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Let's Talk Fire: Conflict Resolution in the Fire Service

Sam has been a firefighter for nine years. He currently serves as lieutenant and public information officer of his city's fire department.

Learning how to resolve conflict will make your department stronger.

Learning how to resolve conflict will make your department stronger.

Conflict Is Definite!

Let's face it, hose monkeys: Conflict happens everywhere, and the fire service is no exception. Maybe someone didn't get a promotion they felt they deserved, or a probie got tired of searching for a hose stretcher. Regardless of the issue, conflict in the fire service exists and is alive and well.

Resolve Conflict at Your Station

The fire service is an emotional entity, and anything that involves emotions at that level will breed ill feelings and hardships from time to time; it is inevitable. The key is knowing how to identify the source of these ill feelings and hardships and cut them off before they progress to full-blown war in your station.

If you can prevent the conflict before it starts, you have saved yourself some major trouble. You need to identify the issue, isolate the parties involved, and come to a resolution that not only takes into consideration the well-being of the people involved in the conflict but also the overall well-being of the department. Remember, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few!

Understanding the nature of conflict and its reasoning will help you make an informed and educated assessment and evaluation of how to handle the situation, regardless of its nature. But how do we do these amazing things?

You need to be ready to quickly deal with any conflict that comes about, especially if it is on a scene.

You need to be ready to quickly deal with any conflict that comes about, especially if it is on a scene.

How to Resolve Conflict at the Fire Station

Once conflict rears its ugly and unwanted head at the fire station, you need to quickly begin the process of bringing it to a controlled and desired end. This is no different than our actions at a fire ground. Size it up, get a feed for what is really going on, and then develop an incident action plan to resolve the issue and return the department to a state of peace.

The first key step is to evaluate the reasons behind the conflict. These reasons may not be evident at first and could require you to get a closer look at the situation and the people involved. Remember, firefighters are not usually apt to reveal what is troubling them so openly, so this may take some prying. Put the haligan down, probie—wrong type of prying. As I said, these situations might require a chief to remove the white fire hat and don a Sherlock Holmes one instead; Elementary, my dear probie.

Factors That Cause Conflict

Several key issues usually play a major role in the introduction, continuity, and follow-up to any conflict that may hit our department. These can include anything from a lack of promotion to not being able to print emails out on the station computer. While an unlimited number of conflicts can be present, and any number of reasons can exist to explain them in the fire service, it has come to my attention that most of these issues span from 5 particular factors.

  1. Feeling that a person is not used to their full potential—Sometimes, we, as firefighters, feel we are overlooked at something for whatever reason. This could be a promotion or even overlooked to be the person on the end of a hose at a particular fire scene. When a person feels overlooked, they start to question their worth, and this creates a very dangerous feeling that can translate to the person taking this newfound anger and feeling of worthlessness out on the people they feel they were overlooked for or even the person they feel did the overlooking. An example would be; that Sally felt she was a sure-fire candidate for the new position that had just opened when Bill retired. She had completed every aspect of the job preparation and was ready to hear her name announced at the next meeting. Next thing she knows, John has the job. Sally now holds some ill regard for the superiors who overlooked her and possibly John, who may or may not have known how bad she wanted the position in the department.
  2. Jealousy—Yes, my friends, the green-eyed monster is a huge part of the fire service. It can be as simple as someone being jealous of a position or can be as complex as several people feeling that way. The key to jealousy elimination is to avoid turning every aspect of the job into a competitive prowess.
  3. Mistreatment—Perhaps a member of the staff feels they are treated differently by leadership in the department. Maybe they feel officers are always giving them tasks like cleaning the bathrooms or mopping the bay where the truck leaks while other less qualified firefighters get the cushy computer tasks. The real key here is to know that every year discrimination cases cost fire departments nationwide a ton of money and can be the very downfall of a department.
  4. On-Scene Disagreements—Sometimes emotions run high when we are engaged in a structure fire. One member of the staff may feel venting the roof would be the best option, while another may feel that a quick attack from outside would better serve the fire operation. This can cause a conflict between the two disagreeing parties that need to be resolved ASAP! Lucky for us as firefighters, this type of conflict usually resolves rather quickly and does not make its way back to the station—but remember, kiddies, I said usually.
  5. Outside Disputes—This one is tricky! We are trained to leave our personal life outside the door when we enter the station and put on our colors, but that is not always the case. Even the best of us will eventually let something going on in our lives interfere with our job as a firefighter. It happens! Our personal self will get the best of our professional one. Issues that arise off the fire scene and away from the department are hard to deal with because you have to take a certain unbiased attitude toward them regardless of their true nature.

