Guest Commentary: Unintended Consequences Of Transfers in the Fire Service

No matter how big or how small a department, the fire service is made up of small groups that work together very closely. Generally, cohesiveness is created in a relatively short time. While this puts a highly efficient team on the fireground, changes...


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No matter how big or how small a department, the fire service is made up of small groups that work together very closely. Generally, cohesiveness is created in a relatively short time. While this puts a highly efficient team on the fireground, changes in a group’s composition can have significant unintended consequences that should be addressed proactively and continually to prevent more serious issues from developing.

Something is going on here:

• As a new captain you are assigned to a crew you have worked with in neighboring districts. You always thought you would love to be there because they were a solid, hardworking and fun crew. Taking the place of their retiring captain is a plum assignment and you can’t wait to get there. However, before the transfer takes place, you notice a few cold shoulders. After your arrival, the members seem listless and unmotivated to work, train or even talk.

• You are sent over to a truck company across town to replace the senior firefighter, who was just promoted. This gives you a great chance to be the senior firefighter and a mentor to young firefighters. You have worked shifts there, so you know most of them well, but you have never been regularly assigned with them. The captain requested you personally and that is a huge compliment. But the first month at your new assignment is a puzzling mixture of behaviors you don’t recognize out of this crew. No long talk sessions about fire tactics, no basketball games and none of the enthusiasm you remember. Everyone is dull and you begin to wonder about this move.

• The five stations in your battalion generally run smoothly. You have good captains and apparatus operators. As their battalion chief it has never been hard to motivate the crews to get work done. A transfer list is coming out next month with a few unpopular moves due to disciplinary actions on another shift. Unfortunately, it will affect your battalion. When the transfers are announced, you notice that a few stations didn’t meet training and public education numbers. After the transfers take effect, the low output continues and for the first time you notice grumbling and loafing at training.

What is going on here?

Transfers are a fact of life in the career fire service. Whether through promotion, by attrition, by request or because of discipline, it is highly unlikely that anyone will go through an entire career with the same crew. Some changes are sudden and unavoidable; others can be seen coming.

A transfer always affects more than just the person being promoted, disciplined or moved to another station. No matter the cause of the transfer, positive or negative, wanted or unwanted, entire crews are changed. People must get to know one another and learn others’ habits and quirks. Existing teammates must learn to keep working with one another while absorbing a new teammate. Work habits and preferences are studied. Trust must be earned. All the while, the company must process the loss of a former crew member.

Who is in the best position to manage the situation? Managers, leaders, company officers, administrators, motivators, stewards (or whatever the department calls the people who keep it moving in a forward, positive direction) must recognize what is happening and deal with it. Of course, telling someone “Change happens, deal with it” is not going to help in any realistic, lasting way.

Rarely, do we in the fire service make any effort to equip our people to handle emotional stress other than that resulting from a particularly bad emergency. However, if your department and people place a value on positive, productive, engaged members who want to come to work and be part of something good, then you cannot afford to sweep this situation under the rug and wait for it to run its course. If your department and people value steady productivity with a high standard of competency, you cannot afford to ignore this issue.

What’s at stake?

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