Bullies Or Babies: Who Is To Blame?
I was recently contacted by a follower of the page who requested that I tackle bullying in an upcoming article. He communicated he was having some difficulty as a member of a new department and was looking for a little motivation to stay focused. While I am not sure my perspective on bullying or being a new member of a department for that matter will help make him feel better, I think this is a topic worthy of some serious discussion.
Pretty much everything I remember from my childhood is probably now classified as “bullying”. When I was in school we didn’t have fancy terminology, ad campaigns, or websites to help us “cope” with being picked on; kids were just kids. We teased each other, said and did mean things, formed clicks, got in fights, and made others feel bad about themselves often for no reason at all. Our coping mechanism was ending up on the receiving end of such juvenile behavior. That is where we learned how it felt to be the victim instead of the aggressor and consequently why we should be a little more tolerant of others. Kids policed themselves back then. You either learned to ignore the teasing or you stood up for yourself by giving it right back or having a little fist fight. Enemies were made, friendships broken, tears shed, and every now and then a little blood was spilled but eventually we all got bored with such nonsense and found better ways to spend our time. If all else failed the fear of being disciplined by our parents or teachers (yes younger members, back when most of us “old guys” grew up we were scared of adults) for acting like savages rather than the well-mannered, productive members of society they were raising us to be. According to stopbullying.org, the definition of bullying is, “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” The problem with “bullying” in the fire service is we are adults operating in a very serious profession where an actual imbalance of power based on rank, time, experience, and skill does in fact exist. Nothing in that definition describes what I see going on with how people are treated in the fire service. This is not grade school, everyone doesn’t have to like you, you are not entitled to be treated any sort of way, and in case they aren’t teaching it anymore; LIFE ISN’T FAIR! With that being said, we are supposed to be one of the few professions left that still maintains a brotherhood among its members, so let’s lose these stupid labels and talk about why new members are treated the way they are and why it is very necessary in most cases.
If you regularly follow The Fire Inside and its writings you know that I am not shy about pointing the finger at those with time on the job as the cause of many issues plaguing our profession. This is not because I am some entitled, whiny kid who thinks the fire service misunderstands younger members but rather because I think with experience comes responsibility, specifically a responsibility to maintain and enforce the standards that make our profession great and to change things when performance or circumstances fall below these standards. In the case of “bullying”, or as it will be referred to from here on out, initiation, the younger members need to understand that initiating new members properly is one of those responsibilities.
Younger members, I understand your upbringing and the way you were prepared to enter the workforce is VERY different than how most of us were brought up. I understand that you were told you matter, everyone will respect your opinions, and you are special. I even understand that my generation is very much to blame for that because we allowed things to get to this point. Now, I need you to understand that you have entered the fire service and when we go to work the things we see and do DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOU! That’s right, you didn’t choose a career in a college classroom, mommy and daddy’s home business, a safe space, or office cubicle. You chose to become part of the greatest fraternity on earth that will give you some of the most rewarding, fulfilling, and memorable experiences anyone can dream of by putting you in the middle of the WORST this world has to offer. Maybe you were told about the benefits, the pay, the cool shirts, or the image that came with this job and while that looks great on a billboard or recruitment video, it is time you understand and accept what you have really gotten into.
While those of us on the job like to joke and kid around most of the time, that is simply our defense mechanisms trying to compensate for the very serious nature of what we do and the toll it takes on us. This job requires special people of a specific mindset who have very thick skin. This craft is honed and earned through demanding work, deep dedication, sweat equity, following orders, and constant repetition. When done right, it is very different from anything most people have ever experienced before. This also means that the way we induct people into our craft is also very different and at times confused with harassment rather than preparation. Our methods may seem peculiar, our attitudes brash, and the way we treat you will be less than enjoyable at times but I promise you there is a method to the madness. There will certainly be times where you feel we are trying to intimidate you, things required of you are less than glamorous, and days you appear to be singled out and tormented. Sometimes there will be truth those observations, but what is asked of you is almost always a calculated strategy aimed at your growth as a firefighter.
Just like the military, we don’t invite kids (yes at 18-25 years old you are still a kid regardless of what the government tells you) through our doors and let them figure it out at their own pace or comfort level. Although there is a bunch of bullshit propaganda out there to suggest otherwise, THIS JOB IS STILL ONE OF THE MOST DANGEROUS WAYS YOU COULD POSSIBLY SPEND YOUR TIME and we (those entrusted with your development) are here to make sure we teach you how not to die! Make no mistake about it, what we do is combat just of a different nature. Your job as a junior member is to shut your mouth, open your eyes, and use your ears to LEARN how to be a part of your department and this profession. I know this seems to be contrary to everything your education and upbringing has taught you until this point in your life but stay with me, it will make sense soon.
Many of you will show up at your firehouses only to find that you are expected to do basically EVERYTHING while most of the other guys get to do as they please. Sure, on the surface this probably seems unfair, but remember earlier in this blog I told you life isn’t fair. The other members will probably find fault with what you do (even if it is done right), they will pick on you, tease you, yell, scream, cuss, and all sorts of other things aimed at getting under your skin. This is a process that is used to see how you react to stress because what we do almost ALWAYS involves stress. It is also a rite of passage. They want to see what you are made of, how far they can push you, how you react when you are uncomfortable, if you can follow orders, if you are going to break down when it gets hard, and if you will ask questions when you don’t know what to do. They want to learn your strengths and your weaknesses to form the most efficient developmental plan for you. Everyone else in that firehouse should have endured something similar and realized the importance it had on their career. They are paying it forward by taking their experience, polishing it just a bit, and giving it back to you so that one day you can do the same.
