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The lonely firefighter: How company officers can reorient crew culture

Feeling alone within a group, especially one that seems otherwise cohesive, can be the worst kind of loneliness

Fireman Looking Back

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There is currently an epidemic of loneliness in the United States.

According to a report released by the U.S. Surgeon General last year, feelings of loneliness have increased across all demographics, but the numbers are especially notable among younger people. A Harvard University survey conducted in 2020 found that 61% of adults from 18 to 25 reported feeling serious loneliness, compared to 39% across the general population. The Surgeon General’s report found that loneliness increases the risk of premature death by 26%. Feeling lonely also increases a person’s risk of heart disease by 29% and the risk of stroke by 32%, according to the American Heart Association.

It might seem counterintuitive to talk about loneliness in the context of the fire station, a place where you are almost never alone. But loneliness is different from social isolation. Loneliness, as defined by mental health professionals, is the “gap between the level of connectedness that you want and what you have.” Feeling alone within a group, especially one that seems otherwise cohesive, can be the worst kind of loneliness.

Several things contribute to increasing feelings of loneliness. Even before the pandemic, decreased membership in affinity or social groups and the rise of personal technology taking the place of in-person interaction were key factors. A 2021 survey found that Americans reported having fewer close friendships than they once did, talked to their friends less often, and relied less on their friends for personal support. These trends were then exacerbated by COVID.

How to identify, address loneliness in crewmembers

A new person coming into an established fire crew might feel alienated and alone for several reasons.

Maybe the crew is well established and not welcoming to newcomers. Maybe the new person is different in some way that sets them apart. Maybe there really isn’t any team spirit among anyone on the crew. Maybe the new person unknowingly violates some unwritten rule or norm that leads others to ostracize them.

Crewmember alienation from their peers is a bad situation for both individuals and the team. Members will not perform at their best and might not be motivated to go the extra mile for a colleague. They will be distracted. They won’t share information with others. Skills will suffer and going to work will become an ordeal – for everyone.

How can this situation be mitigated or prevented? While creating an inclusive environment is everyone’s responsibility, the company officer should take the lead for two reasons.

1. Company officers should be aware of crew dynamics. Officers must be conscious of how their crews are doing, taking note if members are isolating themselves, or if one person is consistently the brunt of gossip or jokes, or just seems uncomfortable when around others.

Officers should approach any person they have concerns about privately and show interest in them in a non-threatening way. Let them know they can talk to you if they have issues on or off the job. Ask how they are feeling as part of the crew and if any issues have come up for them. Make general inquiries about family and personal interests as a way of getting to know them better.

2. The company officer is responsible for cultivating an inclusive culture. Officers must develop routines that build community in the station. This can take place both as official business as well as during downtime. Hands-on training that requires cooperation as opposed to competition is a good place to start. Take the crew out for ice cream after a tough call. Make a big bowl of popcorn and invite others to join you for a movie in the evening. These are small things that can have a big payoff for team building.

Sometimes misunderstandings lead to individual isolation. A new firefighter might not understand that friendly teasing or a rude nickname can be a way of welcoming someone to the crew. Even those with fire service experience can have misunderstandings or preconceptions that lead to social isolation or loneliness.

I remember working with a new firefighter who had years of experience with another department. He was competent with official work, but the minute work was done, he was nowhere to be found. The other members of the crew started imagining reasons why he seemed so anti-social, none of which reflected well on him.

One day, I finally asked him – in a friendly way! – if there was a reason he preferred to be alone during all his free time in the station. He explained that organizational culture in his previous department had been toxic, and everyone hid out as a survival technique. I told him that he was welcome to engage as much as he wanted with the crew during downtime and made a point of creating opportunities for the crew to come together informally. This change gave the firefighter the space to join the crew more, who welcomed him. It was a win-win for everyone.

Let the fire service serve as a cure for loneliness

It is not necessary, or even desirable, for crewmembers to interact with one another all the time. People need time alone to rest, to make a personal call, to study or just be by themselves. But these days, social media and electronic devices have edged their way into every human interaction. It can be impossible to have a two-minute conversation with someone without having that person look at their phone. People are distracted, busy, overwhelmed and lonely as a result. Being part of a fire crew should be an antidote to this trend, but it is up to everyone, and especially crew leaders, to commit to doing better.

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.