Rule 11: If You Don't Care…Get Out!

One of the most difficult personnel issues is how to stop members from falling into the "apathy trap" once they decide they don't care about the agency any longer. When a member acts out that they "don't care" about the department or projects harmful behavior to other members or, heaven forbid, to customers, a lot of organizational damage can occur. The "fix" becomes a slippery slope that can damage both the organization and the member.

This month's headline reflects a sincere desire and need to keep your folks engaged and productive throughout their career or affiliation with the department. It is amazing to see how infectious a positive attitude toward the community and our service can be, in direct contrast to how harmful lackadaisical and uninterested behavior can become.

I like to ask the most disgruntled employees to take a journey back in time to when they were appointed to the position of firefighter or "voted in" as a volunteer member. If the person is willing to step back with me, there are vivid memories of great community and departmental respect and support. Perhaps during the interview process, the disconnected members made statements about their willingness to take on assignments that they are asked to do whenever and whatever the task involved.

In fact, let's go back in your career for a moment. What was it like when you first realized that you were going to be a protector of your community? My guess is that it was a daunting and exciting feeling. Most folks would remember that time and what it felt like to ride on the big red truck for the first time. I remember the date, time and address on my first response: Sept. 9, 1968, at 8:30 P.M. for smoke in the building at the Prince George's Plaza in Hyattsville, MD. For me, this was the end of an eight-year wait (journey) to be a "riding member," so I am sure you can imagine my excitement and enthusiasm.

Now let's move the clock to today. What is the "condition of your condition" (your organizational attitude and core value system)? I hope it is the same as it was on your first day in recruit school or when you responded to your first alarm. However, if it is not, what will it take to get you back to that place? Who has control over your morale? Who determines at what level you can participate and contribute within your organization? Who is directly responsible for your personal performance on and off of the job? Who can instill a sense of departmental pride and support? Who can make sure that you are self-disciplined and that you stay out of trouble? Who can make sure that you are completely capable to perform the job well and maintain all of your certifications?

Of course, the answer to all of those questions is you. Others can try to influence your actions, decisions and behaviors, but you are in control of your destiny within your agency and in your life. You have the free will to choose your course and project the attitude and actions that you desire. In fact, the more professional and self-disciplined that you are willing to act within your department during stressful times, the more likely you are to be insulated from the potential negative forces that enter into everyone's life from time to time.

Most folks want to be around people who project a positive attitude and image, rather than deal with those who have a lot of baggage and attempt to bring those around them and the organization down to their level. Don't let negative energy get a foothold on you; it will be tough to shake it off.

There are many ways to deal with a bad day or even a bad week or year. Perhaps take a vacation, even a "mini" one, to bring about a change of attitude. Communicate your concerns with someone — your supervisor, personal mentor, spouse or spiritual advisor — to get a change of focus and an adjustment of attitude. Try to think about the importance and value of your role within the department and the mission-critical work you do for your community. A poor attitude is externally motivated and easy to work through, if you try.

If, however, you are sure you don't want to be part of the department, do everyone (including yourself and your family) a huge favor and move on. Retire if you're able to do so. Transfer to a different division or maybe even a different department. Rather than becoming an "organizational terrorist" and disrupting the good work of so many, take the high road and get out. All too often, stories are told about those who no longer have the respect of their department and are openly at odds with nearly everyone in the organization. Life is too short not to enjoy it to the fullest. A poor attitude leads to poor performance on and off of the job. Poor job performance in our business typically leads to near-misses and accidents that may cost a life.

At a recent seminar, retired Phoenix, AZ, Fire Chief Alan Brunacini was asked what to do about non-contributing members. His answer was simple, but brilliant. He suggested giving a "disenfranchised" member an application and asking the person to consider signing up to once again join the department as a firefighter. What a shock that would be to some marginal performers.

The message here is to be in control of your attitude and behaviors. There will be mostly good times, but as with every vocation and advocation, there will be storms to weather from time to time. Keep the long-range view in sight and remember that someone is always watching your performance and behavior. Always strive to be professional (career and volunteer members) in all that you do, especially when the going gets rough. Refocus and get back to your "A" game.

DENNIS L. RUBIN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Previously, Rubin was chief of the Atlanta, GA, Fire and Rescue Department. He holds a bachelor of science degree in fire administration from the University of Maryland and an associate in applied science degree in fire science management from Northern Virginia Community College, and is enrolled in the Fire and Emergency Management Administration program at the graduate school of Oklahoma State University. Rubin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officers Program, is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and has obtained the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He is an adjunct faculty member of the National Fire Academy since 1983. Rubin is the author of the book Rube's Rules for Survival.