When was the last time you thought about peer pressure and how it might affect you? It seems like just yesterday that we all had our backpacks on walking into a school building full of every type of person imaginable. From the big, buff jocks to the computer-carrying nerds, we all had to deal with outside opinions that often altered our behavior and actions. Sound familiar?
You may not realize it, but peer pressure can be felt in the firehouse as well. It can be related to how we act at the firehouse and on our responses. It can affect our choices in selection of personal protective equipment (PPE), risk taking, and overall safety of the emergency. So how do you deal with the opinions and pressures placed on you by your fellow firefighters? Why is the guy with the burnt helmet and discolored turnout coat looked up to as a “Salty Dog?” Why would we even worry about what people think about us? Let’s spend some time looking at peer pressure in today’s fire service.
Just like a schoolhouse, a firehouse is a mix of different types of people from different types of cultures and backgrounds. Each of us has views and opinions on everything, and sharing these views is what makes our team strong. But when does someone else’s view affect your safety?
Recently, I heard an example of this type of pressure. “I never wear a hood because I want to feel the heat. When you wear a hood you can get into trouble because you might get too close to the fire.” Now, if you were new to firefighting and were looking to a “Salty Dog” for advice, would you listen to it? Why would any of us ever go into a super-heated environment without a hood on? I can’t even imagine the pain and suffering you would have if you get burned, much less if you were responsible for getting the new person burned.
Can this type of pressure hurt us? Is this a type of peer pressure? I would say yes. All of us want respect and admiration from the older, more experienced, members. But this opinion is one that shouldn’t be looked up to. We all know better than to not to wear our hoods. Since day one of training it’s hammered into our heads to wear a complete PPE assembly. But how do you handle this situation? I would suggest dealing with this situation with respect to the older member. “Sir (or Ma’am), I understand that wearing your hood can get you into trouble, but since I am new, I am going to wear mine for the practice of wearing it in the case of a big fire.” With acknowledging their advice and respecting their opinion, while offering a solution without degrading them, you earn their respect without compromising your safety!
Peer pressure can get us into some sticky situations. How many times have you gotten into situations that you know are not safe? I remember a particular fire in the early stages of my career where we made entry into a house that no one should have entered. It was a single-family wood frame with fire coming through the roof. We advanced to the second story and made entry into a black, smoke-filled room full of furniture. The smoke was banked down to the floor and as we advanced into the room the heat drove us to the ground. What were we thinking? Each of us has had these situations, where peer pressure has help us make a bad decision.This particular day, I was with a well respected Salty Dog and I was the newbie. It should have been obvious that no one should have entered this structure, so why did we? Was it a combination of aggressive firefighting mixed with some peer pressure? Yes to both.
Every firefighter wants to be the nozzle person going in to make the save and none of us wants our fellow firefighters to look at us as a coward, right? But, are you really considered a coward if you take the time and respectfully offer an opinion on the situation. If you take the time to ask some questions to the more experienced member, maybe you can point out some of the dangers that you could be facing and express your concerns. This can be a sticky situation for the junior member. I would approach it with respect to the senior and make it a learning opportunity for you both.
Completing the Task
Now that we have identified that the views and opinions of our peers can and will affect our safety, how do we deal with it? First, we must look to our leadership to create and maintain a level of safety on our emergencies. If we look to our leadership to set the example, the trickledown effect should reach us all. Leading the way on the fireground and following procedures is the best way to reduce peer pressure. If the chief does it that way, it will make it easier for the rest of the members to do it the same way.
Secondly, education will give us the facts and figures on how many firefighters are injured or killed in certain situations. We should use the reports on accidents that our fellow firefighters have had and honor them by learning from their sacrifice. The “it won’t happen to me” attitude should be a dying breed! It seems like every day we are reminded of just how dangerous our profession is. Lastly, peer pressure should be turned into a positive. One day, you will be the senior member, if not the chief, in your fire department. While leading your firefighters, use peer pressure to make a positive influence on the safety of your members.
There is no doubt that a fire department has a hierarchy of people. From the first-day rookie to the chief, we all strive to provide the best service possible. With this in mind, we all must use our behavior to promote an environment of safety. You will be amazed at how peer pressure can affect you at the fire station. Our job is to use that pressure to promote the safety of everyone. We also have a responsibility as we become the leaders of our departments to use our influence to make sure that we do what it takes to make sure we all go home.
“Is the pressure on” in your department? Isn’t time that we use that pressure to promote safety? I hope after reading this article you take the time to look at how you influence the members around you and make sure that we all go home!
RYAN PENNINGTON, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a firefighter/paramedic for the Charleston, WV, Fire Department. He is currently assigned to Station 8 and a member of the West Virginia Task Force 1 USAR team. He has over 17 years of combined fire, rescue and EMS experience. Ryan is currently a West Virginia State Instructor 2, Hazmat Technician, and Certified Fire Officer 2. Ryan has been guest on several Firehouse.com podcasts including: Training & Tactics Talk: Searching in the Modern Environment and Engine Company Operations in Today's Buildings. View all of Ryan's articles and podcasts here. You can reach Ryan by e-mail at: Ryan33@suddenlink.net.