Organizational Core Values "Alive and Well" in the Philadelphia Fire Department

March 1, 2006

Editor's note: In June 2005 issue, Deputy Chief William Shouldis of the Philadelphia Fire Department cited a program called "Values," presented by Deputy Chief Gary F. Appleby, that "examines dedication to the department and service to the community." We asked Chief Appleby to provide more information about the program, which is presented as part of the department's 16-week cadet curriculum.

The upper walls of the Fire Academy auditorium are lined with large hanging blue and white flags. Each flag contains only one word - service, dedication, honor, integrity, courage, compassion and more. These words comprise the Core Value System of the Philadelphia Fire Department.

This is an organization that traces its founding roots to Benjamin Franklin, an organization that has served its citizens as a paid fire department since March 15, 1871. It is an organization that embraces the future, but certainly treasures its storied history and legendary characters. For over 134 years, this particular organization has aspired to truly fulfill their long-standing motto - "Dedication and Service."

Since 1992, with each new firefighter and paramedic recruit class, the PFD sets aside a morning session to discuss its Core Value System with its newest "family members." The sessions are often both emotional and heartwarming to the cadets and instructors alike, for this particular cadet "training module" is a curriculum rarity; it is unstructured, free-wheeling and spontaneous. It is designed for interaction - the cadets are encouraged to speak their minds, offer their opinions and comment on what the specific core value means to them. Their comments are often surprising and full of unique insight. To guide these sessions, a facilitator often ends up "flying by the seat of his or her pants."

I remember the time a cadet stood up, rolled up his sleeve and told the class what his tattoo really meant to him. You could hear a pin drop in that hallowed auditorium. I remember when a cadet spoke of the wristwatch that he wore every day. His father wore that same wristwatch - all through Vietnam. We sat there, swelling with emotion. And I remember the cadet, raised in the projects by his grandmother, who told us of the values she instilled in him. He felt the best way to honor her memory was for him to simply live her values every day.

I can remember these events because it was my honor to be selected as the PFD Core Values System facilitator. I also serve as the presenter of another very special cadet module - "The Origin and Historical Significance of the Maltese Cross."

As much as it is an honor to speak to America's next generation of heroes, it is equally as humbling. I see the passion in their collective eyes that (hopefully) my old fire school instructors saw in us - back in the 1960s. It is comforting to realize that "Dedication and Service" will not end when my generation has answered its final alarm. I, along with my contemporaries, have been privileged to simply serve our tour within this most special "family" - the American fire service.

Over the years, an isolated person will tell me that the Core Values System Module is just "wasted time." They feel that it provides no practical skill and has no standing with its fire service cognitive and psycho-motor "learning partners." However, the vast majority of the PFD, including the past and current top leadership teams, feel that the session may be the most important topic covered in the entire 16 weeks, for without understanding and embracing fire service values, nothing else makes sense. Why on earth would you crawl down a burning hallway, with a ceiling collapsing on you, to save someone you never met? There must be something more to succeeding in this profession than knowing how to don a SCBA and how to compute the flowing nozzle gpm.

There is "it's called affective learning." Unlike fire service cognitive skills (e.g., logical sectoring of your emergency scene operation) or psycho-motor skills (e.g., safely climbing a ladder), affective learning is learning that changes the way in which a student feels about the job itself (Krathwohl, Bloom & Masia, 1964). The affective learning domain focuses on learning that influences the values and beliefs of an individual. Many years ago, the PFD rewrote its entire cadet curriculum to raise the level of affective learning to be on par with the cognitive and psycho-motor learning domains.

The Core Values System session always begins the same way - getting the cadets to really focus and understand the concept of values. We marvel at their responses when asked, "What is an organizational or individual value?" This is always followed up with, "Where do our values come from?" Further clarity is provided when we discuss, "If you attain a value, will it last forever?" Before exploring the 14 chosen words, the cadets are asked, "Are all values inherently good?"

The classroom "ground rules" are important - they set this module apart from others within the 16-week curriculum:

  • Timing - The "Core Values" presentation is usually scheduled after the cadets have been at the academy for three to five weeks. Presenting the information earlier seems to add unnecessary "shock" for those cadets entering a paramilitary environment for the first time. Presenting the module later than five weeks decreases the "learning dividend."
Zero stress - Cadets are told that their comments, ideas and personal experiences are genuinely desired and valued by the facilitator. However, if a cadet chooses not to speak, he or she is never called on and "put on the spot." We have found that simply listening can have a profound impact on a cadet. In fact, "listening" is so vital that "note-taking" is discouraged. A handout with all 14 words is distributed to each cadet at a later time. Interaction and feedback - The module is designed for the cadets. To a large degree, they take ownership of the module's content, direction and even length. There is no established "finishing time"; the module concludes when nobody has anything left to say. Because of the undetermined presentation length, the cadets may even excuse themselves briefly (without requesting permission) to attend to personal needs. Delivery - The 14 cadet core values unfold one at a time with the facilitator simply writing each word on a dry-erase board. The cadets are always asked to comment first. Their comments on a single value could take anywhere from five to 20 minutes. After the "value" has been thoroughly discussed by the cadets, the facilitator presents the viewpoint of the Philadelphia Fire Department. Why that value is so essential is covered in depth. Frank language is used. The organization's viewpoint is replete with specific examples of what that value "looks like" while wearing the blue serge of the PFD.

And so the morning goes, starting off with the PFD's organizational motto, Dedication and Service, and then through (in order):

  • Duty
  • Responsibility
  • Courage
  • Integrity
  • Honor
  • Pride
  • Compassion
  • Tradition
  • Discipline
  • Honesty
  • Family
  • Love

As the session draws to a conclusion, the cadets hear once more of "their sacred mission, a firefighter/paramedic's unique place in society" - "And on graduation day, you will have earned one of mankind's most respected titles. You will be a firefighter. You will stand with one of the most special groups on this planet, all of you together, shoulder to shoulder, doing God's work. So make us proud."

Gary F. Appleby, EFO, will retire in August 2006 with 40 years of service to the Philadelphia Fire Department, currently serving as a deputy chief with the field suppression forces. He previously was the department's executive officer and director of training. He holds a master of science degree in training and organizational development from St. Joseph's University and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer program.

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