Volunteer Vision: August 2016
By Vince Mackenzie
Social interaction is vitally important to the professional atmosphere in fire stations. Morale, being a result of good social interactions, is crucial to a successful and happy workplace. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at your own department. How well would your department operate if people did not get along?
Firefighters are a unique sort, so unique that there are only about 100,000 of us in the country. I make that point tongue in cheek because I feel that as unique as most firefighters are, they are all alike in many ways.
I have had the occasion this past spring to travel this country from coast to coast attending different fire service events and sharing the room with literally hundreds of firefighters, volunteer and career, all ranks, young and old, in all different regions and sizes of communities. Interacting with so many firefighters in such a short period of time, I have made a very broad and stereotypical observation: it seems everywhere I go I run into the same type of individuals. Names change from organization to organization, but the personalities that inhabit Canada’s fire stations do not.
In my biased opinion, I think fire services get the cream of the crop in society. From what I’ve seen, almost all fire departments are composed of very caring and nurturing individuals. That care and interest in our profession is why we seem to get along so well.
Firefighters are social animals that feed off each other in so many ways. Because of the very serious nature of our work there is a certain espirit de corps that develops in fire halls. I think it is critically important that all firefighters recognize the fact that they are as important to the organizational strength of the department as any of the formal leaders.
Professional development of firefighters takes many forms. Some development happens during very formal and structured sessions and other development happens in less obvious ways during the day-to-day operations of a department. While I won’t go into the social aspect of groups and the hierarchy of needs of human beings, any successful volunteer fire service has to be able to recognize the value in positive social interaction and professional development.
Many fire-service members attend courses, conferences, and seminars to sharpen their skills in a variety of topics. While most of these educational opportunities are operational and tactical firefighting courses, firefighters are learning people skills at the same time. Sometimes we learn more at a conference during social functions with colleagues than we do during the official agenda. As well, more and more conferences are including seminars on soft skills such as leadership development, conflict resolution, and sociology.
When you look at struggling departments, odds are social issues are the first evidence of a problem and slowly contaminate the culture. Unfortunately, negative social interaction can be the demise of good morale and positive work ethic of a fire department; it is an issue that needs to be constantly evaluated within the organization.
I compare morale to a large balloon: when it is fully inflated and looks great, everyone is happy. A happy atmosphere encourages committed people to do committed work, all motivated and with sense of purpose. If the balloon develops a slow leak it starts to look less appealing and people drift away from the party mood; likewise, when morale takes a dive, people are less inspired at work. If the department members experience a significant tragic or crippling event, the morale balloon can deflate or burst all together.
There always seem to be a couple of people in our departments who can be difficult to manage at times. All of us go to work with some sort of agenda in mind, and I think most people at some point during their firefighter careers butt heads with the boss. But when the atmosphere in a fire station turns sour because of a negative event, a tragedy, or political decision by those who govern us, it requires the strength of committed individuals to repair that atmosphere.
Once the balloon is deflated it takes many breaths to re-inflate, which takes a lot more time and, often, a collective effort. And sometimes we have to start with a new balloon, meaning different people, to recharge the morale balloon.
So next time you are at a conference spending time with colleagues, take note of how we are all alike. Practising those soft skills will be more valuable than any conference registration fee is worth, and the returns can be priceless.
Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the past president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince