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 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?

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.

Having the patience to give people time to work through this process while keeping them on task is difficult. Knowing how to deal with a person who is having a tough time can have a huge impact on how that person deals with you when you are having a difficult time. If you support your team, your team will support you.

Don’t let a problem grow

Regardless of one’s leadership capacity, whether in the formal position of rank or the unofficial leader by personality, if we are concerned with our coworkers and want to see them succeed and be productive, then we must recognize a transfer as a potential problem for our organization. Once we recognize the potential problem, we have a duty to resolve it as it is happening and do our best to effectively ease people and crews back on track. This takes time and understanding. Good communication and disclosure of facts are essential to retaining and rebuilding trust. The process will not be the same for everyone. It may be frustrating and seem to take forever. The best solution to a problem is to prevent it from happening. n