How fire departments can use dispute resolution teams

The education sector learned long ago that peer teams are a great way to head off and resolve conflict, and it's getting some air time in the fire service


The Fire Department of the City of New York recently announced that it is developing a team of volunteers from within its ranks who will assist with dispute resolution among their peers.

According to Assistant Commissioner Don Nguyen, one goal of the new team is to address workplace conflicts in a more timely manner and potentially de-escalate problems before they reach the level of a formal violation.

Good intentions don’t always yield good results. (Photo/City of Tulare)
Good intentions don’t always yield good results. (Photo/City of Tulare)

The 35 volunteer counselors will be trained and will be in constant contact with the department’s EEO office, but Nguyen also emphasized that confidentiality rules will be followed.

Peer dispute or mediation teams are not that common on fire departments, but they have been used for years in other sectors, especially in education. Schools at the primary, secondary and college level frequently have trained volunteer peer counselors to assist with dispute resolution, and sometimes have even more formal structures associated with discipline that include peer involvement.

According to School Mediation Associates, school-based peer mediation can be one of the most effective approaches to integrating the practice of conflict resolution into educational institutions. The process empowers people to resolve their own problems and can create a sense of trust and shared accountability among peers.

Good intentions don’t always yield good results, unfortunately. Three factors contribute to success among school mediation teams.

  • Enough interpersonal conflict to justify the program.
  • Strong administrative support.
  • A designated coordinator for the team.

Once a commitment has been made to have such a team within an organization, education and outreach are critical. All members of the organization must be kept informed about the purpose of the team, how it will function and who will be part of it.

Building the team

And that leads to the critical question of how volunteers should be chosen for a peer dispute resolution team. FDNY asked for volunteers and had over 60 people step up; they intend to have only 35 on the team. How do you choose among those who are willing to serve?

Guidelines used in schools for selecting volunteers to serve on peer mediation teams often include the following:

  • Members should be a diverse group, representing all aspects of the school community.
  • At-risk students should be included in the training.
  • Faculty members should also participate.

Training is critical for success. Most educational entities have a minimum two-day training requirement for initial inclusion in the team, with further education and support offered regularly.

Many schools have found that offering school-wide training about the program, including basic communication and conflict resolution skills, also enhances acceptance and use of the program.

Peer mediation teams cost money, and that is something every organization must plan for before implementing the team. How often will training take place, and who will provide it? Will additional materials be purchased to support the team, such as books or videos?

Will participants be compensated in any way? Compensation may not be an issue for a student, but what about faculty members who are participating in or directing the team?

All of these issues apply equally to the fire service. One of the big questions is who will be part of the team, and how will those people be selected. It is critical to the team’s success that the selection process be seen as inclusive and fair.

Training the team

One fire department wanted to start a peer support team but struggled with how to recruit or select members for it. So they had an election — they asked all 300 department members to anonymously nominate someone on the department who they felt would be an asset to such a team.

The question was framed, “If you had a personal problem on the department, who would you feel comfortable talking to about it?” The top vote-getters were then told that they had been nominated by their peers to serve on the team, and most of those nominated agreed to do it.

Training and support are critical to the success of any peer mediation team. Members need to know their limitations and where to go when a problem is outside the scope of their training. Team members need to clearly understand department policy.

They need training and experience to be able to spot true warning signs of deeper trouble. They need to be effective communicators. They need to be trusted members of their communities.

All of this is a tall order for those who are volunteering their time. Yet members of peer dispute teams often find the experience to be extremely fulfilling. And organizations benefit when small problems are resolved at the lowest possible level, while larger problems are promptly referred to the resources that can effectively address them.

When managed well, peer dispute teams can mitigate conflict and prevent escalation. According to a study done by the University of Florida on school peer dispute teams in that state, those who used the process reported a high level of satisfaction and a commitment to maintaining the agreements reached through peer-facilitated mediation.

Peer dispute resolution teams have been used in schools for decades, and there is a high level of acceptance of the idea among those in the field of education.

Back to school

In the time they have been used, issues and problems with the programs have arisen and been dealt with. Different schools may have a varying level of commitment to such teams, but all educational institutions are familiar with them and have some experience with their use.

Such teams are a relatively new idea for the fire service and represent a change in approach to interpersonal conflict. There may be resistance and false starts as such teams are developed and implemented.

But fire departments have a huge resource available to them as they move ahead with creating dispute resolution teams. That is the collective knowledge, insight and experience of schools and universities across the country, who have used these teams for years.

So pick up the phone. Network with local educators. Ask them what has succeeded and failed.

Then use the resources of all members of your department to customize a program for your specific needs, building in ways to evaluate and modify the program as you go along.

Creating a successful peer dispute management team takes work and long-term commitment, but the payoff can be enormous: less escalation of conflict, less time, energy and money spent on dealing with interpersonal conflict, and better teamwork and trust at all levels of the organization.

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