"The Cultural Divide": Exploring the Unknown

Dec. 3, 2010
Culture is defined as the beliefs, customs, practices and social behaviors of a group of people. We would all agree that the number of folks who have sacrificed their lives for the cause of democracy, civil rights and religious freedoms is overwhelming, yet any attempts at changing that culture would be met with swift and overwhelming rejection.

Culture is defined as the beliefs, customs, practices and social behaviors of a group of people. We would all agree that the number of folks who have sacrificed their lives for the cause of democracy, civil rights and religious freedoms is overwhelming, yet any attempts at changing that culture would be met with swift and overwhelming rejection.

So, here is a thought-provoking question: How are you doing as it relates to true culture change within the fire service? Are your efforts producing the desired results of reducing firefighter injuries and fatalities?

Change Is Difficult

In general, efforts to reduce injuries and fatalities to our firefighters have focused on changing culture with a correlating assumption that those who do not achieve cultural change are somehow weak or ineffective as leaders or weak on firefighter safety. This is simply not true and can serve to turn many away from this most worthy cause. Culture change in any organization is a monumental challenge. This change can take years to imbed and the reality is that these attempts fail more often than not.

Is there a better way to achieve the results we want? Are you focusing all of your attention, efforts and resources on what you do not want (fatalities and injuries) as opposed to what you do want (safe and successful incident mitigation)?

The American fire service was built on strong foundational beliefs, customs, practices and social behaviors. It is a culture of courage, commitment, dedication, public service, pride, honor and integrity. So why focus on changing it? If we are being honest with ourselves, we must admit that our greatest strength can become our greatest weakness. Our weaknesses/risks do not exist simply because of our culture; they exist for many reasons, such as fire departments that continue to operate without standard operating guidelines (SOGs), have unacceptable levels of staffing, have taken their eyes off insisting that firefighters have mastery of the most basic skills, fail to commit the proper number of resources to safely mitigate an incident, fail to insist on flawless execution from all members, strong command and control, and fail to take the time and have the courage to address fireground errors every time they occur.

For the record, what we as a fire-rescue service do want are employees who show up for work every day with a strong intrinsic desire to serve the public and who have achieved mastery of their basic firefighter skills, as well as flawless incident management and for all employees to follow the rules. What we do not want is to see our members needlessly endangered, injured or killed while performing their jobs. I offer you a challenge to focus your attention, efforts and resources on what you want more of, not what you want less of.

This type of thinking is referred to as "appreciative enquiry," a specific way of seeking answers and achieving results by building on the basic goodness in a person, situation or an organization. It focuses change and collaboration efforts on the strengths (what you want more of) and not the weaknesses (what you don't want more of) of the fire service. The basic idea is to build your organization around what works, rather than trying to fix what doesn't work. It's counterintuitive to normal problem-solving and focuses on creating outstanding performance aligning core strengths?

Simply put, our end goal should be to provide timely and aggressive incident mitigation and to do it safely. Currently, the biggest obstacle in achieving this goal is the safety part. For many reasons, we continue to see an increase in needless injuries and fatalities to our members. Unfortunately, making the obstacle the focus of your attention means you have most likely taken your eyes off the goal. Here is an example: as a young firefighter, it was evident early on that driving apparatus was not going to be my strong point. There was a certain public housing building that we would run every shift, sometimes two or three times. It was within six or seven blocks of the firehouse and the running route was very simple — a right, a left, another right and you were there. I made that trip daily with little to no problem, with one exception. That time, as I was going to make the first left turn, I noticed a brand-new concrete Jersey barrier just ahead of me. I couldn't stop focusing on the wall and how it would affect my ability to make the turn. As I approached it, the barrier got bigger and bigger, closer and closer, and it seemed I couldn't focus on anything else. You know what happened next. The very obstacle that stood between my company and the building fire became the object of my focus and the rest of the story was not pretty.

