Leo Geary as a teen-ager in 19801982 Speech 5 Class Paper by Leo Geary

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© Carol Geary 2016 All Rights Reserved

Note from Carol Geary

((This is paper that I found after Leo, my son, died in 1992. He was a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Previous to that after graduating from high school, he took a summer job as a fire fighter in northern California. This paper apparently was based on his personal experience. It is for a speech class, but remains as writing. A hand-written note at the end of the paper says, "A. Well Done. A FINE EFFORT. Thanks for being with us for SP 5. - unreadable signature. To me it seems more like Sociology than Speech. I enjoyed it, which is why I'm sharing it. One puzzling aspect is the tense. It seems to be a past experience but often is in the present tense. Whether he was still a fire-fighter or not doesn't matter to the analysis.))

((--Carol Geary))


Group Dynamics of

Healdsburg Forestry Station : A Case Study

Leo Geary

Speech 5 2:00-3:30 T-TH

January 7, 1982


Personnel of the California Department of Forestry (C.D.F.) Healdsburg Station:

Gil (ranger), Ed (captain), Chuck (captain), Richard (engineer), Gary (engineer), Ray (dozer), Warren (dozer).

Firemen: Fran, Debbie, Patricia, John, Jim, Stan, Marty, Penn, and myself.

Our fire station is a task group. The primary responsibilities are initial emergency medical aid and fire fighting. Secondary but important functions are the regulation and supervision of controlled burning. Also, the distribution of fire permits. In addition, C.D.F. serves as a public information center for fire prevention, conducting demonstrations for the general public as well as private business, etc. in need of information. Because Forestry personnel take 5-day work shifts and are on call 24 hours a day, this situation offers a wealth of opportunity for observing many aspects of group dynamics.

The group environment is diverse and may change rapidly. Routine life at the station consists of household duties, repair of trucks and equipment and training exercises. The firemen will either work alone or in small groups. this routine is subject to alert calls, in which case the work is dropped and we take off. The alerts are for different reasons, and depending on whether it be a medical, fire, smoke check, or long distance mobilization call, the groups dynamic response will vary.


While C.D.F. is organized somewhat like the military and fire-fighting strategy is similar to military attacks, the atmosphere is much more informal, and communication between ranks is less stilted. After a fire, we would be able to freely evaluate task performance at meal time. Constant training got us to the point where the group could react to an emergency situation in a calm and efficient way; to work smoothly as one force. Also, our highly organized hierarchy established a basis for quick undisputed decisions which could be implemented without question in a hurry when necessary . Because the group lived together we were soon able to communicate almost non-verbally, a useful ability our line of work, where time counts. On the other hand, this close proximity for many days also intensified personal conflicts that might be insignificant in less familiar situations. Safety of the fire-fighters was valued above any degree of task maintenance. In the eyes of the public, our group mentality was one of an efficient, dependable unit which functioned smoothly, offered help freely, and acted selflessly. All this represents positive feedback which is an invaluable source of recognition and affection, this fulfilling personal and psychological needs, boosting the group's drive, self-esteem, and initiative.


The working atmosphere of the group wasn't conductive to free expression of emotions or personal problems, even if the problems were urgent and needed correction or attention. Instead, a state of tense silence would prevail, in which a hidden agenda was apparent, but never acknowledged. In addition, there was no established procedure for reconciling these conflicts, nor were steps taken to do so.

Ascribed status of a captain or engineer (overhead) sometimes generated problems when a higher ranking person questioned the actions of a lower ranked person with more ability and acquired status. Often we fire-fighters took the brunt of the consequences, our resentment of which served to escalate the problem.

Contrary to the positive aspect of efficient communication already mentioned, after long periods of hard work (sometimes we would fight fire for 36 hours with no sleep), the ensuing stress would manifest itself in quick tempers and a breakdown of compatibility. For example, after working all night on a fire, while changing equipment on a truck, Richard snapped at me for making a poorly worded question. This type of behavior is not at all typical of Richard.

Also, communication of complex orders sometimes deteriorates in the field due to the "telephone syndrome", because the information must sometimes travel mouth-to-mouth many times, getting distorted all the while.

An unfortunate result of just a few bad experiences with "locals" has caused us to form a negative stereotype of "civilians" as noisy, over-inquisitive fools who get in the way of qualified personnel who have the responsibility to save human lives.


