Karpluk: Changes to the Fire Department's Culture

Dec. 9, 2013
Fire service leaders need to recognize that certain practices will cause resistance to change and as a result of this resistance the ability to achieve greatness as a department is hindered.

The fire service is known for its strong culture and like anything else in life, there is the good, the bad, and the ugly in a department’s culture. Every department has a strong sense of values, beliefs, and norms, and this forms the basis of its culture. Given the environment of teamwork and reliance upon each other, it stands to reason that a fire department fosters the formation of a tightly knit group of individuals resulting in a very strong culture. 

Whenever change occurs people and organizations must unlearn something. I agree with the adage that in order to implement something new, something old must die. With such a strong culture in the fire service, a change in the way we think or do something can, and usually does create some uncertainty within our stations. The fact is, when we learn something and practice it for years, sometimes decades, it becomes a challenge for people and departments to change-even when we know we need it (the bad). If we look within our departments, I bet we will find at least one action/practice that has existed for years, and in reality its unnecessary and only exists because it is a part of the culture.

Fire service leaders need to recognize that these practices will cause resistance to change and as a result of this resistance the ability to achieve greatness as a department is hindered (the bad).

Let’s peel back some of the layers and see what culture is all about. Culture in a fire department is dynamic and flexible as firefighters have a tendency to create their own versions of accepted behavior and beliefs. Generally, the ways in which practices, values, and beliefs are passed from member to member is greatly influenced by individual perceptions, beliefs, and interpretation. The ugly thing here is that my perception is my reality and if I perceive something as being correct, then for me it is not only correct, but it is acceptable - it is my norm. And, if my ethics are lacking, my norm (based upon my perceptions) can negatively impact the department culture. As Dr. Rich Gasaway has often stated, “stinkin thinkin leads to a hardening of the attitudes.”

Let’s use an example of how individual views and beliefs can impact the department culture. If a recruit is engrained into the department’s culture by firefighters that have a pessimistic view of things (the bad), then it stands to reason that the recruit will drift into that view (the ugly). However, if a recruit is coached and mentored by firefighters that are not only proud of the profession, but believe that it is an honor to be a part of the profession (the good), then we should expect that this recruit would be culturally engrained with that view (the good).

Another impact to department culture is that of stories. Who hasn’t heard goofy stories about a training session or an actual incident from the past? The danger with stories is that even a humorous account can get distorted and over time separating fact from fiction becomes a challenge  (the ugly). But, there is good news because stories can be great teaching tools where factual information is passed along in the form of lessons learned (the good).

Additionally, a story of how a member was mistreated (either factual or from the viewpoint of a firefighter) can create a strong emotional connection, whether the incident is based upon fact or fiction (the bad). Likewise, a story of how the department celebrated a firefighters success or job performance is another example of connecting strong emotional feelings into the department’s culture (the good). 

A fire department’s culture can change when it is forced to change or it intentionally takes steps to create change. Change is the movement away from our existing state toward another one, whether it is intentional or not. Change for the sake of change is never recommended and will fail every time. However, upon examining our department’s culture we may just find some values, beliefs, and norms that are simply outdated and in some cases doing more harm than good.

We need to take steps to control our change, manage the direction we want to go, and changing a fire department’s culture is no different. It may be idealistic, but we should always strive to have a culture that is healthy and optimistic. If we want to grow as a profession, its time to help the outdated culture practices die so something new and great can be created.

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