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Leading When Morale is Low

The April/May/June 2012 print issue of PA TIMES published a series of articles on the topic of Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery. The piece below is part  of a Student Symposia from that issue.

Chris Sievert

The Deltona Fire Department serves Volusia County’s largest city with five fire stations and approximately 69 operations personnel. Just over three years ago, the Deltona Fire Department employed nearly 100 personnel and provided its own fire inspection services as well as dispatch services. Since 2009, the agency has systematically been whittled down into a mere shadow of itself and the morale of operational personnel has been affected significantly.

The department has operational personnel organized on three shifts; each shift has one division chief who oversees five engine companies and one rescue. The operations division handles incident mitigation and generally represents the entire fire department to the community. Higher functions and executive decisions are handled by the administrative division.

Deltona Fire Department suffered a staggering blow when it lost both its Fire Loss Division and Communications Division in the same fiscal year due to budget cuts.

The relationship between operational personnel and administrative personnel has suffered significantly since Deltona’s economic situation has handicapped the fire department. Failed contract negotiations fueled a firestorm of distrust on both sides of the firehouse. As further budget cuts and restrictions have been imposed, the gap between administration and operations has grown into a gaping chasm.

Deltona Fire Department suffered a staggering blow when it lost both its Fire Loss Division and Communications Division in the same fiscal year due to budget cuts. The department’s Fire Loss Division had three sworn positions and two civilian inspector positions; Fire Loss dealt with business inspections, building plans review, fire investigations and public education, etc.

The department’s fire marshal operated a state-renowned and hugely-successful juvenile fire starter program that educated an untold number of youths and stopped several troubled children from becoming chronic fire starters. A victim of the budgetary axe, the Fire Loss Division basically faded away. Operational personnel were affected deeply; a tremendous professional resource was gone and the semi-security of a fire service career was threatened. While the Fire Loss positions were not bargaining unit positions, the entire division had been a steady rock within the department. A second blow was dealt when the department’s Communications Division was abruptly disbanded and responsibility for communications was handed over to Volusia County Sheriff’s Office communications center.

While these cuts did not directly affect the Operations Division, they did deeply affect personnel. Within a few months, the department had lost two divisions and a large number of personnel. Operations personnel were noticeably on edge and extremely distrustful of the department’s administration and the city leadership. Maintaining high operational standards in the current environment is extremely difficult and more important than ever as morale plummets. The challenge presented to each division chief is keeping order and motivating shift personnel to perform, no matter what the climate. Giving the community the highest level of service is the only way the department will hope to survive the current bleak economy and providing that service can only be accomplished when personnel are motivated to do their best.

A significant challenge is to maintain discipline without being overbearing. Discipline is everything in the fire service; personnel simply must carry out orders without question during emergent situations. However, an overabundance of discipline, especially during dismal times, can have a catastrophic effect on shift morale. It is important that the shift leadership encourages shift personnel to police themselves. Of course, severe infractions must be dealt with appropriately and immediately. Minor rule infractions can be handled with a coaching session aimed at education and correction of the inappropriate behavior. The involved party will not only learn to avoid the error in the future, they will feel a sense of value.

Consolidation of fire services with Volusia County is a huge concern with all department personnel. Operational firefighters feel a diminished sense of self and professional value when they are constantly bombarded with the negative smear campaigns of political adversaries and under-informed citizens. In past years, firefighters were recognized with an annual award dinner and the presentation of awards and unit citations. The award program was dissolved, leaving leadership with no simple way to recognize service above the call. Deltona’s chief officers have an ever-shrinking toolbox to use for personnel management. Ensuring that personnel know they are valued can be accomplished by something as simple as a compliment delivered during the morning shift meeting. Recognizing the work that people do instills personal pride no matter what the exterior climate.

Keeping a shift together can be difficult; more than 20 strong personalities come together for a 24-hour period. It can lead to some frustrations, especially when some of those strong personalities create friction. Yet, that friction can be mitigated and a strong family bond can be accomplished. The division chief is basically the patriarch of the shift and sets the tone for all their subordinates. Something as simple as sharing a meal with a crew can encourage a strong bond without undermining the chief’s authority.

Deltona Fire Department has always been a leader in the Volusia County fire arena. The department has some of the highest standards for promotion in the state of Florida and as a result, has some highly educated and motivated personnel. In recent years, the department has come under a barrage of attacks and has been rocked to its very foundation. But, left behind in the rubble, the department’s personnel are still ready and willing to serve the community. It would be extremely easy for operations personnel to throw in the towel and simply show up to work every third day. It is up to the shift leadership to keep their people motivated. That is no easy task, especially considering that the division chiefs are being battered with the turmoil as their subordinates. Leadership always has a higher responsibility and virtually always gets caught in the middle of less than desirable situations.

Keeping demoralized firefighters moving in the right direction is not easy in any way, shape, or form. It can be accomplished without shiny new tools, more money, or better incentives. Boosting morale can be readily accomplished by focusing on basic values that one would teach their children. Honesty, respect and discipline are the foundation for successfully steering personnel through choppy times.

Chris Sievert is a graduate student in the department of emergency management at Jacksonville State University. Email: [email protected]

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address listed below each article, or by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.

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