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How to really address problem emergency responders

Without knowing the root cause of the behavior problem, fixing it is sheer luck


Every agency needs a process to differentiate human error, at-risk behavior and reckless behavior.

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In a field where members rely on each other to work on critical cases in tandem, to survey the scene to keep each other safe, and to lend a listening ear after a traumatic call, maintaining the integrity of the department and trust between members is essential. This EMS1 special coverage series identifies the top disciplinary issues facing EMS leaders and what they can do to prevent and mitigate bad behavior while preserving trust among the community and members.

I one attended a conference workshop on how to manage difficult employees. The workshop was aimed at fire service first-line supervisors and above, and was taught by a high-ranking officer of a large fire department.

The instructing officer began by describing various types of difficult employees. These were people we all knew – the person who came to work late, the one who had repeated accidents with apparatus, the firefighter-paramedic who just did not get along with others.

The workshop instructor spent a lot of time talking about progressive discipline, documentation and communication in the disciplinary process.

One example used was a driver who repeatedly backed into things. Initial coaching and counseling did not solve the problem, so the driver’s immediate supervisor moved into the realm of progressive discipline. When the problem persisted, more severe discipline would then be called for.

As I sat in this workshop, I became increasingly uncomfortable. My thought was, if you’re disciplining people more severely and the problem continues and worsens, then you’re not addressing the real problem. I mean, isn’t that the definition of insanity – continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results?

Finding the root cause

As the instructor talked in more detail about managing discipline, I never heard any discussion of searching for root cause. Why did this driver keep backing into things? There are a number of possibilities. Perhaps the member:

  • Lacks driving skills and experience
  • Is distracted
  • Doesn’t care about potential damage and may even be acting intentionally
  • Is in a hurry or feels other outside pressure to perform that undermines focus
  • Is afraid or intimidated in the job

Each of these underlying causes could result in someone having repeated accidents with apparatus. But the appropriate remedy for someone who lacks technical skills is very different from what needs to happen if someone is deliberately damaging equipment.

If you don’t know what is causing a problem, then finding an appropriate remedy for that problem relies on luck. Progressive discipline is an appropriate remedy for some problems. But if it is not working, the officer in charge must look elsewhere for a solution.

It has been my experience that some officers and chiefs assume the worst when firefighters or paramedics mess up on the job. They assume that the behavior is intentional, the result of a conscious bad decision. The workshop instructor even said it that day; “Some people just want to create problems.”

That may be true for a few people. But it is certainly not true for the majority.

Born or made troublemaker?

True accidents sometimes happen. And everyone makes mistakes. However, if someone feels that any mistake made will result in shame and discipline, rather than an opportunity to learn, that paramedic is likely to feel fear, intimidation or anger – all of which are likely to contribute to the bad outcome recurring.

And even if there are some people who “just want to create problems,” one has to ask: Why? Were they hired with this obvious attitude? If so, department leaders cannot blame anyone but themselves for what comes later.

More than likely, these so-called troublemakers came on the job like anyone else – with strengths and weaknesses and optimism about their future. It was what happened after they were on the job that determined what kind of members they would be for the duration of their careers.

And this is where company officers and field supervisors in particular have enormous influence. Here are six key questions to evaluate the field supervisor’s or officer’s role.

  • Do they treat everyone with respect and provide equal opportunities for professional development?
  • Do they use honest mistakes as opportunities for group learning?
  • Are they sensitive to personal issues that may be affecting a paramedic’s performance, and are they aware of resources available to address those issues?
  • Do they communicate well?
  • Are they fair and equitable when using the disciplinary system?
  • Are they always conscious of their role of leadership and the importance of leading by example?

If the answer to even one of the questions above is no, then officers must look to themselves first when they are dealing with problems with members of their crews.


Read more

Achieving positive discipline without destroying trust

A 3-step guide to disciplinary action that demonstrates good faith, while putting the responsibility for their actions on employees

This article was originally posted June 7, 2016. It has been updated.

Linda Willing is a retired career fire officer and currently works with emergency services agencies and other organizations on issues of leadership development, decision making, and diversity management through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. She is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor with the National Fire Academy. Linda is the author of On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories. She has a bachelor’s degree in American studies, a master’s degree in organization development and is a certified mediator. Linda is a member of the FireRescue1/Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board. To contact Linda, e-mail