When people ask me about my job, they always ask what the biggest problem that I see in the fire service. My answer never waivers….morale. There it is, I said it, a fire service four letter word, or is it? Why is morale such an issue, after all, we have the best job on the planet. We get to help people on a daily basis. Low morale, however, is a huge problem facing both large and small departments. It does not discriminate between career or volunteer, and if not dealt with, our profession, our passion, could just become another job.
What causes low morale? For career departments, budget and staffing cuts, labor issues, or even politics could be causes. For volunteer departments, is it poor turnout for calls, or lack of new blood to infuse the already shrinking ranks? Are poor management, lack of communication (both up and down), or general disinterest in our jobs or our brothers’ and sisters’ well being the cause? Whatever the case, departments across the country are dealing with the issue. My question is why?
As I said earlier, we have the greatest job on the planet. As companies, we pull together to get the job done and protect the public interest. Why does that end when the call ends? My grandfather was a firefighter for 33 years in the city of Pittsfield. I remember his stories about firehouse life, about families getting together on days off, of company and department wide functions being held on a weekly basis and having almost 100% attendance. This was the catalyst for my interest in the fire service; the BROTHERHOOD!
So why, in just over thirty years, has this changed so drastically? Do not get me wrong, while I believe low morale to be a system wide issue, there are places that the firehouse culture thrives, both on and off the job. What I am saying is that we should all strive to have that type of atmosphere in our stations.
It is the responsibility of the individual to get involved. Is there a department wide picnic coming up? Take your family to meet your other family. Is one of your shift members being given an award? Go to the ceremony to support that person. Show solidarity; show the public what brotherhood is really all about.
While individual effort is needed, it is also up to the company officer to foster morale in all environments. We have all had good and bad officers. What separated them, at least in my eye, was their ability to pull their crew together, be both father figure and mentor to the entire company. Lead by example and the rest will follow. These are large rolls to fill. We all come up short here at times (myself included).
But what can we do to foster morale? Take out the trash, as in trash talking. Avoid badmouthing other shifts or members. Show those other shifts, through actions, how things should be done. Do not let your frustrations with the job show to your company members. They need to know that you have things under control. Perhaps the most important piece of advice I can give is get to know your people. Learn all about them, show that you care and morale in that company will skyrocket. These things are not easy, and I struggle with some of them on a regular basis, but trust me, they will work.
Talk of morale should not be avoided. Low morale needs to be corrected as early as it is detected. There is no one right answer for how to do this, but I have given you my two cents on how to start. We are firefighters. We can solve every problem that the public throws at us in a timely and efficient manner. It is time we applied that efficiency to our own situations. But hey, that’s just my two cents.
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Matthew Lemberg was appointed to the Northampton Fire Department in 2001, and promoted to Captain in October 2006. Prior to this, he served with the Allingtown Volunteer Fire Association in West Haven, CT. He is a MA Paramedic, and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Arson Investigation, as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in Fire Administration, both from the University of New Haven. He is currently finishing his Master’s in Public Administration at Westfield State University. He is the SAFE coordinator for the Northampton Fire Department, and serves as the president of the Northampton Firefighters, IAFF, Local 108.