Dane Carley: The Fire Service Keeps Getting Better – Why?

By Dane Carley

The fire service is iconic – the leather helmets, red fire engines (the yellow ones will ripen one day), and long histories of tradition. Many fire departments have pictures of their department’s horse-drawn apparatus hanging on station walls or have restored one of their early motorized apparatus for parades. We remember where we came from and identify strongly with these symbols. Yet, we have improved our safety and our service to the community while retaining our traditions.

How can we, as professionals seeking constant improvement ensure there is rhyme and reason to how we continue improving ourselves, our department, and our profession? How can we, as emergency services practitioners, ensure our department’s culture and direction continue to focus on providing quality services to the community?

One way is to reinforce firefighters’ natural desire to learn that comes from the pride they take in being a firefighter. We can encourage healthy competition between companies so that the companies’ members are always seeking ways to improve. We can focus firefighters’ inherent restlessness and curiosity on constructively answering a simple question, “Why?”

A Learning Culture and Leadership

This is the foundation of a learning culture, a culture where members are expected to ask, “Why?” “Why do we do it this way?” “Why can’t we try it this way?” “Why wouldn’t this work better?” There may be a solid answer when a firefighter asks, “Why do we do it this way?” Similarly, something different may be tried when a firefighter asks, “Why can’t we try it this way?” only to find out that the original way is still better. Nonetheless, some critical analysis of the current operations occurred. On the other hand, asking those questions may, and often does, lead to a tweak that makes what was being done just a little bit better. It is incremental improvement. It is the development of a learning culture.

A learning culture does best under strong leadership. Titles, ranks, uniform insignia, hierarchy, and discipline for errors (contrary to willful actions) do not define strong leadership. They are traits of management. As necessary as the day-to-day order management provides to an organization is, an overdependence on management suffocates a learning culture. A person with strong leadership abilities is open to new ideas, adaptable, and approachable while expecting only the best from himself first and those around him second.

Ensuring that this type of environment continues to exist in a company, shift, or department means seeking out people with knowledge, skills, and abilities that support a learning culture– people who not only ask, “Why?” but who also encourage others to do the same. Two people, Jeff Ericksen and Lee Dyer (2004), from Cornell University have identified eight behaviors that support a learning environment.1 The eight behaviors, translated to apply to the fire service, follow:

• Be situationally aware

• Use effective communications

• Show initiative

• Be adaptable

• Work together

• Improvise

• Learn

• Educate

Similarly, social scientists have identified leadership traits. Over decades, people and cultures from around the world have regularly identified adaptability, openness to new ideas, and approachability as leadership traits.2 These traits align well with the behaviors listed above; connections can be made among all of them. If we know which behaviors are desirable and we know from where leadership trait behaviors evolve, how do we find people who have them? Contrary to popular belief, leadership can be measured. Assessments such as the EQ-i or the Five Factor Personality Assessment (also called the NEO Personality Inventory) are two ways to measure a person’s leadership ability. Also, leadership can be taught. We know which traits are fundamental in a strong leader, so we can teach them. This path gives us the ability to identify people in our departments who can strengthen a learning culture because they already have the capacity to learn the eight desirable behaviors easily.

How important is cultivating leadership? While it may seem intangible, private industry has, of course, measured it in dollars. One study found that automotive companies focusing on their people—leadership–over mass-production techniques were twice as productive and achieved significantly higher levels of quality. Another study found that companies linking employee development–a learning culture–to business strategy had 40 percent higher shareholder returns.3  We are not a business that earns returns for shareholders but one that focuses on our people and a learning culture in place we can be equally successful in improving our safety and service delivery to the community.

Ideas coming from the learning culture can be guided at the department level with five principles identified by Weick and Sutcliffe.4 A department can adopt them to guide decision making and harness the ideas that come from engaged firefighters who want to improve constantly. These principles, translated to apply to the fire service, are the following:

·         Seek constant improvement.

·         Avoid oversimplification.

·         Listen to those working on the streets.

·         Adapt successfully.

·         Listen to those with expertise.

The eight behaviors and five principles come from a common concept. One set of authors chose to focus on the people in an organization; the other set of authors chose to focus on the organization itself. The two ideas support each other; in fact, it is hard to believe that one could exist without the other. Regardless of the focus, both methods are efforts to develop a higher reliability organization.

So why does the fire service continue to improve without forgetting its roots? It is because we already do many of these things, which have led to incremental improvement. We seek out motivated people who are good with others and want to learn, especially for promotions. This process is better than what we are doing because it engages our people; it makes them the most important resource in the department. Another reason is that it is a repeatable process. This gives us specific behaviors to seek out in our people and specific principles to follow as an organization. This process gives us rhyme and reason to the ways we improve our safety and our service to the community. Also, the higher reliability concept has already been tested in other industries that, like ours, have little room for error and high consequences for mistakes. So as a fire service, maybe we should be asking ourselves, “Why are we not looking at this?”


1. Erickson, D, and L Dyer. (2004, March). Toward a strategic human resource management model of high reliability organization performance. Retrieved February 18, 2010, from Cornell University ILR School: http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1008&context=cahrswp.

2. Hughes, RL, RC Ginnett, and GJ Curphy. (2006). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience (5th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

3. Weick, KE and KM Sutcliffe. (2007). Managing the unexpected (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

4. Zenger, J. (2014, 10 31). By the numbers: Superior leadership produces higher return than superior talent. Retrieved 11 21, 2014, from Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jackzenger/2014/10/31/by-the-numbers-superior-leadership-produces-higher-return-than-superior-talent/.


Dane Carley has been in the fire service since 1989. He spent 24 enjoyable years pulling hose, throwing ladders, and cutting line in a variety of capacities and places before promoting to battalion chief in 2013 for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department. He has served in urban, suburban, rural, and wilderness areas, working for city, county, state, and federal agencies over the years. He co-writes for Fire Engineering magazine, co-produces a radio show for Fire Engineering Talk Radio, and co-teaches leadership classes that support higher reliability organizing in the fire service.