Your Behavior Comes from Ben Franklin's DNA: Fast, Close, Wet, Risk, Injury, Death

When I was a rookie fireman in 1970 at the Kentland Volunteer Fire Department (KVFD) Company 33, Prince George’s County Fire Department, (PGFD) MD, an old timer (he was 35, I was 20) told me, “The next call you go on may be the biggest fire in your...

In Organizational Culture and Leadership, 2004 Edgar H. Schein, Professor Emeritus at MIT, the author defines culture as, “A pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.” Firefighter translation “Why we do, what we do.”

Schein also tells us that occupations can have a shared culture if the following conditions are present: intense period of education and apprenticeship; reinforcement of assumptions at meetings; and continuing education sessions. The practice of the occupation requires teamwork and reliance on peer-group evaluation, which preserves and protects the culture. The fire service meets these conditions, so the notion that fire-service discipline has a shared culture is reasonable. This supports the NFFF reference to the need to change the fire-service culture. Before we can change the culture, we have to be able to identify what the culture is. Schein explains that culture has three levels.

Artifacts – visible organizational structures and processes. These are the things we can see, touch, and read.

Espoused Beliefs and Values – represented by our strategies, goals and philosophies (espoused justifications). This is what we tell each other and the public what we do, how we do it and why we do it.

Underlying Assumptions – taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings (ultimate source of values and action). Schein refers to this culture level as the DNA of an organization. For the fire service, this is the basic DNA of what it means to be a firefighter. This genetic code has been passed down from generation to generation of firefighter over the past 275 years. If you do not have it, you are not a real firefighter. This is where Benjamin Franklin started the genetic pool we have today. According to Wikipedia, “A gene is a unit of heredity and is a region of DNA that influences a particular characteristic in an organism.”

It’s in Our Genes

In a paper entitled “FAST/CLOSE/WET,” which was delivered at a Public Entity Risk Institute symposium, entitled “Reducing Firefighter Deaths and Injuries: Changes in Concept, Policy and Practice,” Chief Allen V. Brunacini identified the first three genes of a firefighters DNA. Brunacini wrote, “Ben (Franklin) realized that when there was a fire that the situation required rapid response, so he taught his fire lads that they must be FAST. He also knew that he did not have long range hydraulic application equipment, so his firefighter had to get CLOSE to the fire. Ben also understood that the fire could not live in the same space with an adequate amount of water so he told his troop get the fire WET.”

The next three genes RISK/INJURY/DEATH are all part of the human experience with uncontrolled fire. Humans have been at risk of uncontrolled fire, injured by fire and killed by fire from the beginning of time. Our bodies cannot live in the heat, gases and oxygen-depleted environments that fire can create. Our environment, property and possessions can be destroyed by fire. Anyone who tries to manually control an unwanted fire or save someone or something in the path of an unwanted fire puts themselves at great risk, which can lead to injury and death. Ben Franklin knew this, so his firefighters had to accept this as part of what it meant to be a firefighter. The citizens knew this, so they held the firefighters in great esteem because when called for help, the firefighters would put their bodies between the fire and the citizen to save and protect individuals, families, property and communities from the ravages of fire.

The fire service and society today continue to consider RISK/INJURY/DEATH part of the characteristics that exist when humans get in the path of uncontrolled fire. Recently, this idea was supported by an analysis of NIOSH LODD reports, which helps to identify the cultural paradigm of firefighting and the public image of the fire service.