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How firefighters can set the tone with bystanders on scene

It is nearly impossible to end communication with a civilian on a polite, rational note when it starts with threats and disrespect


The short video shows several firefighters standing near a fire by the side of a street. They are not engaged in active firefighting and they do not appear to be wearing bunker gear. One of the men seems to be taking photographs. They are talking among themselves.

Then one of the firefighters notices a man in the street filming the incident. The firefighter approaches him and says, "I'm going to have to ask you to leave my fire scene right the f**k now or I'll call the cops."

There is a brief confrontation where the man filming responds, "It's not your fire scene."

The firefighter replies, "It's not my fire scene? The hell it ain't." He then tells the man to, "Go. Start walking right the f**k now. I'm going to put you down as a suspected arsonist right the f**k now."

The other man tells him, "Go ahead." Meanwhile, the fire burns.

There is so much wrong with this encounter it is hard to know where to begin.

Bad start equals bad end
This firefighter certainly wouldn't be the first to get annoyed with a bystander who is filming at an emergency scene. Amateur videographers can be distracting for fire crews at work and at times can even hinder emergency response.

But the fact is, unless emergency responders have explicitly cordoned off an area to prevent entry, a person filming in a public place is probably legal. And it is a fact of life for all emergency responders in 2016.

The problem here was not so much with the intent of the communication, but instead the tone and manner of it.

Conversations, at best, tend to end the way they start. If you start out treating someone with courtesy and respect, there is at least a chance that they may respond in kind.

On the other hand, when you begin by threatening someone, using profanity and imposing power that you don't really have, the tone of the interaction has only one direction to go — down, and fast.

A better option
In this case, the firefighter could have approached the man filming and introduced himself. He could have politely asked him to move farther back from the emergency scene and given him a rationale for the request: "We have some more equipment responding to this scene and need to keep the street clear."

Then he could have reinforced his request by setting out cones or stretching fire tape to create a perimeter.

This approach may or may not have worked. The guy most likely just wanted to get a good shot of the fire. Perhaps the firefighter could have directed him to a safe spot on the other side of the street and allowed him to continue what he was doing.

Or maybe the videographer would have escalated the situation. Maybe he would be the one to become profane or threatening. In that less likely circumstance, the firefighter can call police for back up.

But that's not what happened in this situation. In this case, the firefighter set the tone and insured that there would be a confrontation.

By approaching the man the way he did, he made it nearly impossible for the civilian to happily cooperate. The firefighter escalated the situation, even to the point of threatening a person who was not apparently breaking any laws.

Reputation management
In any confrontation, there is always the chance that the tone of the interaction will deteriorate. Therefore, it is in emergency responders' best interests to start all interactions at the lowest, most cooperative level possible.

You can always ramp things up if necessary. But if you start out with threats and blatant disrespect, it is very difficult to dial it back.

And what is the worst outcome of this encounter? When that man and any other bystanders go home that night and tell the story of what happened at that fire scene, they are not likely to say that one particular firefighter was rude and inappropriate. 

They are more likely to generalize and say that they were treated rudely by the fire department.

When one firefighter behaves unprofessionally, it reflects not only on his crew and his department, but on the fire service generally.

At any emergency, one of the primary responsibilities of emergency responders is to control the scene. Part of that control comes from setting a professional tone for all interactions.

The first and most important aspect of this responsibility is in controlling themselves.

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