Study Finds Fire Company One Of Best Work Environments

In recent weeks, the Fire Department has felt the heat after a heightened awareness about the use of alcohol. NY1 reported on a Cornell University study that found firefighters aren't drinking more than any other work force, but there's more to be learned from the two-year study. NY1's Amanda Farinacci takes a look at the preliminary report.

Whether a fire company is manned by five firefighters or four, Cornell University labor-management professor Sam Bacharach says a firehouse is the ideal work environment.

“If I was a CEO and I had these work teams – meaning the companies on the level of the companies in the fire stations – working for me, that style of teamwork, I could do anything,” said Bacharach.

That finding is one of many unexpected and little-known facts about the culture of a firehouse.

A two-year study commissioned by the Firefighters Union and paid for by a private grant surveyed over 2000 firefighters and fire officers in 144 firehouses. The survey covered everything from supervision and decision-making to communication and job hazards. Some of the findings were surprising.

“I didn't know that so many firefighters complained about hearing losses,” said Bacharach. “An amazing amount of firefighters complain about hearing losses.”

Of the sample, only 28 percent reported no injuries during the past year. Fifty-four percent reported being exposed to dangerous chemicals several times in the past year, while 65 percent complained of extreme physical exhaustion and an additional 58 percent complained of extreme mental exhaustion.

"This is a work-home; this is where they live,” said Bacharach. “Sometimes you see conditions – I don’t know what you see in other places – but that make you really wonder. There is this whole sense that everything is wonderful but everything is not really.”

But when asked whether or not they feel support from their commanding officers, and if their safety concerns are heard, 80 percent said they feel their bosses try to reduce risk as much as possible, with 79 percent of firefighters responding that their commanding officers value their suggestions.

When asked the same question about higher-ups, and whether they feel their concerns are validated by the Department, the numbers are much lower.

Only 16 percent of firefighters feel that the Department tries to reduce risk as much as possible. And only 12 percent felt that the Department values workers suggestions for correcting safety hazards.

“There's a disconnect between the firefighters attitude between the officers in their company and do they feel they're getting the same sort of support from the FDNY,” said Bacharach.

Many other findings center on the impact of the September 11 attacks. Depression and anxiety levels are up and forty percent of those surveyed have sought counseling. Given the uncertainty of the work firefighters are constantly doing, these findings are not surprising.

“This continues to be a part of a firefighter’s life all the time because it's reinforced by traumas they keep on going through everyday,” said Bacharach. “We may have our trauma, but we're not called to a fire all the time, or we're not called to an accident all the time.”

Bacharach says the tremendous good that already exists in the FDNY means making changes won't be hard and his study is meant to merely inform the dialogue between the Department and its members.

The Department says it looks forward to working with the Unions on the issues the study has raised.