Changing a Culture, One Firefighter And One Fire Department at a Time

Any fire chief worth his or her salt sees the value in fire prevention. It represents that same dedication to the safety of the community and the understanding of our core values that got them those five bugles — the realization that a reduction in fires means a reduction in risk to personnel and a better quality of life for community. But the challenge facing many fire chiefs is how to develop the same belief and value system in their personnel and departments.

For years, your firefighters have been bunking up and dashing out of the station, chasing down smoke and battling the enemy. You can see, and you know from your own experience, the bonding a good fire stop or rescue develops in your people and all the camaraderie and pride that it generates. While as a chief officer you see the value in prevention, and you talk about the importance of prevention, you are reluctant to pull a trigger that you feel may destroy the delicate intertwined fabric of firehouse solidarity that is enjoyed in a suppression-oriented culture. After all, that's why your people joined your organization in the first place, to help their community through the heroic actions of going into blazing buildings, to have a value in their community that only they are able to fulfill. Any attempt to redirect that pride and energy into fire prevention is often met with, "Chief, I didn't become a firefighter to talk to kids." But there was once a time when chiefs were told, "Chief, I didn't become a firefighter to put on Band-Aids," yet what is your EMS call volume as compared to your fire runs? Change is inevitable, but it takes courageous leadership to bring about.

Whether the battle involved adopting EMS or going from steam engines to gasoline-powered fire apparatus, from three-quarter-length boots to full bunker gear or from "leather lungs" to self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), change in the fire service has been fought tooth and nail, leaving in its wake tired, frustrated and bloodied leaders. You can imagine the discouragement many of them felt during those battles; imagine the loneliness of being ostracized, maybe even called weak or cowardly, when trying to convince firefighters to put on that SCBA.

What you have to ask yourself is this — have those changes improved our service? Did they make firefighters safer and improve service to our citizens? Have lives been saved because of these changes? Are the leaders who were branded as being out of touch back then revered as agents of change today? Are they now seen as saviors of our profession? Are there any people in bunker boots today who don't appreciate the gear they have and the SCBA on their backs? There was a time when firefighters didn't see the need for such equipment; it took courageous leaders to show them. Those leaders knew that change was needed for the greater good, and they pursued it with focus, unselfish dedication and fire service professionalism.

We are on the cusp of another paradigm shift in our profession, and that is the change from one of suppression orientation to one of prevention orientation. This battle will be no less bloody than that for SCBA, but will nonetheless save lives. Do you have the same courage and internal fortitude as our forefathers to lead our profession to the next level? What will the future say about your tenure? Will you be statuesque or will you be an agent of change and do what you know is right for the good of your community, your firefighters and the fire service? In your effort to redirect your department toward prevention, you have to know what you are up against; you have to know how this suppression tree grows and where the roots are. Just cutting the branches may make the lawn look better, but the tree remains, and the roots of this suppression tree not only go deep, you may in fact be feeding them.

For a prevention culture to grow, you have to realize you are already behind the power curve from day one, when your excited recruits walk in your door like dry sponges. They want to know what this profession is all about and what it will take to make it and be accepted as a member of this family. Those who are attracted to our profession are attracted for a reason. Many have seen "Backdraft," "Ladder 49," "Rescue Me" and footage from Ground Zero, and that's what they want. They want to help people, but not by waiting on street corners to help old ladies cross the street - they want to do it by swinging from buildings. What you do now as a chief officer will make a difference; it is the tone and atmosphere you create for those recruits on their first day, and all of your firefighters every day, that will determine the path your department takes and the future leaders and culture you create — prevention or suppression.

Leaders portray their values in subtle ways. What do your personnel see when they come to work or, even more important, what do they see when they're sitting in your office? What are you indirectly and subtly transmitting to the rookies and to the rest of your people about the values of your department? What do they feel they must do to live up to your expectations and be accepted as members of your organization?

What do you see when you walk around your station? Pictures of major blazes your department has battled? Pictures of your firefighters in heroic poses on handlines or sitting in rehab with soot-stained faces or, worse, pictures of your firefighters posing inside or in front of what was once someone's home, now turned nightmare? Do you display melted or blackened helmets? Melted light bulbs or other melted items taken from someone's tragedy? What is that saying about your department's value system?

Don't get me wrong. We have a tough and dangerous job; fires will always happen despite our best efforts, and suppressing those fires requires bravery and skill. Our people should be proud of their profession and what they do. But that's the whole point. "Fighting fires is what we do, but that's not what we are all about." We are about serving and protecting our communities. Period.

Your firefighters will often blame the public for their risk-taking culture with comments like, "They expect us to do it!" This is false! It has never been our actions that our public holds in such esteem, but the intent of our actions, the fact that we are there and are willing to do what we may be called to do. Is the rural country volunteer department that responds to one or two fires a year seen as being any less heroic or having less value by those it protects than a major city department that responds to hundreds of fires every year?

So how do you start the change? Look at your department from the standpoint of your firefighters. When, if at all, in their initial training are they taught fire prevention? Is it up front so it sends a message on day one that the mission of your organization is to prevent before suppress, or does the training take place at the end and after all of the risk-taking/glory training? Are they trained in communicating in order to improve their ability to talk in a confidant and educated manner? Departments rarely train on this skill and yet wonder why the public doesn't seem to understand them. Your people will come into contact with hundreds, if not thousands, of people throughout the year, and they are the image of your department. Don't you think it is important that they have the ability to communicate effectively?

What do they see when they come to work? Take down the fire pictures, the melted helmets and the posters with sayings like "Real men don't run from fire. They run into it!" When your firefighters see these things all over your station, it instantly delivers a message to them that this is all they are expected to do and is what they need to believe in order to be accepted in your organization — that they must blacken and melt their helmets and find other risk-taking ways to be in one of those dramatic pictures on your wall so they too can be one of you. Not only does this set the wrong value system for your department, one of suppression and risk, but it sets up your firefighters for tragedy because they are now more likely to take unnecessary risks and put themselves in danger to "earn" their right to be in your station.

Add to the photos on the wall those of all the other ways you serve and have value to your public. Replace the pictures of your firefighters posing in front of a family's worst day with your firefighters working with the public at a public relations event. Put up pictures of saves within your community — calls to house fires where the residents extinguished the fires before your arrival by using the fire extinguishers you purchased for them. Build a display case for the TV lounge and put up all the letters and drawings the public sends to you to say "thanks," and show the value of your personnel to the public beyond the fireground. Look around your office and station walls, and think about the value system you are portraying. Look at your recruit and yearly training plan — where is prevention and communication and how many hours are dedicated to preventing fires in contrast to suppressing them?

The fact remains that it is our very own profession and the very people serving in it that put a value on suppression and taking risks, and by doing so, we fall well short of the very reason we put on our uniforms and come to work — protecting our citizens. Many in our profession wrongly believe that their only value is when smoke is showing and that if there are no fires, they have no purpose and there will no longer be any camaraderie. But as chiefs, you know otherwise, but it will take a courageous leader to show them.

DANIEL BYRNE is a lieutenant and the fire marshal for the Beaufort, SC, Fire Department. He holds an associate's degree in fire science and is pursuing a bachelor's degree, also in fire science. A 22-year veteran of the emergency services, Byrne is a National Fire Academy alumnus and a volunteer paramedic with Beaufort County EMS. A U.S. Marine veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm War, he is a technical sergeant with the Georgia Air National Guard, serving in the Fire Protection Division airport crash crew. He can be reached at