By Dr. Randall Hanifen
I recently shared a public service announcement on Facebook from a neighboring city about not parking your vehicle in front of fire hydrants. It showed a picture of a supply line extending through a vehicle parked in front of a fire hydrant. Firefighters had to smash the vehicle’s windows to extend the water supply line through the vehicle and extinguish a dumpster fire.
As you can imagine, like every good Facebook post, comments about this situation became heated and firefighters at all levels made some less-than-stellar remarks. As I considered deleting the post to stop the heated debate, I reconsidered and decided that the combatants needed to read each other’s opposing perspectives.
The Opposing Perspectives Varied by Rank
The opposing views were largely tied to rank. A fire chief said that extending the water line through the vehicle was only destroying property needlessly. Company officers defended the need for water to quickly extinguish the fire; otherwise, a four-story building would have been vulnerable to the blaze.
The fire chief started by explaining that in 37 years, he had never used a hydrant on a dumpster fire. This argument obviously did not sit well with the company officers, who retorted that time sitting in an office in a small fire department did not translate to practical experience in an urban environment.
The fire chief noted that he had written several leadership books, and the company officers continued to research his department and their operations. In the end, they could see each other’s perspective.
However, I am convinced they were still talking past each other. I feel that both parties still held their position and thought the other person’s position was not credible.
Why Can’t We See Others’ Perspective in the Fire Service?
As I have worked my way through the fire service ranks, I have found this scenario of disrespecting others’ opinions playing out numerous times. As a company officer who also led an independent rescue team covering a population of nearly 400,000, I taught courses that many chiefs needed for their degrees. I also assisted with and led a section of a large fire service association.
But I often wondered why others discounted the information I provided merely because I was a company officer at the time. As I have ascended the ranks, I have gained different perspectives.
While I have resisted disregarding someone’s perspective merely because it came from a company officer, I have occasionally caught myself believing that another’s perspective was very thinly based on facts or experience. Fortunately, I am reminded of my time as a company officer and have done my best to overcome that way of thinking.
Empathy Is Needed at All Levels of the Fire Service
I have wondered that if each person in the fire service could take a step back and respect each other’s opinion, would we solve more problems and have a much higher level of buy-in? What would be required for this increase in operational efficiency to happen?
I believe empathy is needed at all levels. The comments on the Facebook post often start with “I have XX number of years on the job” or “I work in a metro/suburban/rural/paid/volunteer system.”
I will state that I do gain information and knowledge each day (it’s one of my goals). But many times, a certain number of years on the job does not automatically translate to improved knowledge.
I once heard one of my mentors say in a meeting that a fire chief once disregarded his Ph.D. knowledge because that fire chief had 40 years of experience. My mentor replied, “Do you have 40 years of experience or just one year of experience repeated 40 times?” This question brought great laughter to the room.
If we can gain insight into the perspective of the other people in the fire service and not feel insecure to the point where we need to broadcast our accomplishments to each other, we may be able to make deeper connections. In addition, we may find that our perspectives may have some commonality rather than just opposition.
This connection can be the basis of mentoring in both directions. We need to mentor the next generation of chiefs, as well as ensure that the current chiefs do not lose sight of where they came from and where the work actually happens.
Until then, I will sit at my computer, watching my Facebook account and munching popcorn, ready for the next good argument.