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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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?