Morale Is Not a Problem

Many of our personnel, indeed our communities, are experiencing stressors unlike anything we've seen for some time.

By Salvatore J. Scarpa

All of us in the fire service are in uncharted territory as we navigate the pandemic that continues to challenge our communities. I don’t know that many of us expected that the kinds of challenges that seemingly continue to ebb and flow in our agencies would last this long. Some of the difficulties we are contending with are new (i.e., managing vaccination protocols and isolation for members of our department). Some have been with us for a while but may have been exacerbated by the pandemic (i.e., staffing challenges). One thing is for sure: Many of our personnel, indeed our communities, are experiencing stressors unlike anything we’ve seen for some time.

In firehouses across the country, the men and women who serve our citizens have had a lot to endure over the past 18 months. The institutionalization of masks on calls and in our stations has changed how we interact. Rapidly changing protocols have forced personnel and agencies to pivot rapidly in a dynamic environment. Impacts from the pandemic have affected everything from training and protective equipment to staffing and budgets. These are indeed interesting times.

Fire service leaders across the country are forced to address new challenges on two fronts in addition to the routine stresses of managing a fire department. There are the external challenges that are impacting our communities and departments. These include everything from economic impacts to the community and tax base to recruiting and retention difficulties. While the external challenges have been relentless over the past 18 months, the fire service has risen to the occasion and continues to adapt and evolve with the world around us.

Perhaps the more difficult, and certainly more emotional, challenge comes from within: the internal challenges associated with our personnel. Only time will truly tell the long-term impacts the pandemic has wrought on our members. The psychological and emotional toll associated with “COVID-fatigue” is very real for many in our profession and others. If we couple this with the challenges our members face dealing with childcare difficulties; healthcare issues related to COVID in their traditional and fire service families; and compounding effects of increased call volume (perhaps with decreased staffing), it’s easy to see how some of our personnel may be struggling.

Hopefully, when this storm passes (and it will pass), every agency will take the opportunity to do an after-action review of their response to the pandemic to glean lessons learned and better prepare us for the next event. It will be interesting to evaluate the impact on our personnel. While some agencies have found that their members have pulled together well and managed the storm, others may have recognized an increase in disciplinary issues in their agency. Why have some agencies fared better in this area over others, and what can we do to prepare for the next crisis?

Whether pandemic-related or otherwise, I have heard many agencies attribute some of their organizational challenges to problems with morale. “We have a morale problem in our department” is the phrase I hear chiefs relate with dismay. These five words are often spoken as if a curse has been placed on the agency. Morale challenges seemingly creep into every area of the organization, permeating organizational divisions and fire stations, poisoning our culture, and creating a work environment that makes it difficult to get anything done.

Morale is often perceived as the root problem for many failed initiatives or difficulties in engaging personnel. Poor morale is regularly blamed for inefficiencies in organizational operations, lack of professionalism among staff, and even poor turnout times. As leaders, we’re often conditioned to think if we can “fix morale” then everything will be fine.

While challenges with organizational morale (whether localized to a certain group or pervasive throughout the organization) can certainly create difficulties, I believe morale is not the problem. It’s a symptom. In much the same way as a combative diabetic patient is acting out because of a blood sugar emergency, organizational morale deficiency is symptomatic of a deeper issue. The challenge is identifying that issue or issues.

Challenges of Morale

1: Communication

In my experience, challenges with morale are almost always associated with one of three issues: communication, engagement, or value. Perhaps most common are morale problems associated with communications issues. If you have a morale problem in your agency, there is a high likelihood that you have a communication problem.

Communication challenges come in different forms. Lack of communication is the most common problem. Members of the organization claim they don’t know what’s going on. While this can be pronounced in larger departments, smaller agencies are not immune to these difficulties.

Communication challenges can also be associated with misinformation. This often occurs when the message (from whomever the messenger is) is misinterpreted or changed after having gone through multiple channels or layers to the receiver. (Remember the game “Telephone”?)

Finally, failure to receive the message can be a technological problem, disengagement by the receiver, or a combination of both.

