Saturday, May 7, 2011

Volunteer Fire Departments 2.0 (9 of 9) Respect

This is part 9 of a 9 part series. You should have read the preceding parts: Part One, Part Two, Part ThreePart Four, Part Five , Part Six, Part Seven and Part Eight, before moving onto this one. Today's subject is Respect in the Volunteer Service.
 One would think that this subject needs not be addressed at all in this series. I am here to tell you that in many cases, it is a necessary part of the discussion. I know that we all believe we have respect for each other and treat others well, but the plain fact is that I have seen otherwise.I have seen Departments that don't respect their members, Officers that don't respect those under, or over, them, and Members that don't respect each other.
 It's easy to point at the stand-up guy or gal who sets a good example, takes all the training, helps the newer folks, and is dependable. We all respect THAT person. But what about the member that makes mistakes, doesn't learn too quickly, pulls the occasional dumb move or says the wrong thing that makes the rest of us look bad? What about that "Department Whacker'?  The guy with all the lights and stickers on his car, the embarrassing bold statements on his T-shirts ("My job is to save your ass, not to kiss it', or "I save lives, what do you do?"). Do we respect that guy or do we make fun of him? Respect has a lot of facets, and takes a lot of forms.
 I'm not implying that we each need to love one another (that can cause some different problems, which I have seen in a few agencies), what I am trying to point out is that we DO all have to work together, and we have to do that when it counts the most for others. If we can't work together on a committee, how the hell can we expect to do it when lives and property are on the line and we only get one chance to get it right the first time?
 Using myself as an example here, I can tell you that there is one member I work with that I would never invite over to my house, try to spend time with, or advise somebody to look at as an example. That persons life choices are poor (in my opinion) and he does things that I would never consider, and frankly I do not respect him as a neighbor. However, he is a good firefighter, has given many years to the Community in his own way, and he has earned my respect on that level. I never argue with him and I never criticize him in front of others. I treat him with respect, even though it is very hard sometimes because of the things he does to hurt people when he gets mad. For me, if he does the job, he gets the respect for doing the job.
 I think (I'm not positive on this) that where we make a mistake is in making judgments and deciding how to treat people in general based on things they do that don't matter to the Fire Department.We are not running a society, we are running a business.
 The best practices here which I have collected are these:
 Separate the personal feelings from the business of the Fire Department. Leave the personal stuff at home and leave it out of all decisions made at the Fire House. Make this part of your culture.
 Treat your co-workers with respect. This means the Department has to leave personal alliances and friendships, AS WELL AS RELATIONSHIPS, outside of the decision making process. Your written rules, regulations, and procedures will help you with this in a big way.
 You have to work as a group to maintain equality for all. Decisions, elections, incentives, and everything else should be performance based.
 Respect has to come from all directions, both up and down the chain of command. If your governing Board does not respect their front line personnel enough to get them proper gear and keep it in working condition, you are already on a downward spiral.
 If your Chief Officers do not respect the Line Officers enough to take their input on the fire ground, you also have a big problem.
 If your Line Officers do not listen to their members and address their concerns in a MEANINGFUL manner, you have a big problem.
 These are the things you need to look at and attack as a team. Although I placed this subject last, in truth, if you don't start with a certain level of respect, you are going to have a hard time making any improvements in all those other areas we talked about. The respect that the other person may not be right, but he deserves to be listened to is a good start. You also need enough respect to realize that the other guy just might be more right than you are and be able to change your mind. (By the way, I have earned more respect for changing my mind, based on a good discussion, than by winning arguments.)
 When you provide effective and meaningful training, it shows you respect your members time and needs.
 When you offer timely and predictable recognition, it shows you appreciate the time, effort, and skill your members provide.
 The list goes on, but the point is that putting all the other stuff together in a cohesive package shows respect both for the needs of the Community and the needs of the members. Treat others with respect and they will respond in kind
 So that's it, the best compilation I could formulate with my writing skills on the big fundamental issues facing the Volunteer Service as I see them. At this point, I'm not sure if I'll do a summary post or not. I may go through and re-read it all and see if it is worth putting it all together. But for now, these 9 posts are 'it'. I have gotten a couple of comments and a few emails telling me that the reading was worthwhile, so I hit my low end goal anyway. However, I'd still like to leave the door open for any of you who would like to post some better ideas or debate those things I put forth. I have seen a lot of promising things in our volunteer Departments and a lot of heart. I know we do the job now, but I also know we can do it better, and with less effort if we get our act together.  Every Department has strengths and weaknesses and a big part of the job is identifying both so that we can make improvements. Let's break that old adage: "200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress" into tiny little pieces and move forward, shall we?
Be Well, Be Safe, Be Sharp, and look good doing it,


  1. "It's easy to point at the stand-up guy or gal who sets a good example, takes all the training, helps the newer folks, and is dependable. We all respect THAT person"

    Unfortunately, no, not everyone does. :-(

    Great series, UU. I'll make more comments when I recover from some of the personal stuff going on here. Including losing my hard drive. Argh.

    It would be great to get some discussion going about how to help move things in the right direction.

  2. Yeah Sister, unfortunately your observation is accurate. I suppose I should have said "We all SHOULD respect that person". You and I have corresponded at length about this and I have to admit that although your experience is not completely unique, it is somewhat unusual to the degree that it has gone. It is the fodder for newspaper articles that we all cringe at. However, I hold out hope that the current process will bring some level of improvement in your Community's situation.
    Keep the Faith, and plod onward. You will prevail at some level.
    Thank you for leaving a comment, I'd like to start that discussion anytime we can. I have been considering writing some form of this series into an article for one of the magazines. Do you think it would hold general interest, or am I preaching to the choir?