Enough is enough: 5 ways to end bullying in fire and EMS

Page, Wolfberg & Wirth

By Christie Mellott, Esq., Of Counsel, Page, Wolfberg & Wirth, LLC

A lot has been published recently about harassment and discrimination. However, much less is being said about the problems of bullying in the fire and EMS industries. Yet, these problems have equally-serious effects on their victims. I was recently at a state EMS conference and heard a speaker give a very poignant discussion on suicide in EMS. He discussed six different people from around the country who had all committed suicide as a result of their participating in fire and EMS activities. This made me realize that while we spend time talking about the importance of care and compassion of the patients and people we serve, we need to do a lot more to improve the care and compassion we show to our fire and EMS brethren.

When visiting clients, I have heard comments such as, “Suck it up, buttercup!” and “This is a fire company; we expect people to have thick skin. If you can’t handle the heat, then get out of the firehouse!” I have heard people jokingly call each other derogatory and offensive names, which were presumably intended to be in jest. I have also heard people getting screamed and cursed at for not completing assignments. I could definitely go on with other examples, but I think you get the point.

These kinds of comments and behaviors have no business in the fire and EMS workplaces. These comments and behaviors are each examples of bullying in action, and they need to stop. People in EMS and the fire service see a lot of terrible things that people in other professions do not have to deal with. A lot of it is very emotional, and being emotional about some calls does not make anyone a bad EMS provider or firefighter. Rather, it makes them human!

We all need to work together to eradicate bullying behaviors in the fire and EMS workplace, and these five suggestions are a good place to start.

1. Show care and compassion for your coworkers

If you see one of your coworkers getting emotional or having a rough day, ask the person if they are okay and if there is anything you can do to help. Never suggest that your colleague should suck it up or get thicker skin. If your organization has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), encourage the coworker to use it.

2. Never make fun of your coworkers for any reason

It is never okay to make fun of your coworkers. What you think is a harmless joke may not be so harmless to the person hearing it. For example, a bigger person knows that he or she is big, and that person may laugh when you joke about their size. But, many people just internalize comments and put on a brave face. No one enjoys being made fun of, regardless of how well they may seem to outwardly take it.

3. If you are a supervisor, avoid yelling or raising your voice when disciplining

Yes, it can be very frustrating when people don’t do their jobs properly. It may be very tempting to yell at people, especially when they continue to repeat bad behaviors after you have already counseled them about it. But, resist the urge to raise your voice. In fact, it is best to speak softly and calmly. If someone has to listen more closely to hear you, they will often pay closer attention.

4. If you witness someone getting bullied, get involved

If you see someone getting bullied at your workplace, please say something. Tell the person who is exhibiting bullying behaviors that it is not okay and tell them to stop. Talk privately with the person you saw getting bullied and ask if they are okay and if there is anything you can do to help. Report the bullying behavior to management. If the perpetrator is a member of management, try reporting the matter to another member of management or to the HR or compliance officer

If you are a member of management, take action to stop the bullying behavior. If you are a member of management and you get a complaint about bullying behavior or you witness bullying behavior, it is your job to promptly take action to stop it. Supervisors should not look the other way when they see bad behavior.

5. Don’t gossip

We are all guilty of gossiping to a certain degree. But, spreading rumors and stories about people can be very hurtful to the person who is being talked about. Just because you know something or think you know something about one of your coworkers that someone else doesn’t know, this does not mean that you need to spread the story. Further, a lot of times, these “rumors” are not even true. Even if you know a rumor is true, it is still best to just keep the information to yourself.

Just like EMS providers and firefighters must show care and compassion to patients and the people we serve, we must show a similar degree of care and compassion to our coworkers. The problem of EMS providers and firefighters committing suicide is real, and we can’t allow bad behaviors in the workplace to contribute to the problem. It is incumbent on all of us to take immediate action to change our own negative behaviors toward our coworkers into positive behaviors that support a caring workplace culture. Let’s work to save our coworkers lives just as hard as we work to save our patients and fire victims.

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