Jeff Branscome writes about Spotsylvania County.
Battling fires and misperceptions
In researching today’s story about Spotsylvania’s fire department, I was surprised to learn that one of the most common problems in departments everywhere is simply not understanding each other. Volunteer firefighters often assume that the career side doesn’t respect them. And the career firefighters assume the volunteers are never held accountable.
And so, whenever you ask a question or talk about an incident, those perceptions show up in the replies.
In 2004, George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution looked at the Fairfax Fire Department to explore these mispercptions and how they impact rescue work. The researchers found that both volunteer and career firefighters actually share a lot of views. But, the study said, “Many interviewees suffer from misperceptions of what they believe ‘the other side’ thinks of them.”
Most often, they heard volunteers say the career firefighters don’t value volunteers. And, researchers said, they did occasionally hear someone say volunteers are unnecessary. But that was not the predominant view.
Career firefighters did overwhelmingly think that volunteers were not disciplined and that there is no accountability when a volunteer errs in at a fire scene. But, the report said, “On the other hand, volunteers feel there is a double standard and that volunteer mistakes are highlighted unfairly in comparison to career errors for similar or even greater shortcomings.”
The study also found that firefighters were often arguing over past slights or incidents that no longer have any bearing.
But perhaps the most interesting part of the study, is one that applies directly to the situation in Spotsylvania today; training. Volunteers told interviewers that they were not welcome at career training and that classes were not scheduled for times or located at places convenient to volunteers. There was also a debate between the firefighters as to whether training or experience mattered more.
The report said, “There are differences of opinion among volunteers as to the need for and value of repeated and consistent training. These differences of opinion contribute to misunderstandings among the career personnel as to the level of commitment of volunteer firefighters.”
That seemed especially pertinent, given today’s story where volunteers wonder if their experience matters and training standards are in place to assure every rescue worker has the needed education.