In Enlightened Leadership, Ed Oakley and Doug Krug offer this explanation:

  • We tend to move toward what we focus on
  • When we focus our attention on the obstacles in our path, we spend time and energy dealing with those obstacles rather then getting where we want to go
  • When we are clearly focused on where we want to go, we do whatever we need to do to get there with minimal wasted energy

Traditions, Values And Behaviors

Traditions, values and behaviors make up the foundation for my great department, the District of Columbia Fire Department. Starting with the first days of rookie school, members are indoctrinated to the pride each company takes in being the best and most aggressive, as well as the "team's" ability to effectively put out a fire, stretch a 200-foot attack line, open a roof and ladder a building. Countless hours spent running hoselines through and around the firehouse focus on speed and efficiency; days and weeks spent drawing maps of streets, alleys and hydrants; developing an understanding that each company has a specific job to do and a focused commitment on doing its part; the synchronization of the way engines aggressively stretch their lines while trucks open up roofs and windows and the rescue company systematically performs its search are but a few examples of what I am so proud of.

The strengths of the DCFD focus on four guiding principles to achieve the goal of timely, aggressive and safe incident mitigation: appropriate staffing of apparatus; overwhelming an incident with resources; adherence to SOGs; and strong command and control from our incident commanders. This doesn't mean that all of these elements always add up to the perfect incident. What it means is that we recognize our strengths and focus our attention and efforts on fortifying and building off of them.

The fire-rescue service is filled with the brightest minds available, but potentially focusing on the wrong things. Now, this is really going to drive some folks crazy, but hear me out. Are wind-driven fires new? Have we experienced stronger, more intense winds in the past five years? The answer is no, wind's effects on fires are dangerous, but have always occurred. While there is great ongoing research on how to reduce the effects of wind speed, it will have no consequence if our members continue to operate above an unknown and unchecked fire or if we leave an apartment door open in a public hallway while ventilating the apartment before a charged handline is in place.

How new is "new" construction? In general, non-dimensional lumber, unsealed pipe chases and truss construction have been around for more than 30 years. Lightweight construction is no more or less dangerous than initiating an interior attack with only four personnel on the scene.

Has the color of smoke changed? Is brown smoke more or less dangerous than black smoke? What difference will it make if we fail to send properly staffed ladder trucks to the scene because we are afraid politicians will challenge our use of taxpayer resources?

We are better and smarter than this. I am in no way discounting the seriousness of the effects of wind on fire; I have witnessed it. I am not discounting the extreme dangers of lightweight construction, nor am I saying that knowing what is going on inside a fire building by monitoring smoke conditions has no value. What I am saying is we are taking our eye off the ball!

Call to Action

What we need to do when it comes to incident scene safety is collectively, as a fire-rescue service, rally around four to six core solid principles, then focus our efforts, attention and resources on achieving those goals, while not letting the obstacles distract us from attaining them. Sorry team, but the same old, "Every fire is different," "This won't work in our department," "We don't have those resources," "Our staffing is less than theirs" and "We don't have any money for training" are excuses for inaction and will cause you to take your eye off the ball. If you're really committed and focused to decreasing firefighter injuries and fatalities, you will find a way to keep these excuses or obstacles from distracting you.

Here are four steps to help you focus your efforts and attention on achieving whatever it is you desire to accomplish:

  1. Discover — Identify organizational processes that work well.
  2. Dream — Envision processes that would work well in the future.
  3. Design — Planning and prioritizing processes that would work well.
  4. Deliver — The implementation (execution) of the proposed design.

I am proud and honored to be a part of the DCFD. I am proud of what we stand for, I am proud of our members, I am humbled by those who served before me and I am proud of the many things we do so well. So why would I want to change any of that? Why not insist on more of it?

LAWRENCE SCHULTZ is the assistant fire chief of operations for the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Previously, he was the deputy chief and battalion chief for the department's Homeland Security/Special Operations Division. Schultz is a graduate of the George Washington University Center for Excellence in Municipal Management and is a certified public manager. He also attended the National War College to study consequence management of weapons of mass destruction and is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School's Executive Leadership Program.

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