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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Can you afford to lose three months of positive attitude and productivity from every crew affected by every transfer? Consider this typical scenario: a crew starts a downward spiral a month before an unwanted transfer, stays in it for a month after it happens and then slowly starts to ramp back up over the next month. In essence, your department has lost about three good months from otherwise productive employees. Then consider that at least one other crew is affected by the transfer. Even if only two stations are affected, that is still about six months of lowered productivity and affected attitudes. Look at your last transfer list. How many crews were impacted?

Unfortunately, a transfer may foster an attitude of “Why bother with that inspection, that smoke detector or that training? I’m leaving anyway.” The crew attitude may become: “She’s leaving, so why pay attention to her?” Unchecked, this negativity and lost production becomes measurably larger. Because this is in essence the grieving process at work, as laid out in Elisabeth Kbler-Ross’ model of the five stages of grief, we can identify these stages and minimize their damage. Here is how the five stages of grief may manifest themselves:

• Denial – “They would never move Tommy. He’s the only one who knows this district.” This can be the beginning of the rumor mill. Fear and dread take hold.

• Anger – “They never pay attention to crew cohesiveness and integrity. They have forgotten what it’s like out here in the station.” Members act out against the administration, arguing and spiraling into negativity.

• Bargaining – Trying to talk the administration out of making the transfer. Other crew members may offer to go instead of a buddy. “I’ll go. I’m on the promotion list anyway.”

• Depression – “Whatever.” Long-term problems begin to settle in. Work is postponed or not done at all. Members do not cooperate with policies and timelines.

• Acceptance – “What’s done is done. I can’t fight the chiefs. They’re going to do whatever they want to do anyway.” Do not mistake acceptance of unhappiness for buy-in. Bare-minimum work and negative influence start to dig in and become habits.

These all will manifest themselves at some point, so mentors and leaders must help everyone move beyond these issues and toward a positive and productive department.

How to mitigate the problem

Stopping all transfers obviously is not an option, so what do we do? First, recognize that this could be a problem. Second, educate company officers and administration on how to recognize and deal with the problem. Communicating the needs of the organization and the reasons for the transfers in an honest, forthright way goes a long way toward helping people process and understand why transfers have to happen. This will also help them understand why they must accept the change and/or loss, as well as how to process it. They may never agree with the decisions made, but taking the proper steps can help prevent the crew from holding a grudge and fostering a bad attitude. Giving people an avenue to vent frustrations without fear of reprisal is an important part of building and retaining trust.

People process stress and change differently. Leadership requires taking the time to get to know our people well enough to communicate effectively with each individual. Understanding what is going on can build stronger team foundations in the long run. This can bolster team confidence in their leaders and reinforce an individual’s sense of belonging, as opposed to being made to feel insignificant.

Here are concrete steps to help crewmembers process a change:

• Denial – Be honest about the situation and learn all the facts. Recognize that the change will affect you and the crew.

• Anger – Each individual needs a healthy outlet for anger. Find a constructive way to communicate frustrations and possible solutions. Having an understanding of departmental needs can also mitigate anger. Leaders may need to let people vent to them.

• Bargaining – Be realistic. If you have a viable alternative that would serve the needs of the organization and help all parties involved, it may be worth submitting. Leaders must listen to people and give them an honest chance to give input. Don’t let ego get in the way of good communication and listening.

• Depression – Leaders must recognize signs of depression and be prepared to motivate people when necessary. Meaningful tasks that meet organizational needs can help people refocus on the job.

• Acceptance – Keep an eye on production and quality of work to identify whether people are still having trouble with the change. Some people bounce back quickly and some take longer.