Firefighters can keep cool under verbal attack

Remaining professional in the face of irrational, irate civilians is a skill that should be taught and reinforced; here's how to do it


Who knew that firefighters doing their grocery shopping could become such a media sensation?

By now more than a million people have seen the video of a Butte County, Calif. fire crew being confronted by an angry civilian as they load bags of groceries onto the fire apparatus. The man is upset in part because he feels his tax dollars are being wasted by the fire crew shopping at a store a few miles from their station, when another, albeit smaller, store is closer.

The man is rude and confrontational. He repeatedly tries to draw the firefighters into an argument. He threatens to report them to their supervisor.

And what do they do in return? Nothing.

They continue loading their groceries on the truck. They refuse to be baited into an argument. They treat the man with respect that he is not showing to them, so much so that he is actually more civil to them by the end of the confrontation than he was at the beginning.

Making the grade
Not all such encounters with the public go as well. There have been more than one video of firefighters going off on members of the public who criticize them, take video of them or confront them.

The guys from Butte County Station 64 get an A+ for professional behavior in the face of provocation. It would have been easy to argue, rationalize or at the very least, give back some attitude to the rude person.

They did none of these things. And their positive example is now out there for all to see.

Perhaps this crew is just naturally good at defusing situations. Certainly the officer set the tone for the encounter — providing information, maintaining a neutral attitude, and refusing to be drawn into the man's issues.

But such good response strategies also can be learned, and should be taught on all fire departments. Consider these questions.

  • What does it mean to be professional as a firefighter?
  • How can you defuse difficult encounters?
  • How much responsibility do firefighters have to engage with the public in such circumstances?

Training and example
There are two ways to improve professionalism in any organization — through training, and through example. Training should be required for all members of the fire department, but how that training is done is critical to its success.

This is not the type of training that is suited to a large group lecture format. Training sessions should be small enough for everyone to participate, and the format must create multiple opportunities for discussion, analysis and decision making.

Good facilitation is key — if in-house facilitators are used, those people cannot have personal baggage when it comes to professional behavior. A knowledgeable, neutral third party can be an asset in this type of training.

Scenario-based training works well for this topic. Case studies can either be constructed or can be taken from real-life incidents. The point of discussing such incidents is not to pass judgment on others, but to look closely at the factors that led to either faulty or exemplary decision making.

  • What factors specifically led to escalation or de-escalation of the event?
  • What behaviors were helpful in achieving a positive outcome?
  • What behaviors were negative and inflammatory?
  • Did people tend to make decisions differently in groups vs. individually?
  • How can dissent be heard in groups that have a strong team structure?

Dry run
Role play is also useful for this type of training. Many firefighters hate role-play exercises, and they usually don't work well for brief (less than half-day) training sessions. People need to settle in and feel more comfortable in a group before they will really commit to role play.

But if you can get the group onboard for role-play exercises, they can be very useful for training on professionalism. It is also informative to record role-play exercises and analyze them after the fact. Here are things to look for.

  • When did things start to go bad in the interaction?
  • What role did body language, gesture, and tone of voice play in the outcome?
  • When a positive outcome was achieved, what did individuals do to make that happen?
  • What behaviors allowed them to control the situation rather than be controlled by it?

Training in effective communication is an obvious corollary to more generalized training in professionalism. The ability to listen well, to ask appropriate questions, to convey a point clearly and succinctly, and to hold a different point of view without being adversarial — these are all skills that can be learned and practiced.

The understanding and control of nonverbal communication skills is equally important.

Reinforced message
Skills training is only the first step, however. Once training has occurred, it must be followed up with a culture of accountability.

This type of accountability is bred from the top down, and should include not only follow-up when firefighters make mistakes or bad decisions, but also recognition when they do it right, as the guys in Butte County recently did. Company officers should get extra attention and support in this area.

Ultimately, training and development in professionalism is practical and essential due to the relationship of trust that all firefighters depend on to do their jobs. This trust must exist among department members, as firefighters routinely put their lives in the hands of their coworkers.

Trust with the community is also a necessity or the model of public safety collapses. The prevalent model of fire response is entirely based on trust — people let firefighters into their homes, they answer personal questions asked by them, they allow them to take responsibility for their children. When you think about the level of trust strangers give to firefighters just because of who they are, it is remarkable.

But that trust must be maintained as the sacred contract it is. If members of the public do not trust their firefighters — if they think they might have sketchy ethics, or they feel they may not treat them fairly — then the fire department has a real problem. They will not have the support of their communities and they will not be able to do their jobs.

Unfortunately, it does not take much to taint this relationship. Firefighters behaving badly in a different city can raise questions among your own constituents. One firefighter on your department making a bad decision can impact every other firefighter in a negative way.

Overwhelmingly, firefighters want to do the right thing. But making good choices can be tough when under pressure or personal attack. An open conversation about what it means to be professional is the first step in making sure that all difficult encounters end up as well as did the recent one in Butte County, California.

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