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5 signs of low firefighter morale

Decreasing productivity, lack of participation, bullying as humor, and a loss of confidence are the first signs of a problematic atmosphere in your firehouse


Building morale begins by reminding ourselves exactly what we do and why we are here.

Photo/Joe Thomas of Greenbox Photography

Listen to this article on the Fair Reach Forum – a firefighting podcast to inspire discussion.

One of the greatest myths for any faltering fire department or duty shift is the belief that one good call will raise morale. The reality: Poor morale begins small, but eventually expands to reveal a totally negative, if not wholly unsafe, barrel. When finally recognized, it is often too late to resolve such negative group think, even with a successful knockdown or a timely save.

Is it appropriate in today’s world to blame the constant scrutiny of the media or the unrelenting public thirst for scandal as the cause for this operational malaise? Even when firefighters are strong, there is the occasional misstep recorded by every cell phone camera, followed by a responding avalanche of departmental regulations that seem to choke off any attempt to grow successfully.

Is a decline in attitude a result of external forces pounding on you, your shift and your department, or could it be a consequence of unresolved internal challenges resulting in misguided decisions and inappropriate behavior?

Identification of low firefighter morale

Listening to persistent rumblings, the question becomes not so much, “what is the problem?” but rather, “who’s complaining?” Who exactly is stirring the pot?

Did someone get passed over for a promotion? Have budget issues begun to affect daily operations? Are firefighters feeling unsafe, unsatisfied or underappreciated? Are officers presenting the orders of the day in a negative tone?

Viewed separately, the specific signs of low morale can be easily dismissed as a bad day or fatigue due to a difficult call or a private matter. A lack of clear communication on any topic leads to generating misinformation, creating distraction and delay at every level. This opens the door to low firefighter morale.

And with that in mind, let’s review five signs of low firefighter morale:

1. Station Chores don’t get done

A reduction in daily output is the first sign of internal low morale. While not every shift is going to be totally efficient, productivity is decreasing as excuses and blame are on the rise.

Chores didn’t get done because firefighters had to study for tests. Engineers can’t finish truck checks because their officers didn’t allow for enough time. Trucks are dusty, the station is a mess, and paperwork is late. Dinner is at 6 p.m. and the day is done or else.

Everyone seems tired and slightly out of uniform. Those not hiding out are doing things to keep themselves invisible. The irons are examined in the back of the station. Engineers are under the trucks. Officers are having dozens of private meetings and no one seems to know the reasons or the passwords for inclusion. At the end of a tour, no one recognizes what was accomplished and no one seems to care.

Add to this the inability or desire to help other firefighters with unfinished work – regardless of rank or time of day – and you have low morale spilling onto another shift.

2. Tense, segregated shift change

Complaining about unfinished work, regardless of responsible party, is a next day’s measuring cup. Low morale is stirring throughout the department. Shift change is tense and often segregated by time, job description or blanket incompatibility.

There are no lists of information to pass along, no good stories to share. Firefighters are packing their gear, clearing their desks and hanging by the door. The second pot of coffee isn’t made.

3. Every rumor goes explosive

Rumors and gossip seem to explode as laughter becomes vindictive rather than heartfelt. Stories are amplified to the point of suspicion, formal review and a potential for discipline. Officers become bogged down in an endless administrative quagmire with little time for mentorship or crew development.

No one seems capable of defusing what seems to be a titanic amount of pressure, building every day and with no actionable answers other than changing subjects. Generated in bits and pieces, it is hard to define, yet is felt by everyone. Officers begin complaining about firefighters, as firefighters lose respect for constant and unresolved negative situations.

4. Going above and beyond met with impatience

In a department experiencing a decline in self-esteem, tasks beyond the job description are met with disdain and visible impatience. Changing batteries in a neighborhood smoke detector, responding to an animal in distress, organizing senior transportation or hosting a community barbeque are irritating inconveniences and the source of endless complaints.

Department inspections outside prevention’s purview become grounds for mutiny. While these grumblings are never heard, there are persistent whispers about changing stations or shifts. Transfer papers are being copied, passed out and stuffed in bunker bags. Firefighters are quick to point to policy and procedure as a defense against leaving the station.

5. Small complaints become big issues

One honestly professed complaint by one unhappy firefighter can spread throughout an entire shift or department if not identified and addressed effectively. Inadequate explanations, threatened consequences, complete denial or ignoring the issue will sustain arguments until they deteriorate morale and lower operational standards. The result is not commendable.

Denying the existence of low firefighter morale, regardless of its initial size and scope, is a recipe for the eventual breakdown of organization, first in the station, then on a call and finally, throughout the department.

Outside issues normally counseled in house are not dealt with appropriately because this deterioration of departmental structure is becoming the dominate force each day. If no action is taken to defuse such conspiratorial energy, it will destroy a firefighter, a shift or a department if given enough time and indecisiveness.

Antidote to low morale

Leadership in every rank is the key factor in promoting an atmosphere of confidence and pride.

Self-assurance begins at the top and is translated into every level of the job. Officers have to believe their decisions are supported. Firefighters must feel someone has their back and that they are being heard. Firefighters will support a department moving forward if progress is evidenced by everyone and no one is left out of participation.

All negative perceptions must be separated from this social inclusion and work begun to identify, clarify and resolve them – one at a time and with resolute respect. Building morale begins by reminding ourselves exactly what we do and why we are here.

A clear vision for the future must be communicated to each fire department member, recognizing individual achievement, and rewarding teamwork that promotes the mission to save lives and protect property and the environment. Anything less is totally unacceptable and gets tossed out of the barrel.

This article, originally published in 2017, has been updated.

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advised businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing won six IAFF Media Awards. Many of Spell’s articles are available by podcast at His last book was titled “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell passed away in April 2024 after a short battle with cancer. His last four articles detailed his cancer journey.