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From meaningful to mundane: The importance of firefighter conversations

Fire officer tips for effective communication with firefighters at the station

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One of the great challenges – and opportunities – of a fire officer is being able and available to listen to the concerns and conditions reflected by firefighters living and working together each and every day.

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

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Spend any amount of time in a firehouse and you will hear the individual heartbeats of the department, that is, if you listen.

One of the great challenges – and opportunities – of a fire officer is being able and available to listen to the concerns and conditions reflected by firefighters living and working together each and every day. This is information not documented, quantified or accurately reflected in subsequent meetings, roundtables or formal reviews but rather handled simply and in a straightforward manner.

You become a cleric of sorts, hearing inarticulate, slightly unorganized and often poorly timed comments on everything from shift change to equipment location. Listening to complaints about personnel, chores or the deteriorating carpet in the duty office may seem mundane at best, and certainly a pain in the brass at worst, but if you listen carefully, you will hear a focused and extremely articulate message: “Something is wrong right now.”

Communication challenges at the station

As experienced officers, we understand the precepts of active listening. We know we must understand the complete message by paying attention, giving feedback and summarizing what has been expressed. Our education includes being able to give honest and candid advice without judgment or prejudice.

Our self-awareness and the understanding of our own style should give us an ease and empathy that allows for resolution and ultimately an increase in teambuilding.

So why is it so difficult to listen to – and act upon – problems, whether seemingly trivial or clearly important?

First, let us consider the environment. Fire stations are by definition noisy places, most having an activity level bordering on chaos. Constant interruptions are part of the culture, and silence for over an hour is met with suspicion and dread. Add cell phones jingling their symphonic melodies on top of the intermittent static of monitored radio channels, and a meaningful conversation becomes almost subversive. When a significant discussion is mandated, it is no wonder officers become frustrated and short-tempered with all the distractions, not to mention an alarm.

Next is the fear and worry generated any time there is a meeting, regardless of content or situation. Unless it is totally spontaneous, any attempt at communication planning is met with increased anxiety. This reduces focus and further eliminates the opportunity for span of attention. It is a marvel anything gets communicated, let alone resolved, in any scheduled meeting with firefighters.

Being aware of these challenges, in addition to recognizing the importance of listening and responding appropriately, is the first step toward maximizing the potential for effective communications. As an officer, you may not be able to completely control the environment, but you can positively maximize the opportunity to communicate well.

Of course, finding a quieter spot outside the office area can’t hurt. While a big chair and imposing desk may work with public pronouncements, being accessible to firefighters is fundamental to effective dialogue.

Tips for effective informal communications

Your wisdom and authority don’t emanate from an office or even a badge. It comes from your support of what is important to firefighters. They must believe you are providing an avenue for success – theirs and the department’s.

All agendas being equal, try to be available at regular times throughout the tour. If you are driving from station to station, keep a pattern of movement and arrival. Stations will be ready, and firefighters will be better prepared.

Remember, this is their time. Resist the temptation to conduct all department business. Try and keep the time and availability as constant as possible while at the same time allowing the topics to vary. Surprise inspections may be effective in the short term, but they eventually erode long-term progress especially in team-building trust.

While leaning forward and acting interested is great in theory, it is much more effective to remind yourself that no issue is too insignificant or inappropriate. Listen without intent and converse without expressed bias. In a firefighter’s reality, out on calls and after all their time in station, the problem may appear absolutely insurmountable. Never diminish the authenticity of their concerns.

Finally, make no promises except confidentiality. Together you can discuss an action plan for resolution. Set measurable goals and charge your firefighters to return to the table with proposed solutions and a timeline. Empowerment is the great engine of perseverance. Your firefighters will surprise you, and they will succeed.

Are you listening?

Listening for the greater good is a “live it or live with it” philosophy. Either, you can be fully immersed in the integrity of the moment or you can be thinking of better ways to spend your time. The latter path leads to distancing yourself from the problem, while the prior route keeps you involved and vital to your department, its challenges and the firefighters that will ultimately move both forward on your behalf.

Your choice – are you listening?

Editor’s Note: What are your tips for effective communications with firefighters? Share your ideas in the comments.

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advised businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing won six IAFF Media Awards. Many of Spell’s articles are available by podcast at Fairreachforum.com. His last book was titled “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell passed away in April 2024 after a short battle with cancer. His last four articles detailed his cancer journey.