Even for those of you who aren’t kids and have decided to start with a new department, this still applies to you. Every department has SOMETHING about its policies, procedures, geography, response area, equipment, or apparatus that is different from your Firefighter I class or previous department. Having been through this already, you should know that if you do what is asked of you, your time to contribute will surely come. Quite frankly if you are starting over at a new department and any of what I am saying is a new revelation for you than you really need to pay attention because you missed basically the entire essence of your probationary period wherever the hell you came from!
Now for the senior men and company officers, you aren’t getting off that easy. I am on your side with this issue. I think that these kids need some thicker skin. I think the politicians, counselors, and human rights activists need to step aside and let us do our thing (within reason) on this front. Being initiated into a fire department is certainly not for everyone and is impossible to understand for someone has never gone through it. Nevertheless, we must be mindful of HOW we initiate our new members and our PLAN for how it will take place. We can’t push brotherhood and then have our go to tactic for welcoming new members involve ignoring, shitting on, and demeaning them. They aren’t the only ones who get one chance at a first impression, you are held to that standard as well. We were all new once even though many of us seem to conveniently forget this fact when we are finally the ones receiving the new member. They are scared, excited, eager, and GREEN. They don’t know what they don’t know yet. They are usually fearless, fast paced, and dying to prove their worth. Even the ones who don’t seem motivated are just waiting for an officer to figure out what buttons to push that will make them go. Simply raining on their parade to project your might is a foolish and gutless tactic.
If you actually earned the rank and/or position that placed the development of a new member at your fingertips I shouldn’t be telling you anything new. I know many of us went through some less than pleasurable experiences coming on the job, but that doesn’t mean we should necessarily subject our new members to all of them. Focus on the things you feel had the biggest impact on you. Incorporate the methods that you feel shaped you the most. Find a style that still allows them to prove themselves, but not at the cost of their self-worth. Remember, the goal of initiation is to verify skills, set standards and expectations, build self-confidence, gauge and establish appropriate stress reactions, and to build comradery. That doesn’t mean you can’t yell, tease, have fun, or be passionate, it simply means the goal is to educate not humiliate. While you are not there to be their friend, you cannot be their leader if they don’t respect you and that has to be earned.
Also remember that there needs to be a time period where the initiation is considered over. Many departments are stagnant these days with few promotions or hires (new members). You can’t expect someone to be the “new guy” for the indefinite future because no one is coming on behind them. There should be a very defined gauge of when and what decides if they have proven themselves worthy of being considered a normal member of the crew. Maybe it is when their probation is over, maybe it is when they obtain a certain certification, or maybe it is a predetermined number of months from when they came on. Regardless of the benchmark, we must identify a set of circumstances that determines whether or not they meet standards and the path that accompanies each outcome.
Now, it should be noted there are people out there who are just jerks. Again, as I have already stated life is not fair. However, there is a big difference between being initiated and being hazed. There is an extreme disparity between breaking someone down to show superiority and breaking someone down so you can build them back up. Every department has assholes who’s only skill is treating new guys like complete shit. Senior men and company officers need to police these clowns and ensure they NEVER become someone’s impression of our departments. Junior members you will figure out who these people are soon enough. The best way to stop them is to avoid giving them the reaction they desire. When they stop getting a rise out of you, eventually they will move on to someone who is actually scared of their childish crap. Remember, you should always respect the rank but that does not guarantee you will respect the person. Know your role, be respectful, and refer conduct that borders on harassment up the chain of command. Do what is asked of you and stand up for yourself when needed. Being respectful doesn’t mean getting run over. Anyone who tells you contrary is one of the afore mentioned assholes.
Oddly enough, initiation has surely changed over the years. I hear about people being upset because they were yelled at, teased, made fun of, called a bad name, pulled aside and corrected, or disliked how their company officer taught something. Hey, at least they are talking to you! When I came on the older crowd just looked at me and sized me up. It was MONTHS of coming around, doing what was asked of me, and coming back before someone actually “talked” to me. Conversation, chores, and extra duties were a sign that you were being accepted, not harassed. So toughen up a little bit boys and girls. Before you go crying about how you are being treated, be happy you were even afforded the privilege to be on the department in the first place. Give it a little time. Yes, there are bad people and bad situations out there but you need more than 2 weeks in the department to figure that out. Give people a chance to show you their reasoning. Give their methods time to come full circle. Most importantly, give them time to build you back up. If you still feel you are being mistreated than you have inadvertently found the most noble calling in our profession, the chance to make it better for the next guy… Act accordingly!
Fire departments bring people together from many walks of life who normally wouldn’t have crossed paths. They come from different backgrounds, ethnic groups, and regions of the country. They have different morals, ethics, values, ideas, personalities, needs, strengths, and weaknesses. Inevitably these differences will bring personality conflicts with them. Sometimes people just can’t get along. Sometimes people just plain don’t like each other. Don’t confuse such incompatibilities with “bullying”, “hazing”, “intimidation”, or “harassment”. It is perfectly normal for people to not get along. The difference for the fire service needs to be a mutual respect for the mission and for the brotherhood which must bond us when times get rough. However, this is not an open invitation to whine and cry every time someone tells you something you don’t want to hear, shuns you, or doesn’t like you. We are adults who are brave enough to enter some pretty untenable environments yet we are running to taddle-tail on the “mean” guy who cussed at us or told us we suck. Come on guys and gals, let’s grow up a little and act like adults!