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How to really address problem firefighters

Without knowing the root cause of the behavior problem, fixing it is sheer luck


Last year I attended a conference workshop on how to manage difficult employees. The workshop was aimed at fire service first line supervisors and above, and was taught by a high-ranking officer of a large fire department.

The instructing officer began by describing various types of difficult employees. These were people we all knew — the person who came to work late, the one who had repeated accidents with fire apparatus, the firefighter who just did not get along with others.

The workshop instructor spent a lot of time talking about progressive discipline, documentation and communication in the disciplinary process.

One example that was used was a driver who repeatedly backed into things. Initial coaching and counseling did not solve the problem, so the driver’s immediate supervisor moved into the realm of progressive discipline. When the problem persisted, more severe discipline would then be called for.

As I sat in this workshop, I became increasingly uncomfortable. My thought was, if you’re disciplining people more severely and the problem continues and worsens, then you’re not addressing the real problem. I mean, isn’t that the definition of insanity — continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results?

The bottom of it
As the instructor talked in more detail about managing discipline, I never heard any discussion of searching for root cause. Why did this driver keep backing into things? There are a number of possibilities.

  • The person lacks driving skills and experience.
  • The person is distracted.
  • The person doesn’t care that they cause damage and may even be doing it intentionally.
  • The person is in a hurry or feels other outside pressure to perform that undermines focus.
  • The person is afraid or intimidated in the job.

Each of these underlying causes could result in someone having repeated accidents with a fire truck. But the appropriate remedy for someone who lacks technical skills is very different from what needs to happen if someone is deliberately damaging fire equipment.

If you don’t know what is causing a problem, then finding an appropriate remedy for that problem will just be luck. Progressive discipline is an appropriate remedy for some problems. But if it is not working, the officer in charge must look elsewhere for a solution.

It has been my experience that some officers and chiefs assume the worst when firefighters mess up on the job. They assume that the behavior is intentional, the result of a conscious bad decision. The workshop instructor even said it that day, “Some people just want to create problems.”

That may be true for a few people. But it is certainly not true for the majority.

Born or made troublemaker?
True accidents sometimes happen. And everyone makes mistakes. However, if someone feels that any mistake made will result in shame and discipline rather than an opportunity to learn, that firefighter is likely to feel fear, intimidation, or anger. All of which are likely to contribute to the bad outcome recurring.

And even if there are some people who “just want to create problems,” one has to ask: Why? Were they hired with this obvious attitude? If so, department leaders cannot blame anyone but themselves for what comes later.

More than likely, these so-called troublemakers came on the job like anyone else — with strengths and weaknesses and optimism about their future as firefighters. It was what happened after they were on the job that determined what kind of firefighters they would be for the duration of their careers.

And this is where company officers in particular have enormous influence. Here are six key questions to evaluate the officer’s role.

  • Do they treat everyone with respect and provide equal opportunities for professional development?
  • Do they use honest mistakes as opportunities for group learning?
  • Are they sensitive to personal issues that may be affecting a firefighter’s performance, and are they aware of resources available to address those issues?
  • Do they communicate well?
  • Are they fair and equitable when using the disciplinary system?
  • Are they always conscious of their role of leadership and the importance of leading by example?

If the answer to even one of the questions above is no, then officers must look to themselves first when they are dealing with problems with members of their crews.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.