Low Fire Department morale is often blamed on Chiefs and administration. That is an easy allegation but can be hard to actually explain why personnel believe it or feel it. Each firefighter might describe “low morale” differently. However, a lot of it has to with who you work with every shift in the station and the attitude and leadership of the company or station officer. Bad policies, poor compensation and extremes or inconsistencies in discipline within the organization will contribute to poor morale but a strong, motivated and respected company officer can make a huge difference and even create a desirable work environment for his or her direct reports despite administrative issues.
A current company officer asks; “Why when a shift or crews are getting along great, does the Chief decides to shake up the department?”
Several good reasons this happens:
· when trying to achieve balance in service delivery to citizens
· a desire to spread positive influence
· the result of breaking up negative crews
Bad reasons can be:
· jealously of good crews
· trying to exert power for power’s sake
· expecting the good officers to correct poor employees
· expecting good crews to “carry” bad officers
Poor morale has a number of rather obvious symptoms. This can include excessive complaining (I say excessive because complaining is sometimes a Firefighter sport), low productivity, frequent arguments or confrontations within the crew, low productivity, resistance to training, poorly maintained equipment, apparatus and station, high levels of sick leave, disrespect shown to officers, poor performance, frequent grievances, negative rumor spreading, firefighters from other stations or shifts not wanting to work (OT or trades) and of course, high turnover rates or requests for transfer. These symptoms can be isolated to a particular station, a Battalion, a shift or an entire Department. If it is in fact an entire Department then the senior Chiefs must take a hard look at their overall leadership and current working conditions for the troops. But I contend that Officers at every level (Company Officers to Fire Chief) play a role in the morale, good or bad, that the troops exhibit.
What can you do as a Company Officer to have a positive effect on your personnel and their attitudes towards the mission, the work, the environment and the Department? First of all, make sure your own attitude does not need an adjustment. Do you take responsibility? Are you positive and upbeat on duty? Do you maintain an environment of respect and cooperation within your crew? Are you consistent in your expectations, performance and communications? Do you value training, encourage and participate in it? Do you strive to give credit when due and hold everyone accountable for conduct and performance? Do you praise in public and correct in private? Are you a cheerleader for your team? Do you lead by example? Are you the adult in the room?
Other things you can do to improve morale on your team is create an environment that is inclusive and encouraging. Do not allow hazing activities or abusive behavior towards new or junior members. Demand and demonstrate respect for senior members. Insist on eating meals together and having informal kitchen table discussions about everything from past responses and tactics, family activities and achievements to hobbies and sports. Avoid discussions that can touch off heated or offensive discussions like religion, politics and sex. Allow personnel to vent frustrations directly to you privately. Encourage things that build esprit de corps like station or unit tee shirts with group agreed mascot symbols. Magnetic name tags for each member to put on the apparatus when on duty. A company flag or logo. Anything that builds pride in the individual unit or station will help to build good morale within the company.
Should a company officer be oblivious or act as though there is no negative impact on morale by issues in the administration of the Department? Or should the company officer be a “blind follower” of administration regardless of the bad actions of administration? I say no, but there are ways that the company officer can relate these issues to his or her crew without judgement or contributing to ill will towards senior leadership. The Company Officer must be the leader, and as leader be honest with direct reports. If the company officer disagrees with policy or directions, I believe it is ok to say so, be transparent about feelings but also emphasize their own responsibility and the responsibility of the crew to comply with policy and follow lawful directions from senior leaders. The only justification for obstruction or resistance by the company officer to policy or directives is if those are unlawful or create extreme safety violations. His or her sense of responsibility must be clearly stated to the crew and their obligation to comply. Most departments have processes to object or grieve alleged wrongs by senior leadership and company officers must be clear what and when it is a reasonable action to take. But in the meantime, “we” (our company) must give our very best to the citizens we serve and be the service we are all sworn to provide.
There will be negative impacts on the crew from other personnel on other crews, shifts or divisions. They will hear rumors, complaints and issues that can have influence on their thoughts and feelings but if they trust their immediate supervisor (company officer), his or her influence will offset that impact and help them keep situations in perspective. Trust and communications are the most important elements of leadership and studies have shown that personnel will hold their immediate supervisor at a higher level of trust than the upper-level leaders in the organization. Thus, the company officer can help the members of the crew feel good about their work, their profession and their performance.
Be that officer for your personnel. Make your crew the best they can be regardless of poor or nonexistent leadership above. Lead them to provide outstanding service to citizens and to be proud of being a part of your crew and company. Maintain a positive atmosphere in your station so that your crew enjoys being part of your team and trusts your leadership.