Before we rookies were allowed to start work we had to complete a 1-week training course that was similar to an army boot camp. A "plebe" status was conferred upon us, and veteran firemen treated us accordingly. I've been able to observe many parallels between the sequence of the trainee's development and the classic Tuckman's Developmental Sequence that we talked about in class.

On the first day all 21 of us rookies were escorted to a room where we were told to wait. For a few moments we just sat there in silence. This soon became awkward, so someone mentioned how hot the room was. Someone else agreed and a few people made related remarks. Then there was another short silence, at the end of which we all wound up looking back at the person who had first broken the silence. During the waiting period I had already begun to size up the personalities of my fellows, and I assume they did also.

This behavior illustrates Tuckman's first stage of group development, called testing and dependence. During the remainder of the training period, I could recognize more classic characteristics of group behavior development. After the first uncomfortable moments members began expressing their individuality, forming coalitions of mutual interest or needs, testing each other's leadership qualities, and in general losing the stiltedness of initial meeting.

At the end of the week, after we had split up into smaller groups which each got hands-on experience fighting fire, we had discovered which norms were acceptable, gained a sense of "we" consciousness, and had tales to tell of each other's exploits. In short, within the week we had established group identity, formed group cohesion, and had made a supportive environment in which we felt secure and trusted each other.


At the Academy I had met Marty, and we were both assigned to Healdsburg station. We took with us some of the cohesiveness we had gained during training, and this helped us to feel more at ease when we found ourselves newcomers to an already-established group. This time the situation was totally different. At the Academy, we were all strangers. Now, in a sense we were intruders in a group in which dynamics were already more or less determined. Our coming required a shift in established relationships. We brought with us a certain amount of status which the firemen used as criteria for judging us.

Unfortunately we were both late to work on our first day of work. and this was used as to poke fun at us and to try to make us feel uncomfortable, all part of the initiation period. As I found out later, we were both instantly stereotyped the moment we arrived. There was some hostility towards Marty because he was Mexican and there had been some local Mexican-white ethnic conflict recently. For my part, Fran told me later that he had a bad image of me because he had only worked with one black fireman before, and he had a bad opinion of the man. In his mind, he said, he had made a judgment of me based solely upon this one previous relationship.

This initial hostility was based in part upon the Affirmative Action rule that makes it easier for minorities (including women) to get hired than white males. Thus, Fran felt that his job security was threatened by minorities. I interpret his resentment at our presence to be the result of an outlet for stress due to the push-pull behavior factors between need (of job) and basic drive (success).


Once we became an integral part of the the group, I began to identify sub-groups of coalitions. The two that were the most obvious were the male/female, smoker/nonsmoker divisions. Interactions between either sub-group would often result in some form of conflict or general tension. The men would often put down women in the form of a sexist joke just to bug Debbie, because the action never failed to gain them immediate attention. The guy would make these remarks because they felt defensive themselves. Debbie had been to engineer school, and knew more about fire than many of us. But the men found it hard to deal with a knowledgeable assertive woman. I interpret their behavior as a reaction to a falsely perceived threat to their "manhood". But Pat had a different character entirely. She knew a good deal about the job too, but she assumed the role of a coy, shy girl who needed a gentleman for protection. The men found such a character more familiar to the women of their past experience and could accept such an image. Their reaction: the role of father-protector. In Pat's case, the male/female interface created no conflict, yet in Debbie's case, there was a great deal of it.

Perhaps as an escape from an unbearable situation, Debbie tried to capitalize upon my inexperience, to use me as a relief valve for her stress. My response to this was to make light of the situation, ignore it. But soon I became resentful of the treatment and the lines of communication between us grew thin. Eventually no communication passed between us until we finally recognized and accepted our differences as existed. Then we were able to get along.


In our unit it happened that the firemen responded to negative feedback more than positive feedback. There existed in the group a very narrow norm. Behavior which deviated from the norm was strongly discouraged. Negative feedback was usually implemented by less communication with the individual. On the other hand, "normal" (conformist) behavior elicited little or no response, no positive feedback for "appropriate" behavior. Fran and I would deliberately behave in a non-conformist way. Looking back with my new experience of group dynamics, I'd hazard a guess that our behavior was intended either consciously or unconsciously to generate some kind of response. I think this behavior represents the need in Fran and myself for recognition of any kind, even if it is a manifestation of the little child in each of us who cries out for attention.

