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Harassment training for fire officers: Make it count

Company officers can stop a smoldering fire from turning inferno; they just need the right set of skills


“While some types of training translate well to an online format, harassment/discrimination training does not,” writes Willing. “The people who may need this training most cannot be allowed to hide out during it.”

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In a recent video, Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder strongly states that company officers need specific training to prevent and mitigate discrimination and harassment in the fire station: “We need to educate people on what is acceptable behavior and what is not,” he says.

I couldn’t agree more. But it’s one thing to say that training is needed and another to identify what kind of training will be most beneficial.

Every training evolution has form and content – both what is included and how it is presented. Training on harassment and discrimination is typically handled in a classroom setting, and during the peak of COVID, most of this type of training went virtual. While some types of training translate well to an online format, harassment/discrimination training does not. This type of training demands engagement and an opportunity for questions. The people who may need this training most cannot be allowed to hide out during it. This can only happen in an in-person format.

What should harassment and discrimination training include?

First, consider the target audience. If company officers are the focus group, then tailor the content to them.

  • Do some research. What specific challenges do they face when it comes to workplace harassment and discrimination?
  • Talk to a variety of people on the job. Ask company officers about times they have felt uncomfortable or unsure of how to handle a situation. Ask firefighters about ways their company officers excel or need improvement in this area. Ask chief officers about situations that escalated that may have been handled effectively at a lower level.

The obvious problem with such information-gathering is fear. People will not want to admit mistakes or misgivings. They won’t want to make others look bad. This reality contributes to the case for having this type of training done by an outside provider who will keep any conversations confidential and who has no personal stake in departmental relations or politics.

An outside trainer can have many advantages, but that person must have insight into fire department practice and culture. Some fire departments have spent a lot of money on highly recommended trainers from the corporate world, only to be disappointed when those trainers fail to make a personal connection with participants.

What do company officers need to know about discrimination and harassment?

First, as Goldfeder states, they need to know that they are no longer “one of the guys.” The accountability that goes along with the position is the first point that must be emphasized. New company officers are often poorly prepared in this regard. They may have training and experience in many technical areas – incident command, inspection, technical specialties – but no training or experience whatsoever in what it means to leave the comfort of the crew and be the one in charge.

New officers may go to one extreme or another, either continuing to be just be “one of the guys” who exercises no authority, or overreacting into being a kind of dictator who completely separates themselves from the crew. The best officers understand that their position requires fluidity and constant decision-making. Training can better prepare new officers for this balancing act.

What skills do officers need to hone related to harassment training?

In addition to perfecting this balancing act, officers need to hone specific skills related to managing harassment and discrimination issues.

Size-up: Goldfeder emphasizes the need for company officers to be adept at doing size-up, whether it is on a fire scene or within the station among the crew. Through training with customized scenarios, officers can adapt their firefighting skills of size-up and situational awareness to also mitigate interpersonal problems among their crews. Company officers need to pay attention in a new way, and this skill can be developed both through training and experience.

Communication: Communication skills are critical for all officers. They need to learn how to listen well, how to express themselves clearly and how to read messages that are unspoken. They need to know how to mediate disputes between crew members. They need to have confidence in their ability to have a difficult conversation. Most people are not naturally good communicators, but these are skills that can be taught, practiced, and learned.

Situational awareness: Company officers need to learn how to pay attention in a new way. Just as on an emergency scene, they are the ones who are responsible for both managing the specific but never losing sight of the big picture. Training can surface the subtle cues that indicate an incipient problem is brewing but may be overlooked.

Policy: Of course, company officers also need to fully understand the department’s policy regarding harassment and discrimination, as well as any mandates at broader levels. They must know how to act within this policy and be able to explain the policy to others.

But training on a policy is a beginning, not an end. Unfortunately, that is where some organizations begin and end, leaving first-line supervisors feeling a bit lost in terms of what their specific responsibilities are and how to achieve them.

Squash the smoldering fire

Goldfeder asks, “Why are we facing so many harassment and discrimination claims? Because the supervisors are not engaged day-to-day in tackling those issues when they start as a small little smoldering fire; instead, it becomes a big fire … and now everybody’s world get turned upside down.”

I could not agree more.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.
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