Under the guise of initiation or acceptance, certain firehouse practices can be demeaning and even dangerous. Hazing often involves unnecessary, unpleasant or extremely difficult work, which supposedly tests a person’s character or endurance. This “testing” may range from joking to taunting and nit-picking, or from work obstructions to demeaning tasks.
Although hazing is purportedly meant to test a new member’s commitment, it may really serve to provide the perpetrators with a bit of demented amusement. The new member must decide whether acceptance by this group is sufficiently worthwhile to endure the discomfort and humiliation.
Creating a gauntlet of fear and humiliation should legitimately be termed harassment, which is illegal in the workplace. But when does hazing become harassment? There is no clear line.
To make matters worse, an insular culture exists that people outside of a firehouse rarely, if ever, witness. You’ve probably seen the Las Vegas promotions that tout, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” In this case, “What happens in the firehouse stays in the firehouse.”
The “final exam” in an initiation is complicity-by-silence. The rookie cannot disclose to anyone outside of the firehouse what happened, on penalty of rejection; a squealer will be ostracized immediately. This is the most insidious aspect of hazing; some perpetrators are exploring whether the rookie can be trusted to keep quiet about questionable and inappropriate activity. “Do you have my back?” goes beyond job commitment and, in the realm of firefighting, includes a vow of silence should a group member face accountability for bad behavior…..
….Testing the commitment and courage of new team members is certainly reasonable. Respect for each other and for all humanity is the foundation upon which fire service skills are built. Our leaders must understand this.
Further, fire service leaders are learning to appreciate and seek diversity in our teams and organizations. But when we perpetuate the inappropriate traditions of hazing and harassment, we encourage talented and capable people to avoid or prematurely leave the fire service. We must stop behaviors that promote inappropriate behavior in the workplace so we can all learn and work together in a respectful environment.