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Firefighter humor stops being funny when civilians aren’t in on the joke

Even the most benign joke from a first responder to a taxpayer can seem hurtful, flippant and even cruel

For humor to be effective, both parties have to “get it;” they have to understand and similarly appreciate the joke.

Firefighters are pretty funny people. They like to joke around, they are clever with making up slang and nicknames and they can appreciate a well-crafted prank. The culture may also encourage the quick, witty response, and the sarcastic observation.

Humor plays an important role in the fire service. It allows for an indirect way of confronting low-level interpersonal problems. It lightens the mood and provides a break when the tasks of the job become too heavy and dark. Inclusive humor can help build teams and solidify crews.

However, for humor to be effective in a fire station and fire culture, it must meet a certain standard: Positive and constructive humor comes from a place of inclusion, equality and mutual understanding about the issue at hand. Thus, using typical firefighter humor with the general public may not go over so well.

Cats in trees are no joke

Consider the recent case of a firefighter who was reprimanded for his response to a caller concerned about a cat stuck in a tree. The firefighter told the caller that the department would not respond to this incident, and then made an offhand joke about the lack of cat skeletons found in trees.

Hearing this joke as a firefighter nearly 40 years ago, I thought it was funny. A little snarky, yes, but funny. I have repeated this statement myself over the years.

But, timing is everything. I have never told this joke to someone who was sincerely calling about a perceived danger to an animal, and their real concern that something needed to be done. The firefighter who said this to the caller probably had no malicious intent in doing so. He might not have even thought about it – it’s a funny joke, right? His response was a failure in situational awareness.

And, of course, the incident was magnified by social media. The woman who called and heard the cat skeleton comment did not appreciate it. She said as much to her family, and her daughter took to social media to shame the fire department. This led to being “blitzed” by the public (in the words of the fire chief) and the headline, “Cat in tree doesn’t worry Dudley firefighter; trouble follows.”

Understanding the time and place for humor

For those who think this is all much ado about nothing, there are two important points to keep in mind.

First, when humor is not inclusive and among equals, people can feel disrespected by it. This is particularly true when sarcasm is the type of humor being used. There is a power imbalance implicit in the relationship between uniformed first responders and citizens. On the one hand, the first responders hold the power – to respond or not, to deploy certain tactics and to prioritize calls.

On the other hand, the woman who called also had the power as a taxpayer, as one of those who pays the bills, allowing the fire department to exist at all. To be treated condescendingly by someone who is supposed to be a public servant almost never goes over well.

The second point is a real danger with the use of humor, and that is potential unintended consequences, even beyond being the focus of a negative social media campaign.

For humor to be effective, both parties have to “get it;” they have to understand and similarly appreciate the joke. But, what if they don’t?

The danger of not getting it is especially relevant with sarcasm, which often involves saying the opposite of what you really mean, only in a tone of voice that implies you are being sarcastic and thus really mean the opposite of the words you have just said. “Take your time,” you might say to someone who is being unbearably slow, with the real meaning being, “Hurry up!”

A friend told me a story about how this can play out at an emergency scene. He and his crew had responded to an ill, older man who was living in a small apartment with his large, extended family of recent immigrants to the United States. The worried family members were all crowded into the small room where the man was in bed, making it nearly impossible for the paramedics to work. In response to this, one of the paramedics sarcastically commented, “Do you think we could get a few more people in here?”

Well, guess what? Family members went and found some more people. They weren’t being deliberately difficult. On the contrary: they were new to the country, they had limited language skills, and someone in uniform and in a position of authority just told them to go find more people. So, they did.

The lesson here is to be careful what you ask for. And, think twice when using humor with the general public or people you don’t really know. It is much better in these circumstances to just play it straight and save the jokes for your crew at the station.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.