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Bullying- still a real threat

The fire service is often described as a “brotherhood”—the implication being that firefighters watch out for and support each other. In many fire departments, the brotherhood is alive and well. But in too many firehouses across the country, the reality is more complex. In a recent webinar, 84% of respondents indicated they had observed or been the victim of bullying in the fire service. And a quick check of headlines reveals no shortage of news stories about firefighters being sexually harassed, hazed and retaliated against.

Bullying is found in many workplaces, but the impact can be greater on firefighters because the station is like a second home, where firefighters cook, clean and even sleep side by side. Fortunately, fire service leaders have begun to understand the negative impact of bullying and harassment and many are taking steps to reduce such behavior. Following are 10 strategies identified in the webinar, which was presented by Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder, Chief I. David Daniels, Chief Colleen Walz and Chief Joanne Hayes-White.

1. Identify the behavior

Although bullying is often used in a general sense to describe all types of harassing behavior, there are important differences in the terms we use—differences that can have a legal impact.

  • Hazing is abusive or humiliating tricks and ridicule directed at new members of the department
  • Bullying is repeated mistreatment; threats, humiliation or intimidation; work sabotage
  • Harassment is verbal or physical conduct that creates an unpleasant or hostile situation (usually toward a protected class)
  • Workplace violence is verbal, physical or sexual assault

When assessing a specific situation or educating personnel about inappropriate behaviors in the firehouse, it’s important to distinguish between these terms.

2. Acknowledge the leader’s role

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 61% of bullies are bosses. Sometimes, this is the result of an overt use of power. But there are less insidious reasons as well. Chief Daniels notes that many leaders in the fire service were bullied themselves when they were moving up through the ranks. They may believe that such behavior is the way to get results. That’s why it’s important for fire service leaders to assess the cultural influences that shaped their leadership philosophy and the tone they’re setting in their departments. Equally important is providing early education to company officers on what bullying and harassment are and how to stop them.

3. Prevent retaliation

Although the ultimate goal is to stop bullying in the first place, equally important is a fire department’s response when such behavior is seen or alleged. Chief Walz notes it’s essential to have policies and procedures in place to ensure firefighters who come forward with information or accusations are not retaliated against. This includes instructing others with knowledge of the situation what constitutes retaliation—an unwelcome shift or station change, the denial of a promotion, shunning the accuser or encouraging others to do so, giving the firefighter an undeserved poor performance review. Many instances of bullying and harassment can be dealt with effectively, but if they progress to retaliation, the consequences for everyone involved become much more severe.

4. Confront the behavior

Too often when firefighters observe bullying behavior or even when they’re victims of it, they don’t confront the bully. It takes personal courage and individual responsibility to call someone out for bad behavior—it’s often easier to “go along to get along”—but it’s critical to creating lasting change in the fire service. It’s also key to correcting behavior before problems become so big they cause career or legal repercussions. A company officer who puts a swift end to teasing that’s going too far is less likely to have a true bully on their crew. Note: How you confront behavior will depend on the severity of the situation. A firefighter who feels physically threatened or psychologically abused will need to go through formal channels to confront their accuser.

5. Train and educate company officers

Company officers are the first line of defense in stopping bullying and harassment in the fire service. They spend a lot of time with personnel and observe the interactions between firefighters. Fire departments need to ensure company officers are trained to recognize bullying, empowered to step in, and have access to a process for reporting inappropriate behavior. Regular training on bullying, harassment and inclusivity should be provided to company officers and leaders should engage them in conversations about crew dynamics.

Bullying is carried out against those identified as “other”—it may be the way they look, the interests they have, their gender or ethnicity, or any characteristic that doesn’t fit with the group dynamic.

6. Involve the safety officer

Your department likely has one or more safety officers designated to watch out for the wellbeing of firefighters. Typically, this means responsibilities such as checking for unsafe acts, ensuring proper PPE is being used, advocating for annual physicals and the like. But Chief Daniels points out there’s no reason the safety officer shouldn’t be involved with anti-bullying efforts. After all, being treated badly at the station can compound other types of trauma, elevating a firefighter’s risk for PTSD, depression and suicide. Safety officers should be trained to notice and intervene.

7. Establish proper policies

Chief Goldfeder notes that clearly written policies also play a key role in reducing bullying and harassment in the fire service. Your policies need to make clear that discriminatory behavior, harassment, bullying and hazing are unacceptable. Some departments write individual policies for each of these areas; others cover them in a “code of conduct” policy. However you do it, make sure the policy language is unambiguous and track policy acknowledgement by your firefighters. Think beyond the obvious, too. If you have women in your department, eventually some of them may become pregnant. Do you provide for a light-duty option when they can no longer respond to fires? What’s the process for returning to duty, and do your company officers know about the federal requirement to provide time and space for nursing mothers to express breast milk?

