Six words that hold the fire service hostage
Article by: Kevin Schulz
It doesn’t matter what kind of fire department you belong to, career, part-time, combination, volunteer or industrial we’re all here to do the same job and more importantly we’re all professional firefighters. That being said there seems to be a common thread that follows the fire service.
Firefighters hold the cultures and traditions of their fire department very close to their heart. I’m guilty as charged I don’t always like change and I love the traditions and cultures that surround my little portion of the fire service but what do those words really mean? Is it the color of our engines, the leather helmets we wear, the tools we use or the words?
With that being said lets focus on one sentence thats heard in every firehouse around the world. There are six words that I truly believe hold the fire service hostage.
” We’ve always done it this way.”
No firehouse is immune from this phrase and I’m willing to be that we have all heard it at least once. So what really makes those six words so dangerous?
That sentence means something different to everybody but the general consensus is that the phrase “we’ve always done it this way” leads to complacency and incompetence. So how do we overcome complacency and incompetence? Is flexibility the key that leads to change in the culture of the fire service? Rigidity or the lack of flexibility within the fire service leads to a negative downturn within the culture that we thrive in. If were afraid to look and see whats on the other side of the hill or try something new how will we ever learn to be better. If we don’t take the time to grow how do we stay compliant with new technology, education and changes within our industry. Most importantly how do we learn to stay safe.
These are all very important questions, but you have to find the answer inside your own firehouse and your fire department culture.
Vicki Schmidt once said in a Fire Engineering article and I agree 100%, ” Every cultural change follows a technology or an event that impacts our behavior. For these reasons, we’ll never change the culture of the fire service; it’s a one way street, and it only changes us.”
That statement hits the nail on the head. We cannot change the culture of the fire service, we can improve our equipment, techniques and responses but we can’t change the culture. We have to improve all of the components that surround the fire service before the fire service will begin to change. A perfect example is lightweight building construction materials. As the technology changed within the construction community we were forced to develop new strategies and tactics to deal with responses to those buildings. Therefore the culture of fighting fires in lightweight constructed material buildings was forced to change so we could complete our tasks in a safe and efficient manor.
So back to my original statement “We’ve always done it this way” what does that mean to you? Author Ken Blanchard wrote in his book Leading at A Higher Level, “An organization’s culture refers to its values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and practices of its members.” These are things not easily changed in the fire service as they are likely the product of numerous years of reinforcement within the organization. If you want to change the attitude or values of your firefighters, you must recognize that since your organization did not form its culture overnight, it will not likely adjust it overnight either. Changing the culture involves changing the core-belief system of your members. It represents a shift in the values, beliefs, and expectations.
Take time to look around your firehouse and look into the history of your fire department. Sit down with the senior members and ask the toughest question, “Why”? If you can’t answer the questions of why your department does something they should be able to assist you. If nobody has an answer then maybe its time to look into the culture of how your department operates.
Culture, tradition, values and beliefs are important especially within the ideals of the fire service but just as important as all of those things is the ability to change and foster an environment that supports positive and progressive change.
Stay safe brothers and sisters!