Surviving fire station ‘Siberia’: 2 keys to thriving at your department’s quiet station
Leaders at less-active firehouses must strike a balance between training and downtime for crews
Every fire department has one – the quiet station, "Siberia," the eye of the hurricane, World of Sleep. These stations, where emergency calls are the exception rather than the rule, may appeal to older firefighters who want to spend their final months on the job in relative peace, but for most firefighters, assignment to one of these stations can feel like exile. Particularly for a new fire officer, it can seem like a career death sentence.
Though leading at one of these stations can offer real challenges and rewards for any officer, it may also be a place where significant leadership mistakes can be made due to the more reserved pace of calls.
What can you do to not only survive your time in Siberia but also thrive there? Learn and follow two key principles to ensure your stint at the department’s quiet station is productive, restorative and fulfilling.
1. Take the assignment seriously …
It can be easy to discount the quiet station as a place where nothing will ever happen, a kind of holding pattern until a more interesting assignment can be attained.
On my department, our quiet station had about 20 emergency calls during its entire first year of existence. The station had been built because a recent annexation of mostly industrial property required that a fire station be provided within a certain distance. However, because most of the district occupants had their own in-house emergency response teams, we almost never got called.
But just because your quiet station rarely responds to big calls does not mean it never will. What are the real hazards in your district? Our slowest station was first due for a major highway, railroad tracks with frequent hazardous materials shipments, a large reservoir and several factories and warehouses. Once we started imagining possible scenarios for those locations, it wasn’t difficult to understand the need to plan for what would happen at some point in the future.
Many quiet fire stations are geographically remote from the main response area of the department. This can lead to a sense of alienation from the organization and can sometimes contribute to a firehouse culture where it seems rules and standards do not apply. On the positive side, relative isolation can also be a source of pride and self-reliance. What will you do when responding to a derailment and your nearest second-in unit is more than 15 minutes away? Recognizing the reality of being on your own for an extended period makes preplanning that much more important.
Quiet stations can be places where seldom-used skills begin to rust and fade away, but when the “Big One” does happen, those skills will be that much more critical. Training should be a high priority and conducted in a meaningful way. What kinds of emergencies are you likely to face? What do you really know about the contents of that warehouse or the practices of that factory? What kinds of relationships can you form with those who work in those environments? Involve your crew to develop creative and engaging training opportunities.
2. … but not too seriously
The second principle of success at the quiet station is to take it seriously, but not too seriously.
The people who end up in quiet fire stations tend to fall into two groups: those who want to be there and feel they deserve the rest, or those who don’t want to be there and feel they have been exiled. These groups may have different needs and interests, but one thing is certain: Creating busy work to fill the days will alienate both groups, and for good reason.
Busy work will be seen as punishment, and the officer who assigns it will be seen as petty and out of touch. This is, after all, Siberia. Why not accept it for what it is and enjoy what it has to offer? Once a serious attitude is adopted and training is on track, there are still likely to be more empty hours each day than there are at a busy station. What’s the harm of a “Twilight Zone” rerun now and then? You shouldn’t feed the jokes about your station among the rest of the department, but it can be therapeutic to have inside jokes about your circumstances among yourselves. Create a sense of camaraderie and loyalty among your crew through shared goals, shared knowledge and shared humor. Flexibility on the part of the officer will also be appreciated and rewarded.
Quiet stations require balanced leaders
Managing a quiet station may seem easy on the surface: fewer calls, fewer reports, less chance of being dragged out at night. However, there are subtle but dangerous pitfalls in the sleepy station. Morale may suffer, skills can slip, and normally committed firefighters may turn their real attention elsewhere. Developing a leadership approach that is both serious and realistic will bring out the best in your crew and in yourself as an officer.