8. Expand recruitment

Bullying is carried out against those identified as “other”—it may be the way they look, the interests they have, their gender or ethnicity, or any characteristic that doesn’t fit with the group dynamic. For this reason, one of the more powerful long-term strategies to combat bullying is to make your fire department more diverse. As the group embraces diversity, the notion of “otherness” fades. Fire departments can do this by recruiting in different places than they have traditionally. They should equip all firefighters with recruitment material and instruct them to be on the lookout for potential recruits when on call. And fire departments should reexamine their recruitment messages, too, to ensure the messages will connect with qualified applicants who bring different experiences and backgrounds to the job. Finally, it’s important to look at the non-minority candidates you’re recruiting. It’s not just about flooding your ranks with women and people of color; it’s about ensuring everyone you’re hiring supports the mission of building an inclusive fire department.

9. Establish promotional guidelines

Just as diversity in the rank-and-file can reduce bullying, diversity in leadership can be a powerful antidote. Too often, however, people who are “different” feel shut out of the promotional process. Fire departments can address this by establishing transparent, impartial promotional guidelines and publicizing them widely. Chief Hayes-White notes that because the fire service has so long been dominated by white men, you may need to take an extra step and encourage QUALIFIED women and people of color to consider testing for promotion. Note this is not favoritism or a promise they’ll get the job. It’s asking whether they might be interested, encouraging them to think about it.

10. Preserve worthy traditions

One criticism that often comes up when we talk about a more inclusive fire department is that exclusivity comes at the expense of fire department traditions. Those who came up in the department from a young age may resent changes. “I paid my dues as a rookie, now you’re saying I have to treat the new guy with kid gloves.” Fire department leaders need to be prepared for this type of pushback. Involve union and volunteer leadership in policy changes and talk openly about what’s changing and what’s not changing. Some past practices are downright harmful and don’t have a place in a progressive, modern department. The challenge for leaders is to respect tradition while being unafraid to push the department forward.

Managing within the context of a fire organization

Human Relations: Managing within the context of a fire organization

• September 2018 • Chief Robert Benoit – 2nd Vice President, IAFC-SW Division – Fire Chief Lafayette Fire Department

The basic principles for managing one’s personal and family life, a private corporation (small or large) and both for-profit and nonprofit businesses are similar to those needed to manage a fire department. These management processes provide an orderly structure to achieving goals and objectives through delegated authority under competent leadership.
Within the context of a fire organization, effective management is a learned behavior that demands continuous training, requires team spirit and provides a strong disciplinary influence.
The NFPA Fire Protection Handbook, Section 10, Chapter 1, states

  Almost all fire departments were administered by clearly defined organizational structures long before system techniques were applied to industry and business. A system of task allocation to engine and ladder crews was developed whereby each person on the apparatus performed certain functions in sequence so the team operated as a coordinated unit, without duplication of effort.

Most fire departments are structured around this traditional model, and with it, leaders have a firm foundation to build on; continuous training, team spirit and influence are some of their construction tools.

Continuous Training

On June 15, my department held its 101st recruit academy graduation, with 17 graduates who started their training in January. The academies are six months long, with the objective of making sure each recruit has the foundation needed to perform in an effective manner during the working test period, which totals 18 months of probationary status. At the end of the working test period, they’re confirmed as permanent firefighters.

This is where the real training begins, and it will continue throughout their careers.

Effective leaders in the fire service are no different than those they manage. Management principles must start at the top and flow downward through the chain of command. Lower-level officers often find it difficult to practice leadership styles different from their superiors if we are not practicing what we preach.

Common sense is not without its merits. However, it’s just one tool mangers use, along with consistent education and training, to help members understand that decisions made at the member level may resolve an issue temporarily but that some decisions need to be made from a wider perspective, such as seen by the department leadership, to have lasting effects.

Team Spirit

If you are going to wear the jersey, become a team player. A spirit of cooperation is a powerful tool, meaning sometimes you will have to change your focus and direction for the betterment of the organization. Staff meetings are critical, can be very efficient and should be inclusive. All aspects of the department, both supervisors and members, should be able to sit at the table and present ideas to management on a regular basis.

The fire and emergency service is a very complex field that is constantly evolving, often very rapidly. Individual skills can make or break an organization and can best be managed when the leaders feel the pulse, which can only happen in a huddle (that is, staff meetings).
When employees are given the opportunity to provide input, self-ownership takes over and the stronger players have a way of getting the weaker players to buy into their goals and objectives. As a manager and part of the team, you have the authority to make things happen. Never let power keep you on the sidelines.

