Conflict in the fire service: Avoid or address?
Officer leadership courses should include sections on conflict management and resolution for when situations inevitably arise
By Robert Rielage
Unfortunately, in today’s world, conflict is everywhere – in our politics, our culture and our individual lives. The fire service is no exception. Should conflict be avoided? Should it be ignored or accommodated? Should we compromise? Collaborate? Compete? How should we handle it?
First, let’s try to define conflict. The dictionary says that conflict, when used as a noun, means “sharp disagreement; or opposition as to interests or ideas; an inability to reconcile impulses with realistic or moral considerations.”
Expanding on that, I’d say that conflicts arise when two or more individuals or groups interacting in the same situation see their position differently because of dissimilar background, disposition, reason or outlook. A conflict is more than a disagreement – it is a situation where people perceive a threat to their livelihood, order or wellbeing, such as their physical, emotional status or power.
How to approach conflict in the fire service
In the fire service, conflict can be internal or external, individual or group related, personal or interpersonal. Most firefighters can name a serious conflict that has occurred during their career. It could be fueled by a decision of the governing administration to reduce the budget, the number of fire stations, staffing or services. The combatants could be the fire administration versus the fire union or firefighters’ association, citizens believing the cost of the fire service outweighs the benefits and services provided or an internal conflict among supervisors and firefighters regarding our roles, such as the addition of community risk reduction in our daily routine.
When conflict occurs, some people cannot handle that dichotomy within themselves. They knot up inside and try to avoid or deflect the conflict onto others. An example of this is the officer whose response is, “Don’t blame me, I’m just the messenger and I’m relaying the decision from someone else.”
Perhaps a worse response is “I agree with you, but this is the decision and we have to live with it.” Or, “I’m the officer, and this is what we’re going to do because I said so.” Responses like these exacerbate the situation, and are why conflict management is such an important component of officer leadership.
Officer leadership courses should include conflict management
With good leadership, conflict resolution begins before the struggle occurs. When a serious problem arises, the administration, the chiefs, union and officer corps representatives need to meet to discuss the issues from all perspectives. Collaboration and compromise that meets the majority of the needs of all parties can help avoid the conflict altogether.
Good, honest communication among stakeholders not only avoids conflict, but gives ownership of the decision and the decision process to all parties or organizations, and builds trust among stakeholders.
Remember, however, if the groups involved can’t come to a joint resolution, the decision falls to others, such as the fire chief, the mayor, the administrator or the city council. If these groups have been invited to the table for discussion, and their points of view heard, then they are obliged to enter into the final decision process. Failure to participate, or withdrawal from the discussion, delegitimizes their later objections to the final decision.
So, how can conflicts be managed? Here are several steps to guide you, no matter what role you play in decision making, on how to handle conflict:
- Accept conflict. Conflict will naturally occur, and happens in nearly every ongoing working relationship.
- Be a calming influence. Most decision are not life-changing.
- Listen attentively. Listen to all sides and ask questions to clarify the viewpoints of others.
- Analyze the conflict. What factors are the real issues that underlie the conflict?
- Model neutral language. Use a third person or using another organization or group as an example of positions for potential solutions.
- Separate the person from the conflict. Make the conflict impersonal.
- Work together. You can do more in less time or with less stress and energy if you agree to come to an inclusive decision together.
- Agree to disagree. Agree that on some issues, certain individuals or groups will disagree.
- Know your limits. Know what is essential to you and what issues you can use to compromise.
- Compromise. Have the ability to compromise on an issue important to an opponent, especially if it’s of little consequence to your present or future needs.
- Know your allies. Know who is in your corner and what is important to them.
- Support your allies. Don’t undercut an ally’s position.
I once witnessed a wage negotiation where both the police and fire unions were united on the levels of a salary increase and health benefits costs. Then, a skilled negotiator cut a deal on health benefits for one union that undercut the other union’s position, and, in the end, each union lost on both their wage and health benefit issues.
As individuals, the result of ongoing conflict can manifest as physical stress on most of the parties involved. This can result in physical changes to an individual, such as low energy, headaches, nausea, aches, pains, tense muscles, chest pain, rapid heartbeats, insomnia, frequent colds or flu-like symptoms and even loss of sexual desire or interest. Increased stress has never solved a conflict and, in fact, has a negative impact on the negotiation process.
Ways to manage this conflict-induced stress include:
- Track your stressors. What words or subjects set you off? Have someone else take the lead on those specific topics.
- Develop healthy habits. Watch that you don’t overeat, remember to exercise frequently and take frequent breaks.
- Keep on point. Establish boundaries on both topics and the length of discussions on each topic.
- Take time to recharge. Don't relentlessly tackle a particularly difficult subject again and again.
- Learn to relax. Read a book, take a walk or do whatever it takes to be refreshed and clear your mindset.
- Talk to others. Know with whom you can discuss sensitive issues in confidence and not be compromised.
- Have a support system. Everyone needs at least one confidant with whom you can be fully open without being judged. This could be a spouse, a co-worker or an experienced chief from an outside department whose objective advice you trust implicitly.
Finally, officer leadership and development classes should include several hours on conflict management. Putting a newly promoted or junior officer into certain situations without the essentials of conflict resolution is a recipe for disaster, unfair to the officer and will eventually result in the problem having to be resolved at a higher level of the department than necessary.
Conflict will always be a part of the fire service, and learning how to handle it is well worth your time and effort to learn.