Managing the daily personality disasters and the emotions evoked in the fire house

How does fire service work create heightened workplace emotions?

First we have to start off by stating that each individual handles workplace emotions differently. One employee may allow it to not bother them versus another employee may dwell on an emotion until it reaches a boiling point. Stress brings out emotions and in the fire service extreme stress isn’t uncommon. As members of the fire service we deal in matters of uncertainty. We train for those events but the circumstances of the next event may be something we have never seen before. Events such as: Acts of Terrorism, conflagration fires, mass casualty incidents, high angle incidents, hazardous material incidents, and the list is only limited by your imagination. These types of incidents are stressful in and of themselves.

The daily call volume of incidents such as a structure fires, CPR’s, gun-shots, stabbings, car accidents, domestic violence, and so on can create a significant amount of stress.
Now, take the first two issues and add the next stressor: the fire station environment. Even the best firehouse with the best crews will have difficulties and stresses that come with spending 1/3rd of your life with the same people.

An average American works an eight-hour day and returns home spending approximately 40 hours a week with his or her co-workers. A firefighter spends 56 hours a week (24 hours at a time) with his or her co-workers. To compound this exposure we live together, eat together, sleep together, and finally we work together. We do not have the luxury of taking an hour lunch break and escaping from the “bad egg” in the station. We are confined to our quarters for 24 hours. These factors together are like a fuel rich environment just waiting on the right fuel to air mixture before the big bang.

In the business world your workplace stress is limited to your co-worker interaction on business only. In the fire service we do everything together. It is a family environment where crews literally get together off-duty for dinner and parties etc. A healthy fire station should be able to handle the natural cycle of ups and downs with that are caused by emotions.

What happens when emotions in the station go spinning out of control?

As a member of the fire service, no matter the rank, you have the responsibility for identifying the signs of emotional crisis. This responsibility applies to your co-workers, subordinates, superiors, and to yourself. Each person is a critical component to the fire service therefore each person is responsible for the success of the team. There is no “I” in team but there is a “Me”. Crew integrity and station moral are directly influenced by workplace emotions. If you don’t believe this is true walk into any fire station in America and disrupt their routine. I imagine you will see and hear a variety of workplace emotions. Employee Assistance Programs, CISD programs, and counseling services are all critical resources for helping us cope. The issue that still remains after these sessions are over is “Can you manage the daily personality disasters and the emotions evoked in the fire house?”

The Peacemaker versus Damage Control:
Some of the most successful crews that have worked together for years have learned a concept most married couples have not. They have learned to accept, embrace, and even defend each others differences (no matter how annoying) for the sake of continuity. One of my mentor’s would get up every morning and clean up after every one before the next shift came in even if it wasn’t his turn to do so. When asked about this, he responded by saying “I can spend five minutes, get it done, and not hear any complaining around here.” His words struck a chord with me. He was willing to go the extra mile and not receive any credit for his efforts because his reward was peace and quiet.

As a crew we have to be able to function as one unit in order to mitigate an incident. Most crews in the fire service have no problem performing when the bell hits but when ask them to decide on how to arrange the day room furniture and World War III erupts. The simplest things we do have the greatest impact on our lives. By doing our part individually we do well. By doing our part and helping our co-workers we become exceptional.

When people interact under one roof for 24 hours there is bound to be conflict. As previously stated, the key is to identify it early, deal with it, and move on. As Chief Brunacini once said “Win but don’t win too big”. I always thought that he meant the greater good equaled winning while those out for individual glory tried to win too big. The concept of heightened emotions in the workplace can be a difficult one to manage if you are constantly reacting to it. We have to realize that with heightened emotions comes a heightened awareness of your surroundings. Most of the time, the behaviors at a fire station don’t blind-side you from out of nowhere. We all have to pay attention, play nice, and occasionally back-up and punt. Situational Awareness matters not just on the scene but in the fire house!

Stay safe & take care of one another

Andy J. Starnes

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