How to identify problems early
An officer cannot afford to be the last to know about members' problems as they tend to grow if left unaddressed
Studies show that one of the best ways to get what you want is simply to ask for it. In a famous experiment carried out on the New York City subway system in the 1970s, graduate students went up to complete strangers and asked if they could have their seats on the train. No reason was given for the request, yet two out of three people who were asked complied.
Making a simple request is also a great problem-solving technique for low-level problems. If someone is talking loudly on a cell phone outside of a classroom where you are teaching, you can politely ask that person to move down the hall to continue the conversation. If someone is blocking your access to the shelf you need in the grocery store, you can politely ask to reach around to get what you want.
More often than not in society at large, a politely worded and reasonably simple request will be honored.
How it works in the fire service
There is a problem with the simple request in the fire service, however. What happens in the fire station if you say, "What you are doing is bothering me. Could you please not do it anymore?" You might as well paint a target on your back.
I have worked with fire departments of all sizes and types across the United States and in several foreign countries, and the result of asking this question has been the same everywhere I have ever been. If you try to ask directly for what you want in a situation where something is bothering you, the result is that other firefighters will take that as an invitation to torture you forever with that particular behavior you just asked to stop.
So, if you say, "I don’t really like that nickname. Could you please not use it anymore?" Guess what? You will have that nickname for the rest of your career.
If you ask, "Could you please not crack your knuckles around me?" the result will be that everyone takes up that habit.
Knowing that asking directly for what you want will lead to the exact opposite result, who in their right mind would do it? Instead, firefighters often use humor to express their preferences about things. And in many cases, they say nothing at all.
This situation is part of fire service culture, but effectively silencing people who might have a problem about something that is going on does not necessarily mean the problem goes away. If an individual is bothered by something but cannot speak up about it, in some cases, the problem will fester and grow.
Much later, some catalyst might cause the simmering resentment to come out, only in a much bigger way than if it had been dealt with at a lower level. It's just like a fire in the wall — just because you can't see it doesn't mean it isn't there.
Some small problems and sources of discomfort are no big deal, and no action is really needed to address them. But that is not true for every low-level problem.
Inappropriate jokes and language can lead to charges of harassment if the problem is not addressed early. A single safety violation can become a dangerous habit if it is not corrected soon enough.
The last to know
The fire service cultural norm of not speaking directly to low-level problems is a real issue for company officers as well. If crew members cannot directly raise concerns, an officer might be the last to know when a problem is occurring, and growing.
To address this situation, company officers can do one very simple thing. They can say to their crews, "If you ever have a problem here at work, if something bothers you or just doesn't seem right, you can always come and talk to me about it one-on-one, and I will listen to you and take you seriously."
In making this statement, officers are not promising to agree and act on every concern brought to them. They are simply promising a respectful audience.
But only when officers know about problems do they have the power to deal with them. It is never in an officer's best interest to be the last to know about an escalating situation. And ultimately, solving problems at the lowest possible level is a responsibility of every officer and part of keeping the crew safe.