Diffusing fire department battles: Cross-training is key for better understanding and empathy

Working side-by-side highlights that personal perceptions of others’ job duties can be limited and skewed

Years ago, I worked as a consultant with a department that was having some serious conflicts between line firefighters and dispatchers. Because I was hired to work primarily with uniformed firefighters, I mostly heard their side of things. They told stories about dispatch errors and categorized dispatchers as lazy or incompetent. But when I asked what direct experience those firefighters had working and communicating with dispatchers apart from their own emergency response, the answer was very little.

When I suggested including dispatchers in the training sessions I was facilitating, I got strong pushback. “Why include them?” people asked. “We have nothing in common with them.”

This may have been an extreme case, but it’s really not that different from what I see and hear on a regular basis. Seemingly intractable conflicts exist between groups or agencies who are supposed to be working together toward a common goal. And in many cases, people just accept these conflicts as normal.

When a common mission is emphasized, clearly understood, and embraced by all, finding ways to work together to achieve it is just common sense.
When a common mission is emphasized, clearly understood, and embraced by all, finding ways to work together to achieve it is just common sense. (Photo/Getty Images)

Mixing it up and making it personal          

Part of my job in working with this department was to improve relations between different groups. I started by insisting that all the training sessions be mixed by group and function, including people from operations, prevention and dispatch as well as representing members of all ranks. Previously, training had been mostly segregated by these definitions – dispatchers trained with dispatchers, chiefs trained with chiefs, etc.

It was awkward at first. People tended to sit and interact with those they already knew and felt comfortable with. I had to assign people to diverse small groups as part of the class.

But then, slowly, something started to happen. People started talking to one another. Those who thought they had major differences found themselves thinking the same way when solving a problem in a small group. A joke was shared. People started getting to know each other, just a little, outside of their perceived roles.

And it quickly became clear, on all sides, that perception was not necessarily reality.

The truth was that people in different functional roles didn’t know much about what the others really did. This lack of real knowledge led to the formation of harmful negative stereotypes and expectations.

The next step was obvious: If people didn’t actually know much about what the other did, give them the opportunity to experience it. This department moved from joint training sessions to requiring ride-alongs (or in some cases “sit-alongs”) for firefighters and dispatchers to learn more about what the other did in real time. Arrangements were made for operational personnel to work a shift alongside a dispatcher, starting with chief officers. Dispatchers were assigned to ride on an engine or truck for an 8-hour shift.

The results were significant. Everyone involved realized that their perception of what the other did was limited and skewed. Understanding and empathy grew.

And conversation emerged, not just in the context of the brief time working directly together. Training together and working alongside one another created the basis for a relationship. So when a misunderstanding occurred, instead of feeding it in separate groups, a simple phone call could defuse it.

And these findings are backed up by research. In psychology and other social sciences, the contact hypothesis suggests that intergroup contact under appropriate conditions can effectively reduce prejudice and dysfunction between diverse group members. The conditions that must exist for results to be positive are that contact is sanctioned by institutional supports, and the interaction leads to the recognition of common interests and common humanity between members of the different groups.

A common mission

There are many ways to be different in the fire service. At another department, a problem existed between line firefighters and the fire prevention bureau. Again, my main contact was with the line firefighters, who told me that fire prevention was unreasonable, out of touch with reality in the field, and consumed with trivial concerns. But how much direct experience did those firefighters have with what fire prevention actually did on a day-to-day basis? Almost none.

When firefighters started working shifts with fire prevention, their eyes were opened. “I had no idea what they do!” was a common reaction. Equally common was an increase in respect for the role the prevention bureau plays and how line firefighters and fire prevention could work better together for the benefit of everyone.

And that’s really the bottom line: How can individuals and groups work better together toward the mission that they share? When that common mission is emphasized, clearly understood, and embraced by all, finding ways to work together to achieve it is just common sense.

Editor’s note: How has your agency found common ground among different groups? Share your feedback in the comments below.

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