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Between Alarms: January 2011

Most of you are probably familiar with the 2-20 factor, a rather negative reference reserved for members who have been on the job for two years but act like they’ve been on for 20 (or some variation of this timeline).

January 5, 2011
By Jesse Challoner

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Most of you are probably familiar with the 2-20 factor, a rather negative reference reserved for members who have been on the job for two years but act like they’ve been on for 20 (or some variation of this timeline).

Simply put, we are talking about those few members who have relatively little experience with their current departments but express the attitude and actions of someone who has been around since the first fires began. Needless to say, 2-20 is not a coveted nickname. Although the actions of 2-20s on emergency scenes can be problematic, their actions around the halls are often even more disturbing. Characteristics such as being outspoken, knowledgeable and authoritative are not necessarily negative, but it’s important to strike a balance between being a leader and putting in your time, especially when that leadership is unsolicited and unofficial.

In many instances, 2-20s overstep their authority on calls by trying to issue orders to other firefighters, or they may freelance, causing chaos because their actions may not fall in line with the bigger picture of mitigating the situation. These transgressions do not serve the crew well. By stepping out of line in emergency situations, undue stress is put on officers, as they must either focus on that individual regarding accountability and task management, or remove that person from the front lines. Additionally, these actions cause disconnect to occur in co-ordination among other firefighters. Instead of working together on a task, members butt heads over what is to be done, or how to do it. Our job requires co-operation and communication at all levels, and when one person is not on the same page as everyone else, the entire crew structure is affected. This is not to say that having differing ideas about what to do and how to do it is a problem, but the manner in which those ideas are brought forward (and by whom) is an important consideration.

Although the conduct of these individuals on the fire ground is problematic, one of the biggest issues associated with the 2-20s is their attitudes and actions in non-emergency settings, especially behind closed doors within the firehouse. The behaviour of 2-20s within the privacy of the firehouse can be as innocent as taking a little too much leeway around the hall, or as malicious as bullying other members. The former may elicit a quick chat with a senior member or officer to rectify the problem, but the latter may require aggressive intervention from higher up. Relaxing too much, being too vocal, or not carrying out expected duties could be an oversight on the junior member’s part, and with a push in the right direction, the issue can be fixed. However, being aggressive, abusive and confrontational in addition to all the rest is another issue altogether. When a junior member develops this pattern, it is not a precursor to a problem – the problem is already there and needs to be addressed. There is a place for the tradition and hierarchy that is the fire service, but it is not the junior member’s place to enforce those customs, and certainly not in a malevolent way.

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To curb the proliferation of this 2-20 phenomenon, it may be helpful to understand why individuals exhibit this behaviour in the first place. Perhaps it is an ego issue and the person likes being in the spotlight. Does the person have a knowledge base that is untapped and feel compelled to show just how much he knows (or thinks he knows)? Has this person had experience with another service and is under the misimpression that seniority is transferable? Did the person have a rough probationary year and is now transferring that treatment to others? Or maybe he feels that as soon as probation is over, he is just as apt as the most senior member. Any number of motives may cause some firefighters to act this way but there are definitely certain traits and trends associated with the 2-20 factor that are common across the board. Whatever the reason for this behaviour, it is unwelcome and unacceptable.

This issue requires attention. It is not appropriate to behave this way and other members should not have to dread coming to the best job in the world for worry of dealing with a junior member’s attitude. It may be unrealistic to expect officers or management to rectify the problem, because the 2-20 seems to have a talent for not showcasing this behaviour in front of authority, and we, as members, are unlikely to bring the issue to proper authority as our first step in dealing with it. The other junior members may be confused about what is appropriate and they may not want to rock the boat after just getting hired. Still, it is inappropriate for us to turn a blind eye to the problem, even if we are not directly affected. The onus is on everyone to help 2-20s see the errors of their ways. Bringing the issue to their attention may be all that is required. But if that action is ineffective, it is our responsibility to make the problem known to officers who have the authority to deal with it.

This issue follows a fine line between traditional fire hall etiquette such as making fun, pulling pranks, and actual leading, and having members take everything too far. Remember, it’s not so much what these 2-20s are doing, but how they are doing it. We need to ensure that the line between the two is drawn plainly and deeply and that it is clear to everyone that our job is the best in the world because of our commitment to help others out of problems, not cause them.


Jesse Challoner is a firefighter/paramedic with Strathcona County Emergency Services in Alberta and an instructor at the Emergency Services Academy in Sherwood Park, Alta. Contact him at jchalloner@hotmail.com.


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