Why a lazy firefighter may not be lazy

Laziness, arrogance and apathy are often masks for incompetence; not identifying and fixing the root cause can jeopardize firefighter safety

A fire officer was recently describing to me a member of his crew: "He's terrible to work with," the officer said. "He's the laziest and most incompetent person on the entire shift."

I've heard these two words used together before when officers talk about so-called "problem employees." Lazy and incompetent — they seem to make sense together.

There almost seems to be a cause-and-effect linkage between them. If you're lazy, then you probably won't engage with training or other activities among the crew. You won't do projects that build skills.

So a lazy person, by definition, is likely to be incompetent.

There are people who are truly lazy, either because they are arrogant, or they feel entitled, or in some cases, they are just exhausted. But it is also possible to look at the cause and effect between these two characteristics in the opposite direction.

When people are incompetent — if they know their skills are poor and if they feel insecure about performing essential tasks on the job — their insecurity will likely cause them to avoid performing those tasks. They don't want to be judged. They don't want to be found out.

The path of least resistance in some cases is just to avoid performing that task altogether. Better to be seen as contrary or lazy than incompetent.

I've seen this happen in the fire service.

Learning discouraged

There was a firefighter on the job who rarely fully participated in practical training exercises, especially those involving air packs. Superficially he acted like he was above it — he'd been on the job over 20 years. Why should he still have to train on the basics?

But the real problem was quickly demonstrated when he came into a certification process he could not avoid. His skills were poor, his confidence almost nonexistent. And his performance, well, it goes without saying that it was not good.

This firefighter was found out in a situation where people were certifying on an air pack course for time. It was a competitive situation. His poor performance in that venue became a much talked about event among department members, even kind of a joke.

He left the job not long after that. Some might say that was a good outcome. The guy was incompetent and came across as lazy. He shouldn't be on the job.

Maybe this was true. But the fact is that he was on the job for over 20 years. For a good portion of that time, he was probably in the same state of readiness as he was that day when he performed so poorly.

What if that had happened on a big fire? What if he had become trapped inside a building? The consequences would have been very high.

Better training attitude

A fire department cannot afford to have a single person on the job who feels incompetent or insecure about his or her skills. Everyone should have confidence and a sense of mastery about their position, which comes through training and experience.

But some kinds of training undermine this goal.

If this firefighter had had the opportunity to go through the air pack course without a lot of judgmental spectators eager to capitalize on his failures, he might have been willing to ask for help. He might have admitted that he didn't feel comfortable performing the task and he might have been able to get the training and support he needed to master the necessary skills.

This should be the goal of all training — not competition, not proving that you are better than somebody else. Training should be about bringing everyone to the same high standard. In this way, emergency response can be as safe and predictable as is possible under the changing circumstances.

Everyone knows a firefighter that they would describe as being lazy. Take another look at these people.

Are they highly competent in their skills? Do they feel comfortable mentoring others or being mentored themselves? Are they willing to make mistakes and ask for help?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then the perceived laziness of these people might be avoidance, and might be masking a much more serious problem with deep safety implications.

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