Safety Officers are most known for their roles and responsibilities for health and safety on the fire-ground, and not so much in the firehouse. In reality though, safety is everyone’s responsibility. As the spotlight grows brighter on firefighter mental health and behavior, and rightfully so, we all must examine how bullying and harassment impact our members, but also the Safety Officer’s role in recognizing, identifying, and mitigating the issue(s). In the first of this 2-part series on bullying and harassment, Chief I. David Daniels discusses how some fire service organizations are responding to the call.
IAFC video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GR9hltNfN18
Yes…Bullying in the Firehouse is a Big Deal!
By I. David Daniels, MHRH, CFO, CSD, SHS
Imagine for a moment that you are beginning your first shift at a new fire house. Being the first person in your family to have ever been a firefighter you don’t know exactly what to expect. You’re met in the parking lot by a senior firefighter who tells you that there is a “welcome party” assembled for you in the station recreation area. As you arrive you are startled to find a group of partially nude firefighters, who tie you down and expose themselves in ways that resemble a college frat initiation. When you report the incident to your new House Captain, you’re told “it’s not a big deal”.
Thought this is a fictional account, it is based at least in part on an actual situation in a major department in the United States. Though this situation may like the plot of fire station-based evening soap opera, it would not be wise to simply explain this away as something that will never happen in your organization. If and when it did, what would you do as the victim of a situation like this? What if you are the company officer who is transferred to this station to address this situation after the previous officer was terminated for being the instigators of this situation? How would you go about addressing the culture of a department that had accepted this kind of behavior as normal prior to your arrival as the new Fire Chief?
Since 2016, the Safety, Health and Survival Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has been leading an effort focused on helping the fire and emergency service recognize and address bullying, harassment and workplace violence prevention. This effort has had active involvement from the IAFC’s Human Relations Committee, the IAFC’s Volunteer and Combination Officers Section, the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Fireman’s Association and International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services. The primary goal of the task group has been to better arm especially the leadership of the fire and emergency service community to deal with an epidemic of bullying, harassment and violence in the fire service.
An important concept to understand in the efforts to prevent bullying, harassment and violence is to understand the cultural connections between incivility, hazing, bullying, harassment and violence in the firehouse. The American Nurses Association, which has done a significant body of research on incivility and defines it as “one or more rude, discourteous, or disrespectful actions that may or may not have a negative intent behind them” (2017). Rudeness, discourtesy and disrespect often starts in the recruitment and training processes. Incivility in the firehouse shows up in what some might consider minor ways. An example is when firefighters on the one shift leave the equipment on the truck dirty after a noon fire, with no explanation to the oncoming shift. This perceived slight is returned by the crew on C shift who moves equipment from one compartment to another. No communication is had officially between the officers and the concern only comes up weeks later when another situation compounds the slight. In isolation either action could be considered a “micro aggression”, but when connected in the minds of those affected and not communicated clearly, they reinforce belief that the other party is demonstrating incivility.
In some cases, the culture on a shift, in a station or an entire department can be unintentionally or innocently uncivil. Hazing on the other hand is clear incivility in the form of action taken, or situations created intentionally to cause embarrassment, harassment or ridicule. Hazing can cause emotional and/or physical harm to members of a group or team, whether new or not, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate (Hazingprevention.org). Hazing rituals are frequently occur in situations where there is a power differential between those who are in the group and those seeking to become a member. Hazing is also often associated with tradition or another rite of passage. Hazing will generally subside at some point once the new member is considered to have become a part of the group that they were trying to become a part of. An example is a senior firefighter decides to cat food in the dinner plate of a probationary firefighter. The group laughs and welcomes the new firefighter to the crew, but never apologizes or the prank. Due to a combination of the power difference and the probationary firefighter’s desire to be accepted, this incident will probably not be reported, particularly if it is not repeated.
In its 2017 national survey, the Workplace Bullying Institute defined bullying “as repeated mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees; abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, work sabotage, or verbal abuse”. The survey makes a number of startling assertions regarding the bullying issue in the United States:
- 61% of Americans are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace
- 60.4 million Americans are affected by bullying
- 70% of perpetrators are men; 60% of targets are women
- 61% of bullies are bosses, the majority (63%) operate alone
- 71% of employer reactions are harmful to targets
- 60% of coworker reactions are harmful to targets
- To stop it, 65% of targets lose their original jobs
One of the incidents that sparked conversation about the task group was the unfortunate circumstance in northern Virginia where a firefighter suicide was said to have been influenced by unrelenting cyberbullying from fellow firefighters. While there is currently no standard or law against bullying, the reactions including the stress associated can manifest as a safety issue for the employer and employee under the general duty clause of the OSH Act.
- David Daniels is a member of the Board of Directors of the IAFC Safety, Health and Survival Section. In addition to his graduate degree in Human Resources Management, he is a Chief Fire Officer designee, is certified as a Safety Director, Safety and Health Specialist, and Fire Service Health & Safety Officer. Chief Daniels is also Chair of the National Safety Council’s Government and Public Sector Division.
American Nurses Association. (2017). Incivility, bullying and workplace violence. Retrieved on June 21, 2017 from http://www.nursingworld.org/MainMenuCategories/WorkplaceSafety/Healthy-Nurse/bullyingworkplaceviolence
HazingPrevention.org. What hazing looks like? Retrieved on October 4, 2017 from http://hazingprevention.org/home/hazing/facts-what-hazing-looks-like/
Workplace Bullying Institute.
- 2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey
- Definition of workplace bullying. Retrieved on July 2, 2017 http://www.workplacebullying.org/individuals/problem/definition/
I. David Daniels is a public-sector safety professional for over 25 years, in local governments across the United States. He is President/CEO of a workplace safety consulting firm, ID2 Solutions, LLC. His professional career highlights include roles as a Fire Chief, Emergency Manager, Chief Safety Officer and Executive Director of Safety in local government organizations in three states.
Daniels holds an Associate of Arts Degree in Fire Command and Administration, Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Services Administration, Master’s Degree in Human Resources Management. He is certified as a Safety Director, Safety Auditor, Violence Prevention Specialist, Emergency Management Specialist, Safety and Health Specialist, and Fire Service Health and Safety Officer. He is also a Chief Fire Officer designee.
Daniels is a member and delegate with the National Safety Council (NSC) and chair of the NSC’s Government and Public-Sector Division. He serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Safety, Health, and Survival Section; and chairs the IAFC’s Bullying, Harassment and Violence Prevention Task Group.