Influence

Black’s Law Dictionary defines influence as

“Power exerted over others. To affect, modify or act upon by physical, mental or moral power, especially in some gentle, subtle and gradual way.”

A lot can be said about influence depending on who is in charge. I like the phrase “gentle, subtle and gradual way” because it takes the sting out of having to use force to achieve goals and objectives in running an efficient fire service organization. The truism “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar” goes a long way in making people feel appreciated.
Managers are held to a higher standard and are always being watched, filmed, recorded and scrutinized. Managers can get in trouble for off-duty actions, sometimes forgetting we’re always on the radar. Fire service leaders who excel do so because they’re on top of their games. More often than not, we forget that we’re human; it’s not the big things hurting us, but the illegal, unethical or immoral acts that destroy us because we don’t think things through.

Education = Knowledge = Success = Power

As an administrator, you have the authority to manage the performance within your organization. It takes a long time to build character and excel to the level of leadership in the fire service. It only takes a split second to crash and burn. As a leader, you owe it to yourself, your family and the entire fire service to finish strong, making a colossal impact on the organization you represent.

Chief Benoit is a member of the IAFC Human Relations Committee and currently sits on the executive board of the IAFC-Southwestern Division

Conference Keynote Speaker M. Mirarchi

Mr. Michael Mirarchi, a colleage of Dr. Gordon Graham will be the keynote speaker

He has presented his “Reset the Clock” program over 1,100 times to more than 26,000 leaders at employer facilities across North America. He has presented the HR Professional version of this program for SHRM Chapters across the country, annually for Dallas HR.

In conjunction with various employer, industry and professional associations, he has conducted live TV broadcasts, webinars and on-line employee relations programs, in addition to presenting at their regional and national conferences.

 

Topics include:

Balance Employee and Employer Rights

  • Concerns about job security, responding to
  • Generalized disparaging comments, how to address
  • Personality and attitude problems, how to handle
  • Discriminatory comments, disassociating yourself from

Minimize The Risks of Day-To-Day Management

  • Employee complaints, proper responses to
  • Problematic job interview situations, how to handle
  • Erratic performance, how to address
  • Disabilities, responding to a request for an accommodation

Maximize The Effectiveness of Your Policies

  • Open discrimination charges, responding to a request to discuss
  • Sexual harassment complaint, proper initial response to
  • Substance abuse, confrontation in obvious impairment situations
  • Violence, responding to threats of

Key Concepts for Staying Free of Legal Challenges

  • Serious misconduct, proper initial response
  • Previously unaddressed misbehavior, how to address
  • Corrective action meetings, how to prepare for and conduct
  • Discharge meetings, how to prepare for and conduct

Eliminate Your Personal Liability

  • Potential sexual harassment, proper reaction to
  • Serious off-the-job misconduct, how to respond to
  • Reference checks, how to handle
  • Disclosure of Medical Conditions, How to React to

IN 2013 MIKE WAS INDUCTED INTO THE HRSWC HALL OF FAME!

http://hrsouthwest.com/schedule-events/hall-of-fame/2013-inductee/

 

 

2016 Education Conference highlights

Oklahoma City, OK was host to the SW-IAFC and OFCA joint conference April 6-9

An incredible week of education, networking, exhibits and fun.  The conference also enjoyed the largest attendance numbers in recent history for the SW Division conference.

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SW Board posing for a group photo at the past presidents breakfast held in Oklahoma City as part of the joint conference with OFCA -April 2016

Keynote speaker Executive Director Bill Webb delivered a message about the power and influence we hold as the  leaders in fire service to the leaders in Washington.  CFSI continues to work for America’s Fire Service!

Mr. Bill Webb, executive director CFSI

Mr. Bill Webb, executive director CFSI

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1st VP Bradley; State VP (L) Benoit; State VP (A)Howell; Past President Parker

1st VP Bradley; State VP (L) Benoit; State VP (A)Howell; Past President Parker

Congratulations to our new board members

Chief Shauwn Howell of Arkansas was elected to serve as 2nd Vice President.

Chief Roy Robichaux of Louisiana was elected to serve as the IAFC-SW Division Director.

Chief James Fullingim of Oklahoma was elected to serve as the Secretary/Treasurer

The annual installation of new officers will be held during the FRI Division Luncheon in San Antonio

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Education credits were provided by OSU-FST to all of those who attended the 2-part workshop provided by SW-Division  and IAFC Academy1460619463791919427501


 

Benoit, Fullingim, Boudreaux @ vendor luncheon April 8

Benoit, Fullingim, Boudreaux @ vendor luncheon April 8

 

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