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Your Call: Managing the messages among your crew members

The scenario posed in May asked how you, as an officer, would manage the message in your department when there’s discussion about an issue that’s making the news; for example, two hatters or a controversy over stickers that express support for military troops on fire-service vehicles. These issues may not even affect your department directly, but as we all know, we all have strong opinions.

September 17, 2008 
By Steve Kraft

The scenario posed in May asked how you, as an officer, would manage the message in your department when there’s discussion about an issue that’s making the news; for example, two hatters or a controversy over stickers that express support for military troops on fire-service vehicles. These issues may not even affect your department directly, but as we all know, we all have strong opinions.

There is no doubt, as an officer, that you have been sitting around the coffee table or gathered around the pumper, listening to a discussion about an issue that solicits diverse opinions. Many times, these issues bring out the worst in us, as we are passionate about our beliefs. Sometimes, there are people on our departments who stir the pot even though they don’t have a vested interest in the discussion. 

I believe all good leaders have opinions and, under most circumstances, won’t sit on the fence, rather they express their opinions in an unbiased way that is not offensive to others and encourages a positive environment. All people involved in the discussion need to feel that they can express an opinion contrary to yours and feel safe from reprisal and verbal assaults. Too many times, I’ve witnessed a verbal lashing against a staff member just because the person didn’t agree with the leader’s position. This will only discourage future discussions, which will have a huge impact on the crew, the division and the department in general. As an officer, if you prevent staff from expressing conflicting opinions, I believe it’s time to turn in your stripes. If your staff do not feel that they can express an opinion contrary to yours without feeling intimidated or afraid of the consequences, you’re not a leader – you’re a dictator; your staff will stop growing and so will the department. A different opinion can elicit healthy conflict, and healthy conflict is good and should be viewed as an opportunity for you and the department to grow. Your job is to ensure the conflict leads to a healthy discussion and doesn’t slip into unhealthy conflict resulting in verbal assaults on anyone’s character or deviate from the actual issue(s). When the discussions get personal, you (as the officer) must step in immediately and get the discussion back on track.

In the scenario above, I mention expressing support for military troops. As the leader, you may strongly oppose this for good reason. You may oppose the idea because you worry many people will believe you are showing support for the war and the public won’t realize the department’s goal is to support the troops, not the war. On the other hand, someone who supports the stickers might do so because both of his grandfathers fought in wars and the entire family is very proud of them. In this person’s case, he participates in a Remembrance Day ceremony every year and is very committed to showing respect and gratitude for the troops. My point is simple – as the officer, you must see both sides of the argument. Furthermore, you must always remember that your opinion is just an opinion – it’s not the only opinion. If you permit your staff to question your thoughts and opinions, challenge your ideas and concepts and in doing so, they feel perfectly comfortable – you are on your way to being a great officer and leader.


There is one caveat. I don’t believe there is room for public discussion if the issue is directly related to your fire department. If a chief officer issues a directive or procedure that you don’t agree with, as an officer, challenge the process in private, one on one with the chief officer or your supervisor. Never do it publicly, and especially not in front of your staff. When you challenge publicly, you teach your staff that it is OK to badmouth or ignore procedures you don’t like or with which you disagree. One of the problems with this is that one day you will want to implement something specific to your crew/division and your staff might not agree or like what you want them to do. Your staff will badmouth or even ignore your directive and I guarantee you won’t like this. The problem is that you trained them. Every time you badmouth a directive or procedure in front of your crew/division, you are teaching them that this is acceptable behaviour.

Matt Pegg – Deputy chief, Ajax, Ont.
Every good leader knows, appreciates and values the fact that a team is made up of individuals. As with any group of individuals, many differing and often competing opinions will exist. The fact that there are differences of opinion within a team or group is not only to be expected, but it is healthy.

As an officer, I support the fact that people are entitled to personal opinion. A crew that is willing to engage in open, honest and passionate debate and discussion with each other is likely a crew that works well together.

My suggestion in addressing this situation as the officer of the crew is as follows:

Ensure that the discussions occur at the appropriate time and place – break time or meal times.

Ensure that the discussions do not progress into personal attacks and ensure that tempers don’t get elevated. Controversial topics can quickly result in sharp comments that some may find offensive. Stay “tuned in” to what is going on around you and be prepared to end the debate immediately if things get out of hand.

Ensure that while the “issue of the day” is fair game at the kitchen table, it does not affect the quality or quantity of work being performed. The officer needs to be vigilant during these types of debate in order to recognize when things are heating up and be willing to end the discussions when there is work to do.

The bottom line for me is simple – never silence the creative personal perspective that each crew member brings to the team, just ensure that crew safety, productivity and effectiveness come first.

As a colleague of mine likes to remind people, in a team, if you always agree with your partner and never challenge each other’s ideas, one of you does not need to be there!

Rick Lasky, chief, Lewisville Fire Department, Texas
When it comes to getting the message out, regardless of whether the issues directly impact the department, I try to deliver the message without opinion or influence and I expect my officers to do the same. We can discuss it in private and away from the troops and, if necessary, agree to disagree, but when the smoke clears, we all go out and deliver the same message the same way. It’s expected that the communication link among the rank and file will be followed and used appropriately and that we get the word out about whatever it is so it is delivered in its full fashion and not picked apart or watered down. When we deviate from this we end up with different versions of the same thing, which results in a splintered organization – one that looks like a bag of marbles that has hit the floor and is going in different directions.  

Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate a good argument from an officer and hope that officers always feel safe, secure and confident enough to express their opinions and beliefs, but if the stance is to remain the same, it’s noted, and we move out together on the topic as one, as one team!

Officers can and will speak their minds and voice their opinions but the adult, professional way for the officers is to deliver the message, contain the emotional side (as they would on the fire ground) and, if need be, guide the discussion so it doesn’t get out of hand. This is the same whether it’s politics or whatever.  

There are hundreds of hot-button issues that come up in the firehouse and some of them are sensitive, but a good leader knows how to get the word out without creating civil unrest.

Bryan Burbidge, chief, King Fire and Emergency Services, King City, Ont.
The two situations in the example are very current issues affecting Ontario’s fire services but may or may not be affecting the national service this magazine goes to. Simply put, there is good news and bad news; good news that could affect your department or the fire service and, conversely, bad news that could affect your department or the fire service.

I once heard a speaker say, while asking his audience a question, “If what you are about to do right now made it to the headlines in tomorrow’s national papers, would you be proud or embarrassed of your action?”. Our service lives for activity or action and when there is idle time we tend to concentrate on dissecting the action or activity that others are experiencing. Regardless of whether we are directly involved, there are always comments.

As an officer in the station, I would want to encourage the other firefighters in the station to express the need to find out as much information as possible about the good news or bad news story before making any comments or jumping on bandwagons. I have learned in dealing with people that there are always three sides to a story – the truth and then the other two sides. When the media is involved, there are often more sides, depending on the slant or message the media want to portray. So, whichever side you are prone to listen to will be your take on the situation and it may not always be the truth.

Again, find the source of your information, analyze the information and make decisions for yourself. If the message is that important (such as supporting our troops) and it is truthful, then bang the corporate drum to get the message heard. On the other hand, if the message is inaccurate, educate yourself on the truth and, again, bang the corporate drum to get the  RIGHT message heard.

Here is the next scenario
After returning from a run, your first order of business is to go talk to the fire chief about the good work the firefighters just did with Mrs. Smith. As you’re walking to his office, you come around the corner and notice two firefighters surfing the Internet. Unfortunately, they are looking at websites that are inappropriate and against your town’s policy. As the officer, what should your actions be?

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