Q&A: Bullying, harassment and violence in the fire service

By Kerri Hatt, FireRescue1 Senior Editor

Chief I. David Daniels is a member of the IAFC Safety, Health and Survival Section Board and chair of the National Safety Council’s Government and Public Sector Division. He has been a member of the IAFC since 1997. Chief Daniels, who most recently served as the chief safety officer/interim fire chief for the City of Richmond, Virginia, leads the IAFC Task Force on bullying issues.

In an On Scene article for IAFC, titled “Yes, Bullying, Harassment and Violence are Alive in the Firehouse,” Chief Daniels wrote, “In the midst of discussions about brotherhood, courage, honor and self-sacrifice, the unfortunate revelation that a firefighter in a major department likely committed suicide as a reaction to cyberbullying was for some eye opening, for others validation of their lived experience. The fire and emergency service, as a microcosm of society, has all of the same ills. Society as a whole has an issue with bullying, harassment and violence, so to assume that the fire and emergency service is immune is at best naïve, at worst disingenuous.”

The IAFC task group, led predominantly by the Safety, Health and Survival Section, was tasked with:

  • Conducting an academically-based evaluation or the body of research on bullying, harassment and violence
  • Identifying typical examples of and the connections between bullying, harassment and violence in fire and emergency services
  • Creating a Bullying and Workplace Violence Prevention Toolkit for fire and emergency services leaders to prevent, or identify and eliminate bullying, harassment or violence where it may occur.

The task group presented its findings at Fire-Rescue International in Charlotte, N.C., in the form of a video.

Chief Daniels recently sat down with Fire Chief to discuss the roots of, progress in and solutions to the fire service’s bullying issue.

Fire Chief: Why is this an issue that the fire service should address?

Chief Daniels: Bullying, harassment and violence are issues in many organizations, especially in the public sector. Not only does bullying emotionally affect members of an organization, but good people will most certainly leave the group or the organization as a whole if the behavior is not addressed.

Is all workplace violence and bullying the same?

To describe them in operational terms, violence is the overall strategy or the “what”, while bullying and harassment are tactics or “how” the violence is implemented. All workplace violence is not necessarily bullying or harassment, however, all bullying and harassment are forms of violence.

Is there anything that can be done to prevent this issue?

There are a tremendous number of steps that can be taken to prevent a climate that would allow bullying, harassment and violence to exist, however, the strategies are different. If the source of the violence is external, the prevention steps are more security focused. If the source of violence is external, the prevention steps are founded in a number of leadership activities, including:

  • An effective safety management system,
  • Training, and
  • Development of a supportive organizational culture.

Why is this an issue for you personally?

It is an important issue to me not only as a victim of bullying, mobbing and harassment, but as an unwitting perpetrator early in my career as a supervisor as well. The sad thing about all of these situations is the fact that in many cases, both the victims and perpetrators have a limited knowledge of what they are doing when they are doing it.

How have your perceptions about bullying in the fire service changed over time?

I have to admit that I have learned more about this topic since I have been involved in researching it for this task group than I ever have before. Though the last time I was bullied I was aware of it, I was not aware early in my career. The same is true regarding how I have treated others. I have done a much better job in the last number of years based on wanting to help create an environment that I don’t believe that I had in my early days. I have understood the technical details much better since being involved in the task group.

How do roles in combatting bullying vary in different levels of command?

Strategically, the goal is the same. Don’t do it, don’t be quiet about it if you see it and don’t accept it being done to you. The difference is tactical based on the role and the level of authority: one has to make change. I realize that this may be difficult to do alone, which is why having people to talk to and confide in is so important. It take courage to call bullying out, even more to confront it when it is a part of the organizational culture.

How can firefighters preserve firehouse traditions in meaningful ways that aren’t harmful to others?

Harm is often both perceptual and situational. It is important for co-workers to have frank and honest conversations about acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the workplace. These norms should be validated and reinforced by leadership, management and supervision.

What are the consequences of allowing bullying to occur?

While work may or may not still get done, employees will generally not perform at their peak capacity. In fact, where bullying exists, good employees will not. They will either perform well below their capacity or leave all together.

Can the fire service achieve a bullying-free environment?

The members of the fire service are capable of achieving anything that they put their minds to.

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