Firefighters and the bystander effect: The problem with staying silent

Milwaukee FD incident raises questions as to why members didn’t speak up about offensive act in the station


There are so many things wrong with the incident of the dark-skinned fetus figurine found hanging by its neck in a Milwaukee firehouse. The figure hung in a public area of the station for four days before it was taken down. The station crew included the only Black female firefighter among the members, and she was relatively new to the department.             

I have no idea what the intention was with this act, but among all the other disturbing details, one jumped out for me – four days.

The figure hung there in plain sight for four days, visible to multiple crews and any station visitor, before someone finally took it down.           

The bystander effect is a condition that all firefighters should be familiar with, both in their dealings with the public and especially among themselves. (Photo/Getty Images)
The bystander effect is a condition that all firefighters should be familiar with, both in their dealings with the public and especially among themselves. (Photo/Getty Images)

Surely in that time, at least one person saw it and found it inappropriate, if not offensive. Yet no one did anything for days. Why?

The bystander effect: The role of ambiguity and group cohesion

This incident and others like it remind me of a psychological phenomenon called the bystander effect. It is a condition that all firefighters should be familiar with, both in their dealings with the public and especially among themselves.           

The murder of a woman in New York City was the event that originally stimulated social psychological research into the bystander effect. Several dozen people witnessed the sexual assault and murder of Kitty Genovese on March 13, 1964, yet no one called for help until after the assailant had fled the scene.

Psychology researchers attributed the lack of help by witnesses to diffusion of responsibility: Because each witness saw others witnessing the same event, they assumed that the others would be take responsibility and call the police and therefore did nothing to stop the situation themselves.

Two other factors that inhibit action on the part of bystanders:

  1. Ambiguity
  2. Group cohesiveness

It is easy to see how these factors might have played a role in the Milwaukee situation.

Let’s apply these factors to a fire service scenario: For whatever reason, someone posts something inappropriate in a public area of the fire station. Others who see it react in different ways. Some may be offended, some may think it is funny, some may just be puzzled about why it is there. But everyone knows that others have seen the same thing and done nothing, and this may inhibit their own motivation to say something. Maybe they don’t really understand the intention of the display (ambiguity). Certainly someone with more authority is handling it if necessary (diffusion of responsibility). And if no one else is saying anything, why draw attention to yourself by speaking up (group cohesiveness.)           

The result of the bystander effect is that no one acts, and bad things continue to happen for far too long.

Preventing the problem: Empowerment is the start

"The matter that is most upsetting and disheartening was the failure of our officers assigned to Station 2, where an incident like this would be instantly stopped or questioned,” said Milwaukee Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing. “The figurine would have been taken down immediately.”

But it wasn’t, and this fact underscores the reality that even those in positions of rank or authority may not be immune to the bystander effect.

How can negative outcomes like this be prevented? The department has committed to anti-harassment training, and that can be helpful if it is done well and made relevant to the target audience. But real change must go deeper.

Firefighters need to understand the culture they inhabit and its influence, both positive and negative, on group behavior. Officers need to understand that they will be held accountable for the actions of their crews, and that they are expected to be the adults in the room if things start to go sideways.

But it is not enough for officers to have this responsibility. Every firefighter must feel empowered to speak up if something seems wrong and not stay silent for fear of backlash from the group at large. Officers must ensure that this climate of openness exists among their crews, but the core values are ones that come from the highest levels of the organization. These values must be explicitly stated and modeled from the department leadership on down to the newest firefighter. The statement and modeling of these values is especially important in recruit academies and in programs that prepare firefighters to be officers.

Someone in Milwaukee did something that was inappropriate and stupid. People sometimes do stupid things. It could have ended as soon as it began if someone – anyone – had said something like, “What are you doing? Take that down!” Instead, the act was magnified by everyone standing aside, not wanting to speak up and get involved, and now it’s a matter of national media attention.

When people allow themselves to be disinterested bystanders in this way, they are contributing to the escalation of bad acts.

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