Why is fire department hazing still a problem?

To fully end hazing requires a strong push from the top down and the bottom up within a fire department

Negative outcomes from fire service hazing have recently been in the news again.

I can’t believe I am writing that sentence in 2017.

Most fire departments have specifically banned hazing for years, if not decades. Yet it persists, from small volunteer departments to some of the largest career fire departments in the country.

According to Dictionary.com, hazing is defined as “to subject others (especially newcomers) to abusive or humiliating tricks and ridicule.” Another definition says that hazing is “to harass with unnecessary or disagreeable tasks.”

So by definition, hazing is not the fact that the newest firefighter has to clean the bathrooms, unless you require that firefighter to do the job with a toothbrush held in his teeth. Hazing is not making a new firefighter show competency in securing a patient to a backboard. However, when that firefighter is strapped to the backboard and covered with oil and flour, that is a different story.

Historically, hazing is a rite of passage – a new person enters an established community (the crew of a ship, a college fraternity) and that person must prove himself through a series of rituals or actions before gaining full acceptance in the group. These actions are not based on competency, but rather the ability to withstand abuse, ridicule and humiliation.

Once the test has been passed, then full membership is granted, with all benefits including the ability to be part of the in-power group that perpetuates the hazing on the next round of newcomers.

Pyramid scheme

This last point is one that makes hazing so insidious and hard to stop. It’s the ultimate pyramid scheme, where the only vindication for being a victim is to later be a perpetrator. Nobody wants to be the last one standing.

Putting up with hazing but never getting to be in the power group is a lose-lose proposition. So there is always the momentum to keep it going, just one more time.

Some people openly defend the practice. In a recent incidence of hazing among volunteer firefighters that resulted in termination of members, one person commented, “Rite of passage and harmless brotherhood fun – give me a break!”

But as someone else pointed out, “The time has passed for this kind of activity. Rite of passage for a firefighter is the first fire, the first CPR save, the first MVA extrication.”

There are so many problems with hazing, it is hard to know where to start. Defenders say it promotes camaraderie and team spirit, but the reality is that it creates a climate of polarization and fear.

And what if someone goes through the hazing process, but will never really be included in the dominant in-crowd for some reason – for example, differences in gender, ethnicity, race, religion, world view or just personal preference? Then hazing is harassment, plain and simple.

Hazing is dangerous too, for individuals and organizations. The practice of it has led to physical and sexual assault, and associated injuries. Firefighters have left the job as a result of being targets of hazing. Some fire department members have committed criminal acts in the name of hazing as a “rite of passage.” Numerous lawsuits have been filed, and big checks written.

Bringing it to a close

So how can fire departments end hazing once and for all? The answer is both simple and difficult: leadership.

The message must come from the top down that hazing is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Clear consequences must exist for those who do it, and discipline must be meted out fairly and consistently.

For departments with a history of hazing, the top down approach might involve the chief meeting personally with every officer to make expectations crystal clear. This approach is currently being undertaken within the New York City Fire Department, where the fire commissioner is holding a series of meetings with all officers in the aftermath of hazing scandals that have resulted in lawsuits, discipline, and attrition.

But it is not enough for just the highest-level chiefs to make a strong stand against hazing. Even more important is a commitment from all company officers that hazing is unacceptable and that it will not happen under their watch.

When hazing is taking place, company officers are always complicit. They might be actively taking part in the activities, as was the case with a station officer who orchestrated a fake hostage situation to terrorize two rookie firefighters. Or they may be standing by silently while hazing is taking place. Either way, the officer is responsible.

The most important thing that must happen for hazing to end is for company officers to end it, not because they are compelled to do so, but because they understand that workplace hazing benefits no one and has the potential to greatly hurt both individuals and the organization.

Everyone gets hurt

There will be those who argue against this last point. “Lighten up,” they say. “No one really gets hurt.”

But even if all individuals involved are OK with what is going on (and they rarely are, regardless of what they say), imagine justifying sexual assault as a rite of passage for membership in your organization at the next city council meeting. You don’t have to imagine the headlines; they are there online for all to see.

All firefighters are hurt when this becomes the image the community has of its fire department.

The elimination of hazing does not mean that people cannot have fun in the station anymore. It doesn’t mean that joking around is off limits.

What it does mean is that any joking around is done among equals and within professional standards you are ready to defend to any member of your service community.

The fact that hazing is still a problem for some fire departments after all these years indicates a failure in leadership that must be addressed. The future depends on it.

If you want to bring the best people into your organization, you must set high standards for them and treat them with the respect you expect to receive from them. Hazing has no part in this equation.

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