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...


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...


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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.

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