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.