Addressing issues associated with communications will go a long way toward improving organizational morale deficiencies. It is inherently difficult to facilitate effective communication in the fire service. The majority of members in any fire service organization operate on different shifts in different stations that are spread out across a potentially large geographic area. Leaders will have to be intentional about their efforts to facilitate effective communication. Consider leveraging technology with video messaging, digital signage in stations, battalion meetings, or distribution of meeting minutes to members to enhance communications across the agency. Communications is the Achilles heel of any organization. Failure to manage communications will invariably cause morale problems.

2: Engagement

The second most common challenge associated with morale is one of engagement. A lack of morale often exists when employees feel disengaged or excluded. This challenge often manifests itself when members are not included in the decision-making process. Members want to be heard and considered part of the solution to department challenges.

Engaging membership can take many forms. It can be as simple as visiting fine stations or being visible at organizational events. Leaders can solicit input from department members on key issues or decisions or develop committees or task forces to determine equipment needs or design apparatus. This will require a bit of faith on the part of chief officers and perhaps giving up some control. However, the impact and dividends are well worth the effort.

3: Employee Value

A final area of concern often associated with morale challenges has to do with employee value. If your organization has a “morale problem,” perhaps your employees don’t feel valued. They may feel like they’re taken for granted or appreciated less than in some other department. The unappreciative mindset could be directed at department chief officers or potentially at city government or agency administrators (i.e., boards, councils, or commissioners). When employees don’t feel valued, they care less about their work. The employee’s perception may stem from a perceived lack of resources (absence of or poor equipment), an unfair pay structure (whether real or perceived), poor living conditions (stations in disrepair), or any combination of reasons. Regardless of the reason, the perception is real and must be managed.

Overcoming this challenge will require effort on your part as a leader to demonstrate that you genuinely care about your members. Sitting down with your personnel and listening to them and learning about their concerns must come from a position of empathy and servant leadership. As leaders, we must seek to truly understand the nature of the problem, dispel any myths or half-truths, and seek to gain their trust that you will seek to remedy any actual challenges. It is important to note that any half-hearted or disingenuous attempts to alleviate these concerns will be easily discovered and will sabotage any progress you think you may have gained.

Overcoming the Challenges

If any of these areas are directed beyond the chief staff of your department to the leaders of your organization or community (i.e., governing body, commissioners, etc.), these difficulties will be much more challenging to navigate and overcome. Occasionally, chief officers have little influence on governmental leaders. Nevertheless, as organizational leaders, it is our responsibility to advocate for our personnel. We must endeavor to make data-driven recommendations on how to address any actual or perceived deficiencies. Moreover, we must be responsible in informing our leaders of the consequences if we are unable to address a specific challenge. They have the right to make informed decisions based on facts and the overall needs of the organization. It’s a delicate role to play but critical for your members and your organization if you are to change the morale in your department.

You’ll need to make visible efforts on behalf of people when advocating for them. They need to see that you are committed to overcoming the morale problem that may be plaguing your department. When the leadership is committed to a change, it is easier to garner support across the organization. Sending an e-mail or posting a message about your desire to effect change in organizational morale will not be sufficient. Your efforts must be intentional, visible, and tangible. Look for opportunities to effect quick change with some “low-hanging fruit.” Put efforts in place to begin to make impacts on the larger challenges. Seek to identify all relevant stakeholders who can engage your efforts as partners. Celebrate successes when they are achieved and don’t be afraid to brag about it (i.e., social media).

The importance of leaders being able to gauge organizational morale is critical. The higher the rank you achieve in your organization, the more difficult it can be to sense the pulse of your agency. If you feel your department has a morale problem, understand that whatever that manifestation is, it’s likely a symptom of something else. Whether a communication challenge, a lack of engagement, or a value deficiency, department leaders must recognize the symptoms and take decisive action to correct them.

Our fire service is facing challenging times. As leaders, we must be cognizant of the external and internal variables that could negatively impact our members and work tirelessly to protect them.

Salvatore J. Scarpa is a 30-year fire service veteran and fire-EMS chief for Columbus, Georgia. He has written numerous articles for the fire service and presented at many regional and national conferences on leadership and professional development. He has an associate degree in fire science, a bachelor’s degree in public administration, and a master’s degree in leadership studies. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer program, a credentialed Chief Fire Officer with the Center for Public Safety Excellence, and a current cohort member of the Fire Service Executive Development Institute.

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