Camaraderie in the Firehouse

Issue 4 and Volume 8.

In a good portion of the northeastern United States, and in the FDNY specifically, many firefighters (including volunteers) call their place of work a firehouse for a reason: They’re a family. The firefighters of the FDNY have a long-standing reputation for treating each other like family; together, they have their good times, along with the occasional pains, squabbles and dysfunctions.

In many other parts of the United States, however, the building where the fire trucks are parked is often simply referred to as a “fire station,” a workplace, a location where firefighters go for a certain period of time and then leave. A firehouse isn’t just a work location; it’s where your second family lives. It’s a way of life.

Threats to Firehouse Culture
Why is it that some fire departments, fire companies and/or fire stations don’t eat meals together or drill together? In some cases, they don’t see each other during a shift for any significant amount of time or in any meaningful way. Many years ago, it was said that TVs were going to ruin the firehouse culture. It was feared that this new appliance would keep members from sitting and talking with each other. Today, separate TV rooms, firefighter cubicles (or separate “suites”), and the constant use of social media threaten us in a similar, but much more profound way.

Dorm-Style vs. Personal Space
After years of visiting firehouses throughout the country and speaking with firefighters of every rank, I believe that dormitory-style firehouses (with separate dorms for male and female firefighters) create and allow for the development of an optimal family-style culture versus the newer, sprawling firehouses that give firefighters many more places to “disappear.” Giving firefighters separate bunk areas with personal TVs, lighting, privacy doors, thermostats, etc., can be extremely detrimental to unit cohesiveness. It appears that award-winning architects (and the fire service indirectly) have succumbed to the notion that everyone needs their own personal space. My question: Is that really what we want in a fire service work environment?

Cut the Cord!
Currently in my firehouse, there’s a rule prohibiting the use of cell phones, PDAs, Blackberrys or “i”-anything during meals. This helps foster conversation and gives everyone a break from their technological umbilical cords. Similarly, I know of at least one firehouse where there isn’t even a TV in the kitchen area. Members are forced to sit and actually t-a-l-k to each other!

But what can firefighters talk about that will help improve camaraderie? The answer: just about anything. Telling a joke or story, discussing family or personal life, or bringing up department business or recent call critiques can all be extremely valuable to the group. The same can be said for preparing and cooking a meal as opposed to having everyone eat on their own.

The point: If firefighters spend time together, it’s not only good for morale, it’s also good for company/department pride and for building or strengthening a “family” bond. Knowing the abilities, values, attitudes and, yes, even the opinions of our fellow firefighters, are keys to building trust and respect within the group, which is particularly important because we work in hostile environments where we may be expected to save one another’s lives.

Beware the Behavior Patterns
One of my senior firefighters recently pointed out that how a firefighter behaves around the firehouse (taking initiative, following through on jobs, participating in group activities/chores, etc.) is a good indication of how they’ll be on the fireground. Although this may or may not be entirely accurate, there is some validity to his statement.

Conversely, I recently had a conversation with a company officer from another state. She was extremely frustrated with a particular firefighter because he wouldn’t partake in company drills and was very difficult to deal with in the firehouse. He was described as a less-than-motivated individual who causes frustration and dissent among the other firefighters. However, the officer conceded that he was very good, and in fact, almost a “natural” at fighting fires. (Ouch!)

This particular firefighter has been bounced into—and out of—several firehouses in his career due to his lackadaisical attitude. Looking for some insight, the officer explained that their department doesn’t have an evaluation program and therefore no real recourse to document this member’s sub-par behavior and non-existent firehouse participation. This one dissident should not be allowed to affect the entire shift or fire station. To mitigate this situation, the officer may employ several options:

  1. Try to enlist a little peer pressure from other crewmembers (as long as it’s done in a safe, appropriate manner);
  2. Offer “elder” or ”friendly” advice;
  3. Pull rank (if necessary); or
  4. If all else fails, administer formal disciplinary charges.

Important: One trick that should not be tried is threatening the individual. Of course, once you’ve attempted the informal/indirect approaches with no success, you must document all other actions taken and the reasons for such actions. You can do this by keeping notes in a bound notebook or on a letterhead report with dates, times, occurrences and witnesses. Even where there’s no formal evaluation program, the documentation retained by the officer (which are legal records) can be used to expel the offender or support the argument for formal charges. Tip: Be sure to leave out personal comments and commentary. Stick to the facts.

The Magic Is In the Mix
Building camaraderie in the workplace (whether you call it a firehouse or a fire station) can be a dilemma in almost any department. The mixing of personalities, civilian employees, other agencies and/or separate department bureaus within the same space may add to this paradox—but it may also prove to be part of the solution. By interacting with a mix of individuals with diverse backgrounds, firefighters will learn not only how to get along with people from different cultures, religious beliefs, etc., they will also learn why their unity and strength as a team is so crucial both on the fireground and off.

In short, true camaraderie is not an unobtainable goal. A willingness to initiate steps and the ability to have open-minded discussion on achieving such a panacea will be the focus of a future article.