At a recent fire department meeting, the fire chief was addressing his concern regarding the blatant disregard of departmental policies and related items by some of the members. The list was quite long, and each item cumulated in what the chief described as ignorance and apathy. Two bewildered firefighters where sitting near the back of the room when one whispered to the other, "What is he talking about"? The other one defiantly replied "I don't know and I don't care!"
The American Heritage Dictionary defines ignorance and apathy as follows:
Ignorance and apathy - I don't know and I don't care. I am willing to bet that you don't have to wait very long to hear that in your fire station. That pretty much describes the attitudes of many firefighters today. They are ignorant about the issues, and by their actions, they surely don't care. They don't like what you are doing, but they don't want to do anything. This phenomenon is not entirely their fault. If the membership is not included in the decision making process and given critical information that will ultimately affect them, what do you expect them to say?
In every department, there are a chosen few that are always "in the know". They are not always officers; they may be friends with the chief, a politician or board member. Rumors and innuendo permeate throughout the department and as a result, kill the buy-in necessary before most new concepts have a chance to succeed. Discontent breeds more discontent, the cycle never ends. The traditional chain of command sequence of communication is outdated and detrimental to improvement in the fire service.
What steps can a department take to overcome this common problem? All things, good and bad, start at the top. It is ultimately the chief's responsibility to open the lines of communication and establish criteria that all shifts must submit to. An inner department email system is an excellent place to begin the quest for better communication. Well conceived suggestions and concerns can freely flow upward, bearing the name of the sender, which can extend into an invitation to discuss the issue further. The chief must open and maintain a direct line of communication to those that are expected to get the job done when called upon. Only then, will widespread ignorance and apathy be overcome allowing the entire department to move forward.
Dave Murphy retired as Assistant Chief of the Richmond, KY fire department and currently serves as an Assistant Professor in the Fire and Safety Engineering Technology Program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.