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Confronting the normalization of deviance in firefighter behavior

Communication skills are the key to diverting deviant behavior before it becomes the cultural norm


The urgency of now affects us – like the proverbial moth to a flame, scurrying to address whatever issue lights up in front of us at this moment. In some instances, that posture is merely a matter of fact for the fire service industry – emergencies come up and we have to deal with them immediately, regardless of what else we’re engaged in.

However, those instances that we train so fervently for tend to become an excuse for why we fail to focus on other really important things. A culture of tolerance has invaded our fire service – which some have coined “the normalization of deviance,” or bad behavior. Some believe the normalization of deviance is merely evolution in practice, with little we can do to influence it. Hogwash.

In her book, “The Challenger Launch Decision,” Dr. Diane Vaughn says the normalization of deviance is “the gradual process through which unacceptable practice or standards become acceptable. As the deviant behavior is repeated without catastrophic results, it becomes the social norm for the organization.” She adds, "Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don't consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for elementary safety."

There is a marked difference and distinction between forward progress and the normalization of deviance. (Photo/U.S. Fire Administration)
There is a marked difference and distinction between forward progress and the normalization of deviance. (Photo/U.S. Fire Administration)

There is a marked difference and distinction between forward progress and the normalization of deviance. Forward progress comes through the collective of education, development, consideration, collaboration, evaluation, leadership/followership and experience.

How does the unacceptable become acceptable? The bottom line is that we become tolerant of unacceptable behavior. Our social conscious and today’s individualistic society is at odds with our team business – we cannot continue to tolerate the unacceptable behaviors and patterns. How can we follow the rules and still be tolerant of individual expressionism?

First, let’s understand why the unacceptable becomes acceptable. Unacceptable behavior becomes acceptable because nothing of consequence happens, either:

  1. Nobody does anything of significance about the unacceptable behavior.
  2. Nothing catastrophic occurs because of the unacceptable behavior.

Either way, nothing of consequence happens. Therefore, the next time that circumstance comes up, the same unacceptable practice occurs, and in the absence of some consequence, it will happen again, until – in some cases – nobody knows why it happens that way, it’s just the way it is.

We seem to have a diminishing capacity to enforce the rules. How many times have you heard someone say, “that’s not the way we do it on the street?” I’ll admit, I was one of those firefighters … after all, what did those dinosaurs know? Fortunately, I experienced a cadre of officers who took their role and our mission seriously and made sure that our crews were not only in sync with one another, but that synergy stretched across the battalion.

How about this one; “I didn’t know that rule existed,” or, “those pencil-pushers aren’t in the field,” or, “that doesn’t apply on this side of the street.” When you’ve heard those – and I know you have – how did you deal with that situation and what did you do with that information? I’d suspect the chances are you laughed it off and went about – knowingly or unknowingly – creating the normalization of deviance. You tolerated the unacceptable.

Confronting unacceptable behavior with communication skills

Confrontation can be difficult, yet it is necessary. The best way to deal with these momentary deviations is early and up front. While it’s always good to take an extra second to gather yourself, don’t let the unacceptable fester. The longer you wait, the harder confrontation and documentation becomes.

Not knowing about a rule can be a plausible excuse for lower level personnel, but it’s a reflection of one of three things:

  1. Poor communicating.
  2. Poor listening.
  3. It’s not true

Any way you look at it, a failure in the communication and expectation process.

Officers need to ensure every member of their crew is aware of the rules and regulations – I place that responsibility squarely on their shoulders and those of every one up and across the chain of command. Effective communication is the first and most critical step that I often find lacking or lagging in organizations that have accepted the unacceptable. While there is some ignorance and blatant disregard for norms, most deficiencies can be traced right back to a poor communication system or communicator.

I’m going to offer three Bs and three Cs to help you with effective communication. The three Bs are:

  1. Be communicative.
  2. Be clear.
  3. Be brief.

As opposed to the three Bs of speech-giving (be brief, be funny and be seated), clear and concise communications will address most deviations before they become the cultural norm. Brevity and clarity is essential to effectively communicate your goals and expectations – long winded, bellicose ranting will likely manifest negatively.

The three Bs really mean communicate your expectations to your troops, while the three Cs mean ensure you have quality communications:

  1. Consistent.
  2. Clear.
  3. Courteous.

Consistency is a part of providing clarity, while inconsistency immediately clouds the message and results in a breakdown in communications. Clarity leaves little or no ambiguity. Being courteous is a trait we seem to have lost over the years.

Challenging fire service risks

You may feel you’ve been inundated with information about cancer, PTSD, driving, etc., yet we continue to lose more firefighters to suicide, cardiovascular disease and vehicle crashes than fires. Suicide is the No. 1 cause of firefighter deaths in the United States, while cardiovascular/cerebral incidents are No. 2. We see fake-outrage about common sense and lawful traffic/vehicle operations issues, yet continue to witness firefighters (and paramedics and police officers) bypass seatbelt systems and drive unnecessarily aggressively.

We’re going to continue to challenge you with difficult topics that require 21st century leadership teams. Our societal swing toward individualism is part of the reason we have seen the normalization of deviance – why the unacceptable has become unacceptable.

I urge you to pay more attention to your health and wellness, and the health and wellness of your firefighters, while you continue to focus on all of the other important topics we face every day.

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