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How to resolve fire officer conflicts

When problems arise with an officer on another shift, there’s a wrong way to handle them, even if you mentored that person


Remember Pat, the ultimate problem firefighter who was assigned to your crew eight years ago? The good news is that things went well with Pat on the crew.

You made an effort and it paid off: Pat became a decent firefighter and gained respect among other department members. The proof of this is in the final years of Pat’s career, Pat was able to recently promote to company officer.

Now the not-so-good news: Pat is working across from you in the same station and things are not going particularly well. Some of the old problems have reappeared: losing equipment, not meeting deadlines, barely making it to work on time.

In addition, several of the firefighters who work for Pat have approached you with a list of grievances, asking for your help. They know that you and Pat worked together in the past and that Pat respects you, so they are hoping you can have some influence.

What should you do?

Some people, out of good intentions, might be inclined to take on the firefighters’ grievances and act as an intermediary with Pat. But this would be a mistake.

You are not a member of Pat’s crew anymore and you are not Pat’s supervisor. You have no authority to say anything to Pat about how that crew is managed.

When relationships matter
You need to be clear with the firefighters who have approached you that they need to follow their own chain of command in dealing with their issues. First, they should talk to Pat directly. If necessary, they can then go to their battalion chief to address the problem.

You can encourage the firefighters in approaching their officer, but it is not appropriate that you be involved in that process with them.

However, if you have your own issues with Pat at this point in time, you certainly can and should deal with them. You and Pat have a relationship.

You can build on that relationship as you frame the conversation. But remember that Pat is an officer now, a peer, and you no longer have a role of authority. Be sure you recognize this when initiating the conversation.

How you approach Pat depends a lot on what the specific problems are. Maybe Pat is generally stressed out in the new position. If Pat perceives you as an ally, just asking how things are going and commiserating might result in a constructive conversation.

In some cases, you will want to be more specific. If Pat’s crew was supposed to finish an inventory yesterday, but instead left it for your shift, take a moment to consider the circumstances.

Was the shift hammered with nonstop emergency calls all day? Did something else happen that distracted the crew’s attention? Ask before you accuse.

Mutual trust and respect
You want to be supportive, but that is not the same as making excuses. Pat is still accountable.

For example, your engineer comes to you at the start of shift to tell you that a piece of equipment is missing from the rig. You know for a fact it was there when you turned the station over to Pat the day before.

It is perfectly reasonable to approach Pat, saying something like, “Pat, we discovered at shift change that the foam eductor was missing from the rig. Did you use it during the shift and do you know where it is?”

Above all, remember that your success with Pat years ago was based on mutual trust and respect. Pat deserves that same consideration now.

Don’t tolerate gossip or trash talk about Pat in your presence. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it. Simply saying, “I don’t want to hear that” will get the point across.

Years ago, you helped Pat when no one else was willing to step up. It is unlikely that Pat has forgotten that. Pat does not owe you anything, since you were just doing your job when you gave Pat a chance to excel against odds.

But your positive example of professionalism and support can serve as an inspiration to Pat, the crew, and anyone else who is lucky enough to work with you in the future.

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.
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