Cliques don’t end in high school: When ‘outsider’ firefighters are shunned

Fostering a family environment keeps members engaged, but what happens when that “family” becomes a little too exclusive?


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The volunteer fire service is in the midst of an ever-worsening membership crisis. While there is a shortage of personnel, there is no shortage of blogs, videos and programs to help chiefs and administrators implement plans to help recruit prospective members and retain solidly performing personnel.

Some departments have extensive recruiting methods, and others rely on new members to find the fire department. No matter the recruiting method, inclusivity and openness should be the name of the game. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying every Pat, Jordan and Kelly who wants to join the department should be offered membership; quite the opposite. Departments that work to recruit for quality versus quantity generally have better retention rates. But too often, members are still being excluded – and not due to lack of quality experience.

With recruitment and retention efforts in overdrive, let’s focus on one factor impacting membership – cliques within the organization. Fostering a family environment is a great way to keep members engaged, but what happens when that “family” becomes a little too exclusive? This scenario can turn into a staffing nightmare.

There can be a natural inclination to distrust outsiders. But it’s important to note that these people are not outsiders to the fire service, just to the department.
There can be a natural inclination to distrust outsiders. But it’s important to note that these people are not outsiders to the fire service, just to the department. (Photo/Getty)

“Outsider” firefighters have much to offer

On the career side, it’s common for members to retire at a relatively young age. Also common is these young retirees moving to or spending more time in less populated, more rural locations – locations generally served by volunteer fire departments.

We have also seen the general workforce become much more fluid. As people have found themselves able to work from anywhere with an internet connection, they’ve become much less tied to a geographic area. Likewise, we have seen significant corporate relocations and major employers opening facilities in new locations. Some of these “digital nomads” and transplanted workers are volunteer firefighters who are already trained and might be interested in continuing their service in a new community.

Both groups represent a great resource for volunteer departments. We’re talking about people who are already trained, understand the fire service, and probably just want to help their new community and meet some new people. Unfortunately, this is where exclusivity and cliques can rear their ugly heads.

Consider this example: A well-respected, highly experienced and decorated career chief officer retires at a young age and moves to a new area. Not really ready to leave the fire service behind, the retired chief contacts the local fire department via social media to ask about joining.

A department representative immediately replies to the prospective recruit. Questions about the prospect’s address, interest level and experience are sent back and forth. After the department rep presses for experience specifics, the chief lists their training and certifications. The rep indicates the department will get back in touch very soon.

A month passes and the chief has heard nothing from the department. After contacting the rep a second time, a plan is set to meet up at the firehouse. The chief gets to the firehouse a bit early, wanting to make a good impression. There are no other cars in the parking lot, but it is early. After waiting 45 minutes and checking the doors of the station to make sure nobody was around, the chief – who once had so much to offer the local fire department and just wanted to remain a part of the brotherhood/sisterhood of the fire service – leaves dejected with no additional contact from the department.

This same example could easily play out with an experienced volunteer who relocates and wants to serve their new community. Further, it’s not uncommon for potential members with no experience to be treated the same way. If any of these people are able to get in the door of the department, current members sometimes ostracize and disrespect them until interest in the department is lost.

What’s the solution? For one, start by monitoring the social media pages that you use for recruiting. Are you actually meeting people that have expressed interest on the department’s social media pages? If not, you may have a problem with the person moderating the page being a little too concerned with not letting “outsiders” come into the organization.

Clique concerns

Cliques can pose another issue for potential members. One clue that there’s a clique problem at your department: You have new members excitedly join only to quit a few months later.

Let’s consider a more complex situation in which a new member creates some discord among members: Tracy has been with the department for a few years and is hoping to move into a line officer’s role. Tracy’s friends on the department support this move. But then Alex comes along and joins. Alex has a lot more experience than Tracy and will have been in the department just long enough to run against Tracy in the next election. If Alex can’t break into Tracy’s clique, the likely outcome is Alex will be ostracized or ignored to the point of leaving the department before the election even happens. The end result will be the department losing someone who could have brought some new ideas and a wealth of knowledge and experience to the organization.

On the other hand, an election win for Alex could mean losing more than one member. After all, Tracy is the established candidate with a known track record. A lot of people may see that it’s Tracy’s turn for the officer position. While an objective look at the situation might lead to the feeling that Alex would be a better choice to take on a leadership role in the department based on fire service experience, that would mean the dues Tracy paid the past few years will be overlooked. If Alex wins the election, the department risks losing Tracy and Tracy’s supporters. So, which is best for the department? That’s for the voting members to decide.

Following the established election policies and procedures is critical in these situations. Department leadership needs to ensure that the election process is impartial to both candidates. While some people may make rash decisions, like quitting the department following an election loss, most will usually recognize the “will of the people” and accept the outcome.

“New blood” joins the ranks

Why is there so much discord when new members join, especially in smaller organizations? Unfortunately, it can come down to the more family-aligned aspects of the fire service. Many departments are multi-generational, with the same family names seen throughout the ranks. This can lead to a very close-knit department, which isn’t a bad thing. In fact, following in the footsteps of family members is how many of us got started in the fire service in the first place. But when that family relationship causes the organization to ignore or avoid “new blood,” we have a problem.

There can be a natural inclination to distrust outsiders. But it’s important to note that these people are not outsiders to the fire service, just to the department. They are probably not looking to take over and force changes, but they might just bring some new ideas that might make your operations more efficient, more effective, and even safer.

Managing cliques and culture

Department leaders can do a few things to help eliminate a clique culture. The first thing is to recognize the difference between groups of friends in the department and cliques. Groups of friends support one another and accept each other. Cliques have a negative overtone to them. Members of a clique are likely to be the ones who are constantly spreading gossip and making fun of people not in their sphere of influence.

Once a clique culture has been identified, it’s time to work to reduce it. Mixing things up a bit can go a long way. Some tips:

  • Instead of keeping the status quo on the department committees, change the makeup of them on an annual basis.
  • During training sessions, assign personnel to work with department members with whom they don’t usually interact.

Cliques tend to thrive when things are stagnant. Subtle changes can help break up the clique culture or prevent one from forming in the first place.

Bottom line: It is crucial that department leadership consider how potential members are treated when trying to join the department and how new members are regarded after they join. Don’t let experienced people get away just because someone is concerned that they might bring in some new ideas.

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