would be different depending on the situation.

If there is physical danger, the lowest effective level would be a strong response, probably involving formal discipline and even legal action. But if two people are just annoying each other, it might be better to start a bit lower in resolving the problem.

As first-line supervisors, company officers have a large responsibility for recognizing and resolving problems when they are small. Officers must also know how to recognize problems that are beyond their scope of authority or influence and know how to get help in these situations.

In either case, avoiding, discounting, taking sides, and overreacting are only likely to make the problem worse.

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