Firehouse hazing and pranks: The distinction is important

Training, good leadership, mentoring, and yes, pranks all contribute to creating the best possible firefighters, but hazing has no place in the fire service

My column about why hazing is still a problem in the fire service generated discussion and feedback, including one person who asked, "Are everyday pranks considered hazing?"

Hazing by definition is different from joking among co-workers and that distinction is important.

Hazing is a rite of passage, something done to new people in an organization as a test of their worthiness to be full members. Hazing, by definition, includes abuse, humiliation or excessive or unnecessary tasks assigned to the new person who is hoping for inclusion.

In contrast, practical jokes or pranks usually take place among existing members of an organization and are not used as a test of inclusion or exclusion. Whether joking around is acceptable or encouraged will vary depending on the nature of the crew and its leadership.

Hazing targets the powerless

The most important difference between the two activities is power. Hazing is always done to new people, who are powerless to stop it or respond in kind. They must simply go along with the process as the price to be paid for full membership.

On the other hand, practical jokes between individuals or crews are done on equal footing – if B Shift pranks C Shift, then C Shift has the right to do something back to B Shift in good natured retaliation.

Another difference is that jokes are individual events and by their nature should be funny or enjoyable. On the other hand, hazing is a ritual, a series of activities and tests that are most likely not at all enjoyable for the person being targeted.

Joking around in the fire station can serve a real purpose. It allows for stress relief and can bond crews. Firefighters have been known to be incredibly creative when it comes to instigating practical jokes and some of the stories that result become organizational legends.

Taking a joke too far

But even when jokes and pranks are done among equals, there must be oversight. Firefighters have a strong tendency to push limits and that "can you top this" attitude has led to bad outcomes even when there are no bad intentions.

A water fight outside on a hot afternoon while washing the rig? Probably fine. A water fight involving 1 ¾" lines inside the fire station? You can see the problem.

More than one innocuous joke has led to seriously bad results, including property damage and personal injury. It’s hard to explain to the community why someone should get a disability retirement due to out-of-control joking or horseplay in the station.

And then there is the issue of being able to justify what takes place on the taxpayer’s dime and with publicly funded equipment. People generally like firefighters and appreciate what they do, but they also expect firefighters to be professional in their behavior and ethics, the same as other public servants such as police officers, medical professionals and teachers.

Think about standing up at the next city council or fire board meeting to explain why the fire station windows need to be replaced, or a firefighter broke his arm, or a rig incurred $5,000 in damage due to pranks or horseplay.

Better ways to build character

No one is saying that firefighters can’t have fun at work and engage in harmless and inclusive jokes and pranks. But this is a different issue from hazing.

Hazing isn’t fun for those it is being perpetrated on. No one really wants to be assaulted, humiliated or threatened. They tolerate the behavior for the payoff of inclusion and acceptance.

In retrospect, some may see the process in a positive light, now that they are on the power end of the equation. But there are much better ways to build character in new firefighters and in the organizations they belong to.

It all comes back to balance and leadership. Is it okay to tease a new firefighter or give that person a nickname? The answer depends on what that name is and what the teasing entails.

Despite the negative opinion of younger people held by some veteran firefighters, new firefighters generally want the same things that new firefighters have always desired. They want to feel competent and confident in their ability to do the job. They want to feel accepted and trusted by their coworkers and want to be able to wholeheartedly return that trust. They want to feel that they have equal opportunities on the job for experience, advancement and personal development.

Training, good leadership, mentoring, clear expectations and yes, jokes and humor all contribute to creating the best possible firefighters. Hazing in isolated cases may do little harm, but has also led to division, attrition, property damage, personal injury and an environment of fear and mistrust. It has no place in the fire service today.

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