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Fighting fair is fighting smart

Infighting at departments is inevitable, but if we fight our battles fairly, we can keep public safety at the forefront

By Jason Zigmont

It seems that if there’s one thing volunteers are good at, it’s fighting. Whether it’s fighting fires or fighting each other, it doesn’t matter. The difference is that when it comes to fighting fires we make a risk/reward decision, while in department meetings we don’t. In our meetings we seem to fight about everything, even if there is no benefit. Both as individuals and as departments we can benefit by learning to fight fair and pick our battles.

Although each department may have a different ongoing battle along with different fighters, we all seem to have our share of fights that gets in the way of improving the department. It doesn’t matter if you call it “beating a dead horse” or “backroom brawls,” the fighting is still the same. I usually can tell who the fighters are and what the fight is as there is a collective sigh whenever the issue is brought up. Usually the big fight is over something small like who didn’t clean the bathroom or what color to paint the walls. You usually know when the fight is done because someone storms out of the department or threatens to quit. It is really scary how many good firefighters have been lost over small issues that were blown way out of proportion.

Not all fights are bad, but not everything is worth fighting about. The hard part is separating “pet peeves” from “real issues.” Pet peeves tend to be what we fight most about, even if they do not have a direct impact on our daily practice. The problem is that people with a pet peeve may believe that their peeve impacts practice. For example, if my pet peeve is keeping the bathrooms clean, I may see that as a key issue because I do not want outsiders to see the mess and judge our department inappropriately. The debate I always hear with this type of argument is “you don’t keep your house that way,” but unfortunately some people do. If the issue is substantial to the running of the department, then it is worth the fight. If you are trying to determine how to pay for your next engine and there is debate on both the source of funds and how much to spend, that is definitely a worthwhile fight.

The challenge to each of us as members is picking the right fights and knowing when to compromise. Personally, this has always been difficult for me as I love to debate. The problem is that if you are constantly fighting you can’t get anywhere, especially once someone else has dug their heels in. I now find myself asking before any big battle “Is this the hill I want to die on?” It is a rather simple question, but one that everyone can use as a litmus test of whether it is truly worth the price. If it is an issue you are willing to stick your fire career on, then by all means, fight for it. If not, let it go. A great example for me is the fight over alcohol in the fire department. I have personally fought very hard for members not to respond under the influence and I still believe this is a fight worth putting my career on the line for. It is not a popular stance, but I think that if you have any alcohol, you should stay home. I have caught quite a bit of flak for this stance, but it is worth it because it is about both our own safety and the safety of the public at large.

In addition to picking your battles, it may help to state up front why you are picking the battle. It is fair to say that your pet peeve is to keep the bathroom clean and that you are going to continue to fight to keep it clean. This lets everyone know what the issue is, what your personal connection is, and what is coming. Laying your cards on the table this way helps to keep the rules in place for the fight and allow people to understand what is going on. I remember a meeting when our department had decided to implement a swear jar ($1 per curse) to improve professionalism in our meetings. We all thought it was rather silly or childish, but complied. The jar disappeared when one member got up and deposited $20 in it BEFORE starting his tirade. In this way the department knew what was coming and that the member was willing to pay in advance to abuse others, which quickly killed the whole jar. Although I do not necessarily agree with planning to curse out the department, I appreciate the act of laying it all out beforehand so that everyone can be prepared for it.

It would be nice to say we just shouldn’t fight, but there are some issues that won’t be solved unless the department has a heated discussion. The key is to not make it personal, and keep public safety in the forefront. I truly believe we all have the best interests of the public at heart, we just all do not see it the same way. You all have that member whose heart is bigger than their brains or common sense. As a department, sometimes we fall into the same trap. The key is to stop and ask ourselves why we are fighting and what we are fighting for. With this knowledge we can then make a risk/reward decision and keep fighting or give in.

Volunteer fire departments face a unique set of challenges. Learn how to manage or serve on a volunteer department with Jason Zigmont, founder of, in his FireRescue1 exclusive column, ‘Volunteer Professionals.’
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