Methods for Dealing With Conflict

There are three grounds you can stand on.

  • High Ground—High ground gives you two aspects to focus on. Smooth over the situation, which means basically agreeing to disagree and letting the issue stay buried in the past. Of course, we all know all firefighters carry a shovel to dig those issues up.
  • Low Ground—Avoid conflict and withdraw from it entirely. The low ground also gives you a list of do-nots that will put this conflict from bad to oh-my-god-are-you kidding-me.
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The middle ground is a sturdy standing place. In the middle ground, we split the difference and allow the initial argument to be ignored while solutions are made in its place.

Resolving Conflict is vital to a fire department success rate.

Resolving Conflict is vital to a fire department success rate.

Sashkin's 8 Steps to Success

Marshall Sashkin's methods of conflict resolution give us eight steps that we can follow to better understand and deal with the conflict present—and in ways that are more beneficial to all the parties involved. Remember, if Bill and Bob are at each other's throats over a promotion Bob got, this conflict is not limited to the two parties involved; it affects the entire department as a whole!

Steps to Successful Conflict Resolution

  1. Present the issue unemotionally and seek each active participant's problem from the perspective of the other side.
  2. Clearly define the issue. This means not how it affects you as the moderator of this conflict but how it genuinely affects the department as a cohesive unit.
  3. Get each position in detail. Know where the conflict originates for each individual and know it may be more than one origin point that started this conflict fire.
  4. State your personal view in a non-degrading professional manner and discuss how you feel as an outsider looking in at the situation. Remember, a great deal of emphasis is placed on personal image in the fire service.
  5. Jointly develop a condition or objective that both parties are satisfied with.
  6. Brainstorm all alternatives you can imagine, and be ready to dive into one of them if the initial resolution fails to hold.
  7. Organize these alternatives in order of most likely to succeed.
  8. Evaluate! Any action we do in the fire service needs to be evaluated, and we need to look for flaws we can fix or successes we can build on.

The Glover Method

This method varies somewhat from the Sashkin method, and when choosing how to handle a situation of conflict in the fire service, you need to be flexible; If you aren't, the situation just might break you.

  1. The mediator sets the stage by getting both sides of the story and initiating a sit down with all of the parties involved.
  2. Storytelling Method- All parties discuss, in turn, the issues and what they see the problem being, and possible solutions to the problem or problems. No interruptions should be tolerated, and a professional attitude must be displayed throughout this stage of the problem resolution.
  3. Generate Options- Engage all parties in creative and collaborative ways of resolving the existing conflict. In many cases, this open discussion for a good outcome will resolve the tension between the involved personnel.
  4. Resolution- Agree on a means of ending and moving forward from the initial conflict.
  5. Closure- Both parties must be in agreement and be active in keeping to the chosen outcome.

As I mentioned before, the act of resolving a conflict must be a skill any leader within the department should have. Even the simplest of conflicts left unattended can turn into a complete disaster and hinder fire department activities and, more important, responsibilities.

A great idea

A great idea

The Do Not Dos

This list is derived from the list featured on by Linda Willing and can really help in handling conflict on a more professional level.

  • Phrases like "I don't want to hear any more about it or anything from the two of you," and so on and so forth serve no vital role other than to paint the picture of the leader as a tyrant and shift the conflict toward their direction.
  • Threats to remove the participants based on the recent conflict without an attempt to resolve it in other ways reinforce the lacking of control and ability in a leader to find a more viable solution to a problem. This is a bully tactic and should only be a last resort after all other options have failed.
  • Never say stop acting like children or other derogatory remarks. You are lowering yourself to the level of the conflict and thus become unable to handle it maturely.
  • Never accuse one party and leave the other in a "safe zone"— i.e., Sally was fine until you brought it up again!
  • Avoid displaying your power as a leader. Abuse of power does not create respect—it deteriorates it.

While these issues work well, the fact is conflict is not a fixed issue. It does not always have the same origin or the same regard for each individual. I have worked in fields where conflict management meant exploring options way out of the box and trying to relate to the conflict on uncharted levels.

When dealing with conflict as a leader or officer, you need to be ready to face moments that test how you feel personally and professionally—and you must separate the two. Firefighting is risky, and as I have already stated, emotions can get the better of us. Be able to key in on these issues before they begin and put a stop to them before anyone is pushed into feeling they need to leave our field. There are not enough of us as is.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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