In this edition of “KTW” Senior Firefighters Vidovich, Nicholson and Meiche will discuss (1) how to address operational conflicts, and (2) resolving co-worker conflicts. These topics and experienced-based opinions should be points of discussion for all of us.
Operational Question: How do you avoid conflict with officers and rated members with less experience than you when questioning their fireground decisions?
FF Steve Meiche, FS 49-C: I find the best way to avoid operational conflict is by effectively communicating BEFORE an incident. It makes more sense to identify our strengths and weaknesses on the training ground than on the fireground. I’ve also found that by exercising creativity when training you can further stimulate tactical discussion and reinforce manipulative skills.
I’ve also seen some great ideas over the years that were simply not practical in real life situations. To avoid fireground confusion I prefer straightforward SOG’s while taking the following into account: (1) Will it work, (2) Does it make sense, and (3) What could go wrong. To me #3 is the most critical – If an operation compromises safety or the incident’s goal, then it’s a “No Go.”
Anytime we train I feel it’s important to discuss and evaluate what we’ve practiced. If it makes sense, works, and is safe, then let’s roll with it. The key for me in avoiding operational conflict on the fireground is training, pre-incident communication and ensuring everyone understands their role.
FF Jim Nicholson, FS 114-B: I make it personal by taking a one-on-one approach when first discussing fireground operations. If disagreements arise they’re discussed civilly and without placing anyone on the defensive. This should prevent harsh feelings, which at times can be difficult to overcome. Either way, I’m well aware “they” have the final say as they took the test, and I didn’t.
Safety is generally one thing we all agree on. To best support this I go over their operational expectations from A to Z. In doing so I not only listen to their ideas, but I can also have my say as well. I’ll also discuss issues such as district challenges, target hazards and the various tactics that have worked well for us in the past.
My goal is to get on the same page as soon as possible in order to avoid any mixed messages in the locker room or on the fireground. Remember, communication and clarity is paramount to any successful fire company. I’ve found that with this approach, if I’m compelled to intervene during an operation, I can do so more effectively.
FF Andy Vidovich, FS 5-C: Throughout my thirty-four years on the LAFD I’ve been very fortune to work alongside some outstanding officers and rated members. Because of this I’ve seen firsthand how quality officers manage their operational and personnel matters, and how well-respected rated members effectively communicate their SOG’s.
In my current assignment as an EIT I’m able to travel throughout the City interacting with a diverse group of officers and rated members. These relationships have further reinforced that developing trust in one another should be of the highest priority. I’ve long realized that effectively communicating operational differences and concerns is greatly dependent on this mutual trust.
Discussing a rated members SOG’s or an officer’s tactical consideration and actions is much more effective in the engine house than on the fireground. Over the years I’ve learned to avoid operational conflict through pre-incident communication and steady training. That said, whenever an immediate safety concern arises I will immediately voice my intentions regardless of working relationships.
Leadership: As a senior firefighter and “locker room leader” tell us how you address personal conflicts among co-workers?
Nicholson: Over the years I’ve worked alongside some very talented people. Most were not only great at their jobs, but were of high character as well. These members understood the significance of co-worker relationships and the importance in addressing conflicts before they became a “front office” problem.
I’d impress upon these members that when conflicts linger they tend to take on a life of their own. Hopefully the issue is still within their control – if so I’ll advise them to quickly resolve it in the locker room. If their issue is something I’ve previously experienced I’ll pass on whatever lessons I’ve learned. I’ll also stress that even simple misunderstandings can lead to “front office” problems if not immediately addressed.
There have always been personnel differences in fire stations to work through. In resolving our own issues we also demonstrate an appropriate level of maturity to our officers and station personnel. Simply put, spending one-third of our lives in fire stations demands that we get along.
Vidovich: I’ve definitely seen my share of conflicts in the firehouse. Of all the disagreements I’ve experienced, it’s those resolved by the members themselves (not the front office) that usually turn out best. I realize however that this is not always possible.
Getting involved with co-worker disagreements can be a touchy situation. Most important is recognizing that I cannot assist with these types of issues unless I’ve earned the respect of our locker room as well as the front office. Nevertheless, whenever I sense a dispute is going to affect the harmony of our crew or firehouse, it may be time to intervene.
Before stepping in and trying to assist I ask myself if I should involve myself in their business, if I have experienced something similar, if my involvement could help the situation. I also assess the intensity of conflict, the temperament and personality of the members and I try not to take sides. Remember, the key to co-workers allowing you to assist in resolving their disagreements is – TRUST.
Meiche: Conflicts in fire stations are inevitable. It doesn’t matter if the disagreements are between individual members or between shifts, they must be taken seriously and quickly resolved. Over the past 34-years my most enjoyable assignments have been those where a prevailing attitude of loyalty and trust existed. We got along great, respected one another’s opinions and when differences arose, they weren’t allowed to fester.
I find the key to resolving any conflict is to ensure our members understand the commitment to their assignment and the responsibility we all have in working through various differences. It’s also important to encourage positive dialogue and to clarify how destructive “trash talking” can become over time. Equally significant is gaining the trust and credibility of my co-workers so that when these types of issues arise I can better assist with them.
None of us should allow conflicts to go unchecked so that they eventually become front office problems. Unfortunately, not all conflicts can be resolved in the locker room, so knowing when to take “it” to the front office is also very important as well.
In next months KTW: Captains Steve Wynne, Kenny Kemp and Jason Hing will discuss (1) Back-up fire attack responsibilities, and (2) Why officers fail to gain the respect of their commands.
Facilitated by Jerry Bedoya, Capt. II, FS 10