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Resolving Stress & Destructive Behavior in the Firehouse

Issue 5 and Volume 3.

“Being the best carries responsibility.” – Captain D. Michael Abrashoff

“Rescue Me,” the Emmy-nominated television drama on the FX television network, focuses on the professional and personal lives of firefighters in a post-9/11 FDNY firehouse. Denis Leary portrays FDNY firefighter Tommy Gavin, an enigmatic, mercurial guy whose life is beset with emotional chaos.

Tommy has limited success dealing with the loss of Jimmy, a best friend and fellow firefighter who died at the WTC on 9/11. Separated from his wife and children, Tommy’s dark behaviors, including rage, risky choices (on the job and off) and double-dealings, are all inflamed by his alcoholism. Aware of his role in fracturing his family, he makes periodic attempts to rebuild his relationships, but his erratic behaviors routinely derail those efforts.

Do any of these circumstances parallel those found in your firehouse? Although amplified in 60-minute segments on TV, such dramas are closer to reality than many of us care to acknowledge.

So what role should a company officer or chief officer play in response to Tommy’s plea on “Rescue Me”? And what can we do to intervene in similar situations in our real-life firehouses?

Your relationships with your company or station personnel may extend well beyond the walls of the firehouse. But in the context of this discussion, your responsibility is to recognize the problem(s), develop an appropriate response in accordance with your agency’s policies and work to resolve the problem for the affected member(s), for your team and for yourself. Tolerating or overlooking the problem will only lead to organizational breakdown.

Recognition

Our fast-paced and complex society exerts pressures, and we shouldn’t be surprised that individual responses to these stresses damage performance, alter behavior and, in some cases, drive people to escape through unhealthy alternatives.

How can you recognize problems? In the workplace, the primary signal is a decline in the quality of your work. On the fireground, such a decline can have serious consequences. Performing at your best is a fundamental part of your job and demands a serious-minded commitment.

Although there isn’t an absolute formula to detect brewing issues, actions that reveal underlying problems may include:

  • Risky behaviors (especially at incidents);
  • Uncharacteristic anger or aggressive actions;
  • Changes in general health, mental concentration and energy levels;
  • Changes in eating and/or sleeping habits; and
  • Personal neglect (appearance and/or hygiene).

When you notice one or more of these changes, you must pay attention. When these changes in personal behaviors carry over to work performance, they compromise the safety of all involved. As a supervisor, you’re often in a prime position to recognize and initiate a response to personal circumstances that could destroy a career.

Response

What action can you take after recognizing a problem? Consult your supervisors and ask for help. You must maintain confidentiality, but you can’t keep secrets. Understand your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) options and how to offer them through your workplace.

Ensure that you have a clear understanding of your department’s current policies, rules and resources. (Note: If your department’s policies aren’t current, ask for an update.) You must act within your policies and exercise consistency throughout. If you overlook a brewing problem for a friend but dig into another crewmember’s issue, your chance of achieving a good outcome in either case plummets.

You’re not responsible for the personal decisions someone else makes, but poor choices can affect the work environment, and you’re responsible for dealing with it. If you make excuses or cover for a person’s poor performance, you only enlarge the problem.

Your time is best spent offering practical solutions, not trying to solve the problem. A person who directly faces the consequences of their actions will be more likely to accept help. Getting that person to connect the behavior with those consequences is your challenge. If successful at this point, you’ve taken a critical step toward resolution. If not, you have no choice but to continue monitoring their work performance and insisting on immediate change where appropriate.

If you find an open door, begin by talking about the current and foreseeable impact of the unwanted behavior on the organization and on your team. Ask if and how they plan to change their harmful behavior. Be a supportive listener but don’t condone their behaviors and actions. People in trouble can offer a litany of excuses and veer into discussions that serve to sidetrack the issue. Don’t allow your sympathy to minimize the issue.

If the person offers insight into the current situation, acknowledge the circumstances without judgment. Genuinely try to understand things from their perspective, even if you would behave differently under the same circumstance. And no matter how unusual the circumstance may strike you, don’t make light of it.

Clearly communicate what they can and cannot do. But be straightforward in stating that you won’t overlook issues related to workplace safety, the law and department ethics. Most employers can better assist a member who asks for help before a crisis than mid-stream. Follow through on promises you make, and be sure to communicate these conditions clearly and calmly. Never bluff and never threaten.

Let the person know you care and want to help. Be there to guide work performance, but remember, it isn’t your job to fix their life or solve personal problems. Encourage them to speak with a family member or close friend, or to seek help through your EAP, counselor or medical professional. If they can’t pursue help on their own, lead them through the process. Follow this with a written set of specific changes they must adopt within a timeframe you lay out.

Resolution

While all of this is occurring—and likely to be something of a distraction for you—don’t forget the rest of your crew and how they’re reacting to your focus on that person’s behavior. There aren’t too many secrets among firefighters and, if they weren’t already aware of the problem, you can pretty well bet they are now. Your job includes rumor control.

You should not share personal details, but you should inform team members that you’re working with someone to help address a problem that may affect the workplace. Enlist their support on behalf of their colleague. Show them that they too will be treated professionally and respectfully under similar circumstances.

Don’t overlook yourself in this process. This work is stressful and will affect you, especially if it doesn’t end well. You need a trustworthy person who you can confide in, as your stress level affects your performance as well.

Conclusion

If stress isn’t dealt with appropriately, it can be personally devastating and professionally destructive. As any honest paramedic will tell you, you can’t always save the patient. As an officer, you can’t always save the member, but it is your job to try.

Prepare yourself to recognize the signs of overwhelming personal problems at the earliest point possible. Then respond with care, concern and appropriate resource referrals. Finally, don’t overlook the need to address the situation among your crew and for yourself.