The trust test: Crew reliance doesn’t end on the fireground
A lack of trust between firefighters isn’t just a concern on scene; it can also negatively affect day-to-day operations and disrupt harmony among members
Trust is the bedrock upon which the fire service is built; without it, firefighters cannot do their job. Trust within the community is what allows firefighters to walk into strangers’ homes, ask personal questions and engage in close physical contact, all while receiving gratitude for their efforts.
Trust is also critical among coworkers. Fighting fire, perhaps more than nearly any other profession, requires teamwork; it simply cannot be done alone. When you are on a challenging emergency response, your life is literally in the hands of your coworkers.
Most firefighters have that inherent trust with their crewmates for emergency response. If they didn’t, that crew would be in trouble. Most members implicitly know that those who respond to a fire with them would die for them, and vice versa.
But this same level of trust may be less solid in day-to-day station life. There may be personality conflicts, bad blood from past incidents or just individual differences that get in the way of harmony among coworkers.
These differences may seem incidental to how teams operate on an emergency incident, when everyone needs to be giving their all, but such conflicts can influence the level of confidence you have in someone’s ability to perform all aspects of the job. It can also greatly affect day-to-day operations in a negative way.
FINDING MIDDLE GROUND IN THE GRAY AREA
I was recently part of a meeting among fire service professionals that included a discussion about rites of passage within the fire station. People talked about formal and informal testing of new members, jokes and pranks, and more formalized hazing.
In recent years, there has been an all-or-nothing approach to these subjects. It’s either completely inappropriate and unacceptable, or anything goes. But such polarized approaches to this topic don’t serve individuals or organizations well. There is middle ground and nuance, but people must be willing to be self-reflective for such nuance to be apparent.
Working in the gray area requires making judgment calls: Is that joke acceptable? Did that prank go too far? What should be the basis for such decisions?
There are several parameters that must be considered. There are laws that everyone in the community must adhere to. Departmental and city policies exist to guide individual behavior on the job. Other practical standards also apply, such as refraining from activity that is dangerous or causes obvious harm.
But perhaps we should reframe the question: Is what we are doing or saying right now damaging trust among this crew? And if so, how will that breach of trust affect our collective ability to function, both on and off the emergency scene?
The first consideration should be personal: “If someone did this same thing to me, would my level of trust for the offending individual change? If someone posted this picture of me in this situation or repeated this story about me, would that increase or decrease the trust I have in that person?”
However, it’s not enough to just ask these questions of yourself. We all tend to see the world through the lens of our own experience and it’s easy for perceptions to change over time. This is one of the fallacies of hazing. In retrospect, someone might say that it was no big deal, potentially forgetting the real impact that behavior had on them at the time.
So, ask the question about others, too: “If someone I cared about, a family member or a friend, told me that someone had behaved toward them in this way, would my level of trust for the offending individual change? What level of trust would I have in them as a result?”
If the answer is clearly less, then there is really nothing to be gained by encouraging or tolerating the behavior. It doesn’t matter how funny it is in the moment or if you tell someone you were just kidding. If trust is truly damaged, that harm outweighs anything else that might come out of the situation.
PRESERVING TRUST IN THE FIRE SERVICE IS PARAMOUNT
Trust is the currency by which the fire service operates. When that trust is damaged, either externally or internally, everyone in the organization suffers. Preserving trust should be the highest priority in all words and actions taken on the job, in every context.