An exclusive vs inclusive fire department experience

Is your fire department exclusive or inclusive?

By Rick Gurba, Director of VFIS Education, Training and Consulting on April 13, 2023

How the cumulative effects of exclusionary behavior could negatively impact your volunteer and employee retention rates—and 7 ways leaders can help promote a more inclusive culture.


Moral injuries: food for thought. 

The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance recently released Wounds of the Spirit: Moral Injury in Firefighters, which is the set to be the first in a serious of white papers on moral injuries. This was the first I'd heard of this term, so I read with interest—and it certainly provides something to chew on for those in fire and emergency services.

What is a moral injury? 

The author describes moral injury as experiences and behaviors that go against an individual’s moral compass and explains how they can affect mental and spiritual health, both within and outside the firehouse.

Here's an example of a moral injury from the paper:

"A firefighter witnesses bullying of a rookie on the job and says nothing. He is upset with himself the rest of the shift about why he didn’t step up and say something. He continues to be ashamed even after his shift is over."

According to Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance's survey results of almost 500 firefighters, 57.6% of firefighters reported having experienced a major "Morally-Injurious Event" during their career... and that didn't surprise me.

This made me reflect on my journey as an employee (both paid and volunteer) and my role as a supervisor and business owner at different points in my emergency services career. While my personal experiences may not have raised to the level of moral injury as described in the white paper, I wanted to share some thoughts and considerations for current leaders—more specifically, I wanted to discuss the possible correlation between moral injuries, exclusionary behaviors and emergency services retention rates. 

Are exclusionary acts leading to moral injuries and effecting volunteer retention?

Exclusionary behaviors separate specific members of a team, usually a marginalized group, and can include conscious or unconscious comments or actions (like slights or snubs,) or non-actions (like silence or ignoring). And these exclusionary behaviors, sometimes rooted in racism, homophobia or sexism, can be very subtle. 

For example, let's say a female firefighter joins her department's male-dominated flag football team. She overhears the majority of her team talking during half-time and someone says, "We should talk strategy at lunch after the game." However, the game ends and she's never invited. Similar situations continue to happen throughout the season and she doesn't feel like a part of the team—on the field or at the station. As a result, she begins to withdraw.

It is not uncommon to witness this type of behavior or comments in cliques at a firehouse or EMS station. These acts can and do affect a person’s spiritual and mental healthand over time, the cumulative effect could alienate members, create animosity and lead to moral injuries.

If no one is paying close attention, these acts may go unnoticed until several volunteers are lost to another department or to the emergency services industry entirely. And that's why leaders should serve as inclusive role models, know that their words matter and pay attention to what's happening in their stations. 


7 Ways leaders can help every member of their ESO feel seen, heard and included:

1. Choose words carefully.

As a leader—whether you're a chief officer, board member, president, supervisor, manager or director—the words you use are powerful. That's why communication should be a continued focus for every leader, including determining whether your messages are delivering the intended results and being received positively, with indifference or negatively. 

2. Strive for positive.

Leaders who use positive communication, like pairing inspirational and aspirational messaging with clearly-defined goals, are the ones who people tend to follow. You may even be thinking about a leader right now whose continuous encouragement gave you confidence and, ultimately, led you to where you are today. 

Conversely, leaders who use negative or berating commentary usually cause people to tune them out before they even speak, foster a team filled with resentment and lead to an exclusionary environmenteven if that's not the intent.   

3. Address your own unconscious biases. 

We all have biases. Leaders should look for for unconscious biases and stereotypes within themselves so they can work to address them and create an inclusive, positive atmosphere.

There are many free resources online to help you uncover unconscious biases, like this article from the Harvard Business Review that shares self-reflection questions, including: 

  • What core beliefs do I hold? How might these beliefs limit or enable me and my colleagues at work?
  • As a manager, do I acknowledge and leverage differences on my team?
  • Do I put myself in the shoes of the other person and empathize with their situation, even if I don’t relate to it?
4. Address exclusionary behaviors in your team. 

Look for overt or subtle exclusionary behaviors at your station—and if you witness them, address them. Leaders must recognize the role they play in stopping the exclusionary or other type of inappropriate behavior when it is observed. Simply walking away more or less condones the behavior and emboldens people to continue acting in this manner. 

5. Praise publicly and discipline privately. 

The time-honored adage of praising your team in public while disciplining or critiquing in private is a good rule of thumb. Genuine praising in public builds comradery and can improve morale in the firehouse and EMS station. (However, if a leader typically displays exclusionary and negative behaviors, their praise likely won't be taken as genuine and their team will question their creditability.)

The words used when delivering constructive criticism or discipline are just as important. It is likely the person you are speaking with will already be somewhat nervous simply because you are meeting with them one-on-one or with a second person. Be direct, factual and even-toned in your delivery. Always offer suggestions for improvement and encourage them to share their thoughtsbut understand they may not want to speak right then and there.

6. Encourage your team to speak up.

All employees and volunteers have a responsibility to speak up if something is bothering them. However, in a toxic work or volunteer environment, this likelihood is lessened due to fear. It's your job to create an atmosphere that encourages communication. 

Remember that while some conversations may be difficult, your actions after will speak louder than your words. If you become antagonistic toward your team after a tough conversation, they will quickly realize you didn’t really want them to say anything. However, if you consider your team's comments and incorporate them into your operations, you can help boost morale and your position as a leader. 

7. Dedicate time to you team. 

Today’s leader must recognize that spending time with employees and volunteers is essential to developing personnel within your organization. In fact, surveys of employees and volunteers in various emergency service organizations found that “dedicated time with leadership” was one of the most highly-valued items a leader could provide to the individual. Simple acts like switching up who you sit next to at dinner, going for a walk or just talking can yield significant results.


What if your leader is the problem?

If you recognize that a member of your organization's leadership is perpetrating exclusionary behavior, speak with their supervisor. In a well-organized business or volunteer organization, each position reports to another individual or group in the organization structure. Even the Chief Officer or Executive Director typically reports to a group of board members. The board has a responsibility to assess the leader's role from a staff perspective as well as from the board’s view.

Learn more about the role, responsibility and risks of ESO board members>>>

New to leadership? You're still a leader. 

With retirements flooding some agencies, promotions can happen before you're fully aware of all the responsibilities involved and before you thoroughly understand the gravity of being a mid-level manager. So, even if you recognize these acts, you may not want to "rock the boat". However, if you're in a leadership position; it's time to assume the role. 

You can be the change.

Whether it's your first or tenth year in a leadership role, there's always room for improvement and a chance for you to make a true difference within your organization. Remember, great leaders and communicators aren't born. In fact, science shows that leadership is 70% learned and anyone can become a great interpersonal communicator! You can be the change your organization needs—and the reason your junior firefighters turn into life-long members. 

Rick Gurba, Director of VFIS Education, Training and Consulting

40 Years in EMS, 5 years in the fire service + 5 years in 911 telecommunications


The information contained in this blog post is intended for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace expert advice in connection with the topics presented. Glatfelter specifically disclaims any liability for any act or omission by any person or entity in connection with the preparation, use or implementation of plans, principles, concepts or information contained in this publication.

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