The great dichotomy within today’s fire service is all about perceived culture. The improvement of our culture within the emergency services is relative to our specific paradigms. Much can be done as has been implemented already but there is so much more work to do. It’s the whole nature vs. nurture argument. As leaders, we have a burden of command. We must balance young aggressive firefighters to ensure that specific tasks are completed in the safest manner possible while battling their perception of what is heroic or cowardice!
There are varying definitions or understandings of fire service culture. Some would lead us to believe that culture is not very important within an emergency organization because it only effects the “what” of our actions. I would like to argue that culture is a vital component of the “why” within every aspect of our decision-making processes. Our culture by default becomes our identities. Fire service culture varies throughout the country and depending on where or how old the organization is, will determine how entrenched a specific culture has become. This deep-rooted belief system will impact operations, both strategically and tactically.
In the Northeast where I have been raised in the fire service, the culture is very rooted in tradition. Many of the strategies are based upon the “what” we have always done in the past with various levels of successes or failures. We hold these traditions so close to our beliefs that they often define our values. “Cultural responsibility at the department level is probably the most difficult to infuse in today’s society.” (Ford, T., 2012, pg. 21).
Steps that can be taken to improve upon our culture include attitudes, behaviors, and education. Our personal attitude is synonymous to our personal accountability. We must become better at accepting our roles within the organization as vital ones. The times of simply acting as a drone or a good foot soldier must come to an end. We have become increasingly better at this because of our changes in behaviors.
For our attitudes to improve, we must also redirect our behaviors to support those within our organizations who are seeking to build upon a newer culture or sets of values and beliefs. “In order for cultural change to take place, leadership has to have a mind-set that supports open communication and an open-minded approach to change.” (Ford, T., 2012, pg. 24). Such behaviors as attending conferences, outside training opportunities, and formal education are great ways to help support the paradigm shift we need.
It has been my experience that organizations that embrace a formal educational process have a better understanding of the importance of shaping the future. Critical thinking that is developed by higher learning institutions is exactly what will help our profession achieve future success. The ability to step back and institute the APIE process (analyze, plan, implement, and evaluate) will most assuredly help our future leaders develop other future leaders and create that ripple effect. This is extreme ownership at its best.
In closing, many people have pontificated on how to change a culture within the fire service. I am one of those people. I’m blessed to travel the globe teaching my programs at conferences. I have been published in trade magazines and websites. I also happen to be an Advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation here in NJ.
With that said, the best way that I can think of to help spread the message of culture change is in fact to be the change that I would like and hope to see. Setting the example for others to see and follow is a rare opportunity and one I do not take lightly. It’s a trickledown effect. Seek continuous improvement in myself and help others along the way. This is how we improve culture!
How will you help?
Ford, T. (2012). Fire and emergency services safety and survival, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
John Dixon is a career fire officer with an urban fire department in New Jersey and has over 20 years in the fire service. He has earned his fire officer (FO) credentials from the Center for Public Safety Excellence and is a National Fire Academy Alumni. John has a passion for training, mentoring, and inspiring up-and-coming officers and firefighters. He has served as an Instructor with the Bergen County (NJ) Fire Academy, a member of Project Kill the Flashover, and currently serves as the NJ State Lead Advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.