By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer
Why aren’t more guys in the fire service expressing their disgust with the way that their brother firefighters are treating women firefighters in their departments?
Back in April 2015 I posted this blog, If You’re a Male Firefighter You Should Be Mad, Too, which is just one of several pieces that I’ve authored over the past couple of years on issues like this. But too often, I feel like the Tom Hanks character in the movie Castaway (except I don’t have a Wilson to talk to).
I think too many guys are comfortable in their own department thinking:
- “Everything is good here.”
- “We treat everyone the same.”
- “We’ve got no problems.”
A case of “ignorance being bliss,” perhaps?
Getting Everyone Involved in Finding Solutions
Recently, I shared the above post on a new Facebook Group that I’d been invited to join, Change Agents for a Modern Fire Service, a closed group (By invitation only) that currently has 113 members. I’m one of five guys in that 113. (I’m pretty sure that I received an invite because I’m a fire service guy who “gets it”).
Now I think that groups like this on social media are a good thing. They can provide an avenue for the exchange of information and ideas that can eventually lead to solutions to problems. But for any group to be successful at developing solutions to problems, there has to be an exchange of ideas and that exchange has to include a variety of inputs. And those inputs have to be diverse.
Otherwise, groupthink can take over the group
Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.
Groupthink has been identified as the causative factor in debacles from the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion to the ill-advised launch and subsequent explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. More recently was the U.S. invasion of Iraq based on the premise that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Begin with the end in mind
We’ll likely never change the fire service culture to one that is more diverse and inclusive of non-white and non-male members without first getting more representation from those groups “at the table.” That’s not an easy task, but one thing we must do is start much earlier to recruit firefighters as employees or volunteers. Take a look:
“So theoretically these candidates all come to the table with the same qualifications, so why do we keep hiring the same type of person that becomes the “silent nice guy. “Well for one, they are not on-boarded and made to feel valued and able to speak up. For another, they are hired to fit into the “pack” that’s already there. So if you have a culture of people that turn into quiet nice guys, why are we still hiring the same type of people?”
“Which leads me to my next point, the fire service is sick. The symptoms are all over the place: leadership crisis; EMS worker suicides; sexual harassment and rape; xenophobia; and homophobia. What is the common denominator here? We are hiring “cookie cutter” people to fit in because it’s easier to do that then to it is to work through the growing pains of becoming diverse and inclusive.”—Change Agents for a Modern Fire Service group member
We can change the culture in the fire service, but not through solutions like policy or procedure or training or lawsuits. The change must come from the “majority stakeholders” in the fire service: Men. Men must take responsibility and ownership for the problems we face in the fire service. And right now, they must also take responsibility for seeking and implementing the solutions.
It must start at the lowest levels of every organization. It must include men of all ranks—from the newest firefighter to the chief—taking a good hard look at how they engage with those who are different from them. And then they have to take an equally hard look at how their colleagues treat others. But most importantly, men have to be willing to change the status quo.
Anything less and we’ll still be talking about these issues ten years from now. Can we really afford that?