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Your Call: Attitude adjustments require deft handling

In my June scenario I asked how a captain is to deal with an employee who has a terrible attitude and constantly complains. I knew I was stepping out on the plank with this question because it can be a difficult topic to discuss.

September 18, 2008 
By Steve Kraft

In my June scenario I asked how a
captain is to deal with an employee who has a terrible attitude and
constantly complains. I knew I was stepping out on the plank with this
question because it can be a difficult topic to discuss. Well, I was
right. I didn’t receive any e-mail responses to this question. Was I
surprised? Not really. However the lack of response needs to be quickly

One bad apple can spoil the bushel; and the negative attitude of one crew member can zap the enthusiasm of others. Senior officers must address this kind of issue head on.

I believe there are three possible reasons for this. The first would be
that the article didn’t get read. Based on the e-mail replies to past
articles, I don’t believe this is the case. The second reason I came up
with is that the topic is too dangerous to answer because anyone who
replied to this scenario would be putting himself out on the plank with
me and risk being scrutinized by peers.  Still, I don’t believe that
would deter the great leaders in our profession from replying. The
third reason, and the one I believe to be correct, is that not too many
people have the answer to this question, so the safest thing to do is
say nothing. After all, if we had the answers, we wouldn’t have
negative people in our fire houses and life would be wonderful.

Addressing negativity
I don’t profess to be an expert regarding this scenario, but I will
provide an answer based on my readings and my experiences over the last
20 years. Negativity is a systemic problem in the workplace (not just
the fire services) and it needs to be discussed and helpful solutions


Before I continue, let’s keep things in perspective. The majority of
our employees are great. We would hate to see them leave and our
departments would suffer if they left. This is all about the one or two
bad apples many of us have in our workplaces.  

So, let’s tackle the issue. Staff with negative attitudes can zap the
enthusiasm of even the most energetic crew. However, not dealing with
these kinds of people can have a huge impact on employee morale and the
overall happiness of the crew. Ultimately, officers have no choice but
to deal with attitude problems head on.

Attitude problems can be very complex issues to confront. Some
employees constantly complain, criticize, judge and never seem to be
happy. Their behaviour is not directly harmful to anyone but their bad
mood is generally demoralizing. Bad attitudes can manifest themselves
into serious problems in the future and they must be addressed early.
Furthermore, bad attitudes of firefighters have a way of sucking the
life out of everyone around them, creating a very difficult environment
for a captain. I believe most of us will agree that there is no place
for poor attitudes in the fire service.

Talk it out
When dealing with a bad attitude, the first step needs to be discussing
the situation with the firefighter. This should be performed in
private, possibly even off site if deemed necessary. It is amazing how
discussing an issue with someone at a restaurant or coffee shop can
help facilitate a positive response.  During this discussion, the
officer needs to make the firefighter aware of the problem and ask him
to provide his perspective on the issue. The firefighter may open up to
the officer and provide possible reasons for the bad attitude. If this
is the case, it is the officer’s responsibility to provide the
necessary assistance. This may mean talking to someone in a more senior
position, but bottom line is to get the firefighter the help he needs.

If the officer isn’t able to find a resolution through the initial
discussions, he will have to make his expectations and consequences
known at another, more formal meeting. In most cases, captains cannot
discipline, nor do I expect them to do so. But in this circumstance I
would urge the captain to identify the consequences – if the behaviour
does not change, the matter will be escalated to a higher level. Let
the firefighter know you would prefer to keep this between you and him,
but at the end of the day, you will involve senior staff if things
don’t change.

If the firefighter’s attitude changes, congratulations. Make sure you
follow up with the firefighter so he knows you appreciate his efforts.
However, if the firefighter’s bad attitude does not change, you have no
choice but to report the occurrences to senior staff. You cannot feel
bad or guilty if the firefighter’s attitude doesn’t change, providing
you tried to coach or council him.  Meet with senior staff to discuss
the issue and get the firefighter help.

Keep a record
It is also very important to document all of your actions when dealing
with the firefighter. Any time I have been involved in situations like
this, the first question I ask the captain is to provide dates, times
and what was discussed with the firefighter to this point. Taking notes
is time consuming but I guarantee that firefighter will ask to be given
examples of his behaviour problems or he will say that his captain has
never talked to him about these issues. When the firefighter states
this, the investigating chief officer will be asking you for specific
dates and times when the discussions took place.

Let’s leave on a positive note. Most employees who are negative about
your fire department are probably negative about life in general. In
most cases, the firefighter might not know how to think positively. As
a captain, help the firefighter see the positive things around the
department and about life in general. When the firefighter says
something negative, call him on it. Don’t single him out but make sure
you reply with a positive statement. For example, the next time a
firefighter complains about working on a Friday night when all his
friends are home, remind him of all the time off he had during the
week, when others were working. Or, the next time someone says “I hate
medical calls at 2:30 a.m.”, ask the firefighter if he would feel the
same if it was him or a family member who was calling.

From Benjamin Franklin, “Up, sluggard, and waste not life; in the grave will be soon enough.”

Steve Kraft is a deputy chief and a 19-year member of the Richmond Hill
Fire Department in Ontario. He has completed the certificate in fire
service leadership through Dalhousie University and is a graduate of
the fire protection technologist course at the Ontario Fire College. He
is a certified community emergency management co-ordinator and is
enrolled in the University of Western Ontario where he is completing
his diploma in public administration.


As a captain or divisional chief, rewarding your staff can be very
difficult, especially if you want to provide a physical reward (i.e.
gift card, day off, etc.)  What rewards programs or incentive have you
used to keep your firefighters motivated?

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