5 types of firefighters who can ruin your life

We’re talking about those members who are constantly in conflict and make everyone around them miserable


I was at a conference recently where I spent time with some old friends – friends you probably know as well: Dr. Denis Onieal and Curt Varone.

As most of you likely know, Denis is retired as deputy U.S. fire administrator and superintendent of the National Fire Academy. He is also a retired chief for the Jersey City (N.J.) Fire Department. 

Curt retired from the Providence (R.I.) Fire Department as deputy assistant chief and continues to serve as a volunteer chief. With 30 years as a practicing attorney, Curt runs www.FireLawBlog.com and is well known for his work on fire service legal issues. 

"When a high-conflict member exhibits one of the five common personality disorders ... they can lash out in risky extremes of emotion and aggression," writes Goldfeder. (Photo/Getty Images)

If I bring anything to the table, it's that in my 49 years as a firefighter (39 as a chief officer), I've met some pretty spectacular people who have impacted me very positively. Curt and Denis are without question in that category and both close personal friends. Put the three of us in a room together and we will solve all your problems.

Our most challenging members

As we sat together at the conference, we were talking about particularly challenging firefighters, fire officers and chief officers. Some of these members present minor challenges while others cause you to spend 90% of your time focused on their specific issues. You know those kinds of folks in your fire department – whiners, complainers, yard-breathers, empty suits, hiders, do-littlers, it's-all-about me-ers. Yep, them.

As we get older, our “files” fill with experiences, mistakes, and all the stuff that helps guide and mold us. That file gets even fuller when you meet folks like Denis and Curt. The file also grows as a result of run-ins with the members who appear to be on this job for all the wrong reasons. The good news: There is much to learn from them as well.

Now before you write to FireRescue1, preemptively arguing that it's not always the rank-and-file firefighter’s fault, let me say this: You are right. Rank doesn’t matter here, nor does agency type – paid, volunteer, whatever. We’re talking about the members or staffers who are constantly in conflict, late, ignoring rules, blaming, complaining – those people who have a seat in the supervisor’s office with their name on it, the people who find themselves always in conflict, those who (be it their intention or not) blame "the issue of the day" on anyone but themselves. These are the members who make it so the “greatest job in the world” isn't so great when they are around.

Problem people – you know them all!

As we sat in our hotel lobby bar, Curt spoke about a book called "5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life" – a title that raised mine and Denis’ eyebrows. I ordered the book, and I promise you, you want to get this book. It’s an easy read and quite entertaining. Trust me, you’ll see quickly that you know these people, every one of them.  

You know that special someone in your firehouse whose moods swing all over the place? Do they act unreasonably suspicious or antagonistic to their so-called brothers and sisters, the chief's office or city hall, maybe even toward those who call us for help? Do they blame others for their own problems when it's blatantly obvious they own it – well, obvious to everyone but them?

When a high-conflict member exhibits one of the five common personality disorders discussed by author Bill Eddy, a lawyer and therapist with extensive mediation experience, they can lash out in risky extremes of emotion and aggression. This can happen in the firehouse, on the drill grounds, on a run – anywhere. And once they decide to target you, they’re hard to shake. 

Pulling from the book, here are the five high-conflict firefighters who can ruin your life.

1. Anti-social high-conflict firefighters: These are also known as sociopaths or psychopaths – aggressive people without a conscience. They can be extremely charming and deceptive, combined with being extremely cruel to get what they want. 

At the station: This is that firefighter who can easily charm the resident who stops in with their kids, but 5 minutes after they leave says something truly cutthroat about the visitors.

2. Narcissistic high-conflict firefighters: Most people are familiar with the self-absorption of narcissistic personalities, but these members focus intensely on their targets of blame. They are constantly putting them down, often in public, in an effort to prove they are superior beings. They use a lot of insults with their partners, yet demand admiration and affection. 

At the station: This is the company officer who takes credit for all the good but throws their crew under the bus when anything doesn’t work out, never taking responsibility.

3. Borderline high-conflict firefighters: They are preoccupied with their close relationships and cling to them. However, sooner or later, they will treat their partners, children, parents, coworkers, bosses and others as targets of blame for any perceived abandonment. Their rage can be quite dangerous.

At the station: This is the firefighter who followed you around looking for help and mentorship all those years only to turn on you when anything doesn’t go their way.

4. Paranoid high-conflict firefighters: Suspicious of everyone around them, these members believe there are conspiracies to block their careers. They can carry grudges for years and then punish their targets of blame. They easily feel treated unjustly, and in the workplace, Eddy says, “the majority of lawsuits are filed by this type of coworker.”

At the station: This is the firefighter who, despite not putting in the work, claims they didn’t get selected for the company officer position because so-and-so doesn’t like them – and they are going to make everyone around them miserable, blathering on about the “unfair system,” but it’s never their fault.

5. Histrionic high-conflict firefighters: This personality is most often associated with drama and endless emotional stories. Yet histrionic high-conflict members often accuse their targets of blame of exaggerated or fabricated behavior to hurt them or to manipulate them. 

At the station: This is the firefighter who’s practically hysterical after a call, pointing fingers about what went wrong when, really, it was their panic and cluelessness during fireground operations that more likely hindered the mission than anyone else’s actions.

It's interesting to note that none of these high-conflict personality patterns have anything to do with intelligence. They can be very smart or not so smart at all, just like the rest of us. There are personality disorders in every cohort, likely in every fire department in North America.

Dealing with high-conflict people

What do we do about these people?! And worse yet, what if I am one of them?!

We have all encountered high-conflict firefighters, fire officers and chiefs. They work at all levels of our organizations – and they can even be us. You have to look in the mirror to see that, though. While you can’t change others’ personalities, we can learn how to effectively work with them, and in the case of officers and chiefs, lead them.

Eddy's book provides solutions, with examples, for how to protect yourself, your crew and your organization using empathy-driven conflict management techniques.

The book will help you:

  • Spot warning signs of the five high-conflict personalities in others and in yourself.
  • Manage relationships with them at the firehouse but also in your private life.
  • Safely avoid or end dangerous and stressful interactions with them, especially at the firehouse and your department environment.

Here are some nuggets of wisdom to hold you until you can read the full book:

  • Remember that you, as a fire officer or senior firefighter, are only an expert in what you are qualified and certified to do. In other words, when challenged with one of these types of people, reach out to HR or an appropriate resource after your initial size-up. It's tempting to immerse yourself in the situation to help them, but don't be tempted. Size it up and then apply the CORRECT resources.
  • Your role is to maintain a team environment for your ENTIRE crew. Spend some time helping the problem employee, but at some point, if they are negatively impacting your entire crew, it’s time to take action.
  • Take care of you. When you are of positive frame of mind, morale and enthusiasm, you are absolutely more effective in your role. If the problem employee is wearing you down, it is time to fix the problem at these numerous levels (the crew, the employee, and you as the leader).

‘It’s always a something’

Quick parting story: I had a city manager once who actually said, “The perfect city would be one with few employees and fewer citizens.” And he was serious. He was also a person with a high-conflict personality.

While I missed this when I first met him, only doing my "size-up" looking back years later, it was obvious that he and I were never going to click, and two years later, I moved on. Six months later, the local government moved him on. And a few years after that, the next local government he worked for also moved him on. So many of our best lessons are learned through real-life experience. I learned to better size-up those I work with (at all levels) and apply that to day-to-day interactions.  

I encourage you to check out the book. Be sure to also watch for any programs that Denis or Curt are presenting. They are very much into the “people part” of this job and have decades of experience to share with you. Curt also takes these issues to the next level related to the legal implications of working with high-conflict members and the protections you may have but also the protections they may have

Things are never easy. As Tito Cimarelli, a veteran firefighter whom I worked with many years ago, used to say, "It's always a something."

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