Dysfunction Affects Us All

We left off discussing the reality of dysfunction and some news over the weekend prompts me to give you an idea of what I am speaking of.  We may have a problem and not even know it.

Symptoms of organizational dysfunction may seem obvious to you, but when you are in the middle of the problem, it may be that we are way too close to be objective. Do you notice some of the classic signs like poor performance, groupthink, or hostility?  Personal attacks and sabotage are loud, obnoxious warnings that we have a problem. But while those can be pretty obvious, but how about an avoidance of the issues, reluctance to speak up or engage others, increases in absenteeism and turnover?

These issues signal to us that the synergy we get from being part of a team is jeopardized.  You have, I am sure, heard that as a team, we are more than the sum of our parts.  While we all have our individual viewpoints, by sharing our strength and bouncing ideas off of one another, we develop together and create a synergistic whole.

In Mahanoy City, PA this weekend, there was a fire in a fire station.  The situation is extraordinarily tragic on any number of angles, but the reality that I want to illustrate is how we may perceive things to be okay, only to find out they aren’t.  This department could be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but there are those in the community who think otherwise.  While trolls aren’t necessarily indicative of a community’s feelings about certain subjects, it is the fact that people feel free to say these things without retribution that signal there is a perception this exists. It may or may not exist, but there is a perception and understanding a perception of how we are is one step on the road to realizing what is going on.

As reported by my buddy Dave Statter at STAT911.com, this fire occurred on a weekend where this city was to host a convention of other fire departments.  The thing that caught my eye, however, were comments on the local newspaper related to the incident:


“Only in Mahanoy City what a bunch of skooks.”

“Apparent bruising??? Were the 2 fighting or clowning around,… hmmmm… More @ 11.”

“Hmm a little uncanny that this happened on the day of a Fire Convention. Won’t be surprised to hear of findings of arson. Especially in light of the high incidence of arson in this community within the past few years.”

“Wonder who got drunk and left a cigarette in the truck. Whoever it was, unless they get caught somehow, you know they’ll take it to their grave and NEVER own up to it. And the sad part is: it’ll wind up being pretty much every single day for the next year or so that there will be a tag day or boot drive day or something like that where they’re begging everybody for money to buy another truck. You won’t be able to get into, out of, or through Mahanoy City without being hassled and guilt-tripped for money. Watch and see.  And the saddest part of all: among those people begging will more than likely be the person who caused all this, all the while keeping their mouth shut about it and playing dumb. I just love Schuylkill County!!!!”

That all is pretty painful to see when we realize that these brothers and sisters have just sustained an enormous loss on what should have been a proud weekend. I am sorry they are going through this and I hope we can band together to help them get through these tough times.

The issue I want you to comprehend is this: demographically speaking, Schuylkill County (2000 census) is made up of 150,336 people, with 193 people per square mile. The racial makeup by percentage is roughly 96% Caucasian, 2% African-American, and the “Other” was negligible (below .5% of Native American, Asian, Pacific Islander, Hispanic or Latino).  Schuylkill County’s median age was 41 years; for every 100 females there were 99.10 males and for every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 97.20 males.

This isn’t some diverse community with deep seated racial or ethnic divides.  The people in this community are likely related either by blood or through longtime local relationships.  If people call each other names and make these kinds of accusations in this kind of a setting, it isn’t based on a perception of cultural difference; it is based on a perception of conflicting values.

The fire department in this town is made up of people from this town and they may never have seen these kinds of comments coming.  We all like to believe we are immune to what other people and organizations have done that affect perception, but it isn’t that easy.  We are connected, like it or not, to one another through our shared profession, and when individuals do things that change public opinion toward us, they do this to all of us.  We can shout from the rooftops that one person doesn’t represent all of us, but time after time this is proven to be not the case.

If we didn’t have to change, we wouldn’t.  But reading these comments, doesn’t it seem like there might be a need for change, if not among the fire service as a whole, but in this tiny community?  What is the change that is needed?  What do we as the nation’s emergency services perceive our values to be?  We like to think people look at us as pillars of the community and doing good things, but there is a widely-held misconception that we are a “bunch of clowns”, we are “wasting money”, we run a “boys club”, we are “goofing off”, and we are “arsonists”.  What are our values – really – and what are the values of the community?  These are all quotes from other situations around the country.  You can say it until you are blue in the face, but the dysfunction of other departments impacts you, like it or not.

Why do we need to be worried about dysfunction?  Because even if your own department isn’t blatantly dysfunctional, it is our service, the heritage we take so seriously and want to defend to the hilt, that takes the hit when it takes an ambulance a half-hour to get to a victim, or a radio system goes down, or a prostitution ring is being run out of a station.  Mahanoy City may be the most professional department in the nation, I have no idea, but the perception of the public, as evidenced by what one or two trolls have to say, is different than our own perception.  The only way to combat that kind of thinking is to consistently live up to the standards and morals you value.  And looking around at every emergency service organization in existence, even my own, there are still those who fail to uphold those values and put us at odds with what we really stand for.  We must understand what is wrong before we figure out how to fix it, and if we can’t even agree on what is wrong, it will not fare well toward resolution any time soon.

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