Once at dinner, I related to my fellows a conversation that I'd had with a fireman from another station who'd said that Richard was the best engineer to work with in the county, and i agreed with him. In response, three as a sort of shocked silence, Richard looked rather disturbed and Stan said in an admonishing tone: "You shouldn't have said that!" This reinforces my observation that positive feedback isn't reinforced, indeed, it is discouraged.

Another manifestation of conformity at the station was the uniform which we were required to wear. This regulation varied in its strictness depended on which captain was in charge at the time. This was because personal standards were different. Ed didn't mind if we took our shirts off, but Chuck wanted us dressed at all times. This was a source of minor contention among them, because when Chuck came back on duty, the fire-fighters would grumble about having to wear shirts in the heat, while Chuck would blame Ed for our sorry state. In order to have a somewhat consistent form of leadership, then, both Ed and Chuck would have to compromise on their styles of leadership, conform their styles so as to make the chain of command a smooth one.

Us fire-fighters were also required to conform to a certain standard of orderliness and hygiene. Deviant behavior such as Pena's sleeping in his clothes was not tolerated. These standards were so ingrained upon us that Marty, who before working at the station had always had an unshaved look, reprimanded me for not shaving one morning, long after the fire season was over, and we had been laid off.


I recognized this strong emphasis on a narrow group norm to be a highly successful way of molding a bunch of individuals into an efficient, task-oriented group. I believe that a high level of conformity is helpful in developing the quality of cohesiveness that our group displayed while in action. This cohesiveness was remarkable force that seemed to materialize whenever we had a fire call. Suddenly, petty squabbles disappeared to be replaced by a unifying energy that made possible the efficiency with which we achieved our goal: to put out the fire, to save lives, and property. The type of cohesiveness that was the strongest, and that made for the best quality of communication, was the attraction we had for each as men and women. After all, friends get along better than acquaintances and a bond of mutual respect and warmth allowed for a greater sense of unity. On the other hand, different fire crews working on the same scene would share a camaraderie that wasn't based upon friendship as much as upon task attraction or the solution of the problem at hand.


Another key factor in our success as an integrated work force was the maintenance -oriented behavior of Ed and Richard, who both had an innate understanding of how to get their workers to want to do their best. In retrospect, Richard seems to me to have been an active listener. H would sense a person's wants and needs and reply in kind. One night, after two week's of fighting fire, he drove off to a store and brought back beer for everybody. Everyone knows that the best way to get a fireman on your side is to buy them a beer!

Ed and Richard developed a program under which each of us would give a lecture on a subject of our own choosing that reflected our own areas of fire prevention expertise. In this way, we became more goal-oriented. We were able to see new qualities in each other that we hadn't seen before, and we learned how to listen to each other better and thus to communicate better.

The station had two distinct forms of leadership. Chick and Ed would get right down with us and work just as hard. They would encourage and assist us, let us decide between ourselves how to get the job done. They were comfortable in high-responsibility positions of command. Gary, however, was a new engineer, scarcely older than we, much younger than Richard or the two captains. He tended to assign us tasks, then take over some administrative duties. He seemed ill at ease giving orders, and had all of our activities planned out for us.

My theory is that Gary found himself in a very stressful situation and reacted predictably in a stressful way. First of all, he was in command of people who in different circumstances would constitute his peer group. Working against this is an obligation to live up to the leadership styles which he expects of himself, that is, of an aloof, authoritarian figure who is concerned with the proper direction of the men in his command. I think that he felt caught between his natural desires to be buddies with us while not being caught at it by his overhead peers. Perhaps it would seem as if discipline would suffer. The net result of this conflict is expressed in the form of nervous, authoritarian, task-oriented engineer.

I find evidence to support this theory in a conversation I overheard between a visiting captain and Ed about an engineer of his who could be a better leader if he wasn't so chummy with the fire-fighters. The proof of overhead peer pressure to be aloof and authoritarian exists in the testimony of this captain.

In conclusion I think I've reached the decision that the analysis of group dynamics is of immense value to workers in such high-stress occupations as fire-fighting situation where task-oriented groups live in close quarters for extended periods of time. The potential for improving the quality of their work, their working conditions in general, and the quality of the working relationships in particular is immense and should be exploited. I have trouble understanding why the study of interpersonal relationships isn't required by the indoctrination program for any such occupation. In retrospect, I can see many areas of my own experience where even a limited knowledge of group dynamics would have been of immediate practical use.


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Last modified: 15 June, 2016