Improving Fire Department Morale
I routinely hear firefighters complain that morale is at an all-time low. What does this mean? Are firefighters being injured and killed at an alarming rate on their particular department? Yes, I understand that firefighters are being killed in the line of duty at a very high rate (that’s a different article for a different time). Are firefighters being laid off and losing their job? While it does happen on occasion, this is usually not the root of their anger.
In my experience, the root of the firefighters’ anger usually has something to do with pay and compensation or with a decision that was made by fire management that is impacting life in the fire station.
I understand the need to be fairly compensated. Heck, I left one department as a chief officer to go to another with a higher pay and benefit package (also increased a bugle in the process). It’s important to understand that if you took a job in the fire service to make a lot of money, you got in the wrong line. Remember, we are public servants. Having said that, we also have a right to be compensated fairly. Therein lies the question. What is fair? Frankly, I do not have the answer to that question. I do know, however, that for me and my own personal experience the standard of living for a firefighter increased dramatically in the past 30 years.
The Fire Chief has a boss and he or she follows directions. Remember, many of his decisions are influenced by the City or County Manager. Many of these he cannot explain to the union, they are simply his marching orders. This concept may be foreign to firefighters because, as a group, we are very open. The reality is that the City or County Manager expects loyalty and cover from the Fire Chief. Unfortunately, revealing that his/her direction is from the boss, often erodes trust and may cost the chief their job. As a result, the Fire Chief takes ownership of the program.
When I was hired in the mid 1980’s, most of the firefighters drove a beat up pickup truck so they could use it for their second job pouring concrete, laying tile, or working in the trades. As time evolved it became cheaper for the departments to pay the firefighters overtime at time at and one half than it did to hire new firefighters and pay for their burdening costs (retirement, vacation and sick leave). Unions became stronger and the economy was good. We all benefitted. This translated into in higher wages and better benefits for the firefighters. As a result, the standard of living became much better for a firefighter. In fact, many firefighters are paid white collar wages for what is considered by many to be a blue collar job.
Now that the economy has turned, cities, counties and districts are looking to reduce costs. Many states have enacted legislation to reduce retirements for current and future hires. This too has affected the morale within the fire station.
As a fire officer it is up to you to manage the morale within your station. Yes, there are legitimate reasons for your firefighters to be cranky. Some firefighters have very real reasons for their feelings while others are unhappy and they cannot really explain why.
Regardless of the reason, it is critical for the fire officer to manage morale in his or her station. The ramifications for not doing so are just too great to ignore. First and foremost, when firefighters are allowed to complain excessively it makes the fire station an unpleasant place to work. When firefighters routinely view the glass as half empty the end result is often poor patient care, a lack of care for the station and apparatus, and a general lack of care for the position. This is not the reason we all worked so hard to earn a career in the fire service. We all were excited at the prospect of helping people and doing good for society as a firefighter. I reflect back to what we all said when we were seeking a career as a firefighter. We would do anything to become a full time firefighter and we really meant it.
The next reason it is important to manage morale is to prevent tainting the new generation of firefighters. A new firefighter feels like he or she won the lottery when they were hired. Fast forward the clock three years down the road and now he or she becomes a chronic complainer. What happened? Moreover, where did he learn this behavior that it’s OK to sit around and complain? It is likely that he learned this from the people he looked up to, the senior members of the department. For many to sit and complain has simply become a way of life.
I encourage you to sit back and reflect on the positive fire officer role models that you have observed. These men and women do not ignore the world around them, but they do not let it affect the morale in their stations. One of the fire officers that had the greatest impact on me as a young firefighter routinely said, “We will control what we can control”. “We cannot control the pay and benefits, that is up to the union”.
What he meant by this is that we are not going to sit around the station and lament about how or why we are not being paid what the firefighters are being paid on the neighboring departments. We are going to come to work and do our job. When a firefighter began to complain about the contract or the current state of the department, he would remind them that today we are going to control what we can control.
I often listen to firefighters who believe they are getting the short end of the deal. I remind them that while the pendulum may have swung in the other direction right now, it’s still the best job in the world. Even with the changes in the retirement systems, we still have one of the best retirements around, especially when you consider that many large corporations have severely limited or eliminated retirements altogether.
It’s important to remember that public safety (police and fire) encompasses up to 70% of the City or Counties’ budget. When the economy tightens, the natural place to look to cut is in the direction of the largest budget expenditure, public safety. When the economy worsens, public safety is one of the best jobs around. We will never be rich, but we have a very good retirement.
The following was written in 1972, but could just as easily have been written today.
“I hope that the young people joining the F.D. today are doing so out of some sense of commitment to the profession & to the people-not because of the excitement of the sound of sirens & bells. Firefighting is a brutalizing business. The community will take you for granted, they will not say thank you often-if at all and they are rarely on the firefighters side when it comes to negotiating salaries & benefits. Romantic visions of courage & heroism are the stuff from which novels are constructed, but the reality of courage & heroism to a firefighter, is hard-dirty work. There are rewards, but they are intangible. Each firefighter must seek them in his own way”.
Dennis Smith FDNY
Report From Engine Co. 82