Author: Force Science Institute
By Linda F. Willing, P1 Contributor
It all started when the Jeffersonville (Ind.) Fire Department got a new drone. Since the drone was supposed to be able to carry things, the firefighters decided to test that function.
The fire chief joked that maybe it could carry a doughnut, a reference to the police headquarters that was right next door. Soon, they had a doughnut dangling from the drone, flying in front of police station windows and doing a fly-by of the police chief’s car as he drove into the parking lot.
Of course, the police officers had to have their revenge. They put up a temporary traffic sign by the fire station that read, “Shh – firemen sleeping” during the day, and “Honk if you love firemen!” at night.
The pranks culminated in a joint chili cookoff between the police and fire departments, which raised nearly $3,000 for a community construction project.
This exchange between the two agencies was funny and ultimately beneficial to the community. But not all pranks end as well. Many fairly innocent pranks and jokes escalate into unprofessional conduct or actions that alienate people, rather than draw them together.
There are several reasons why this particular prank between two agencies was successful and a positive experience for all involved (well, maybe not so positive for anyone living in close proximity to the fire station when the police sign was encouraging drivers to honk their car horns at night).
1. A positive, well-defined relationship
First, there was clearly a positive and well-defined relationship in place between the police and fire departments before the joking began. As Bill Burns, the Jeffersonville Parks Board president said, “I guess they kind of went back and forth, but at the end of the day, you could really tell they have great love with each other.”
2. Inclusive, team-oriented jesting
Second, the joking was inclusive. It was not designed or intended to single out an individual or small group of individuals. Instead, it allowed all firefighters and all police officers to be on the same team together and to feel part of something as members of their organizations.
3. Fire service and police leadership
Third, there were clearly grown-ups in the room during the entire process. The fire chief and police chief were both aware of and even directly involved in what was happening from the beginning. Almost certainly they were paying attention and weighing each new idea for a prank (and possibly also vetoing some ideas.) There was leadership direction of the operation from the start, and it also appears that there was little, if any, freelancing.
Finally, the whole thing was time limited. It started, it was funny and gained attention, and that attention was used toward a positive goal. And then it ended. People moved on. Everyone could feel good about what happened. A win for everyone involved.
Unfortunately, not all pranks and jokes end as well. Cops and firefighters tend to be competitive – if this is funny, you know what would be really funny? They may push the boundaries, get caught up in the moment and overlook the bigger picture of professionalism. Crazy things can result. When this happens, real damage can be done to relationships within the organization and trust within the community.
That did not happen in Jeffersonville. Instead, everyone had a good laugh, and the community raised substantial money for a project that will benefit everyone.
But this outcome did not occur by accident. Instead, real leadership was being exercised, even if those leaders were laughing along the way.
About the author 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 Linda.Willing@FireRescue1.com.