Commentary by Chris Langlois
“An organization’s culture is made up of its folklore, its rituals, its group norms, and its meeting protocols. All of these cultural ingredients influence the organization’s adaptability. The culture of an organization is not usually written down or formally documented, but it still powerfully determines what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behavior” (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009). With fire service culture, you have two choices; you can accept what you have, which may have developed by accident, or you can make a conscious decision to develop and nurture a new one.
Often fire service leaders attempt to address adaptive issues by simply applying technical solutions, such as new rules, mandates or technology, etc. An example would be a fire crew that could not effectively throw ladders at their last fire. The simple technical solution would be to require all crews to practice throwing ladders on a regular basis. However, the underlying adaptive problem is that training of any kind is not emphasized and the department’s culture enables members to feel that they are good enough, without training on a regular basis. Adaptive issues require a change in what people believe, and how they think, and what is considered acceptable. In short, a culture change. In this example, it would require changing how the members think about their readiness level, the need for continuous training and preparation, and whether or not they can do better.
Changing the fire service’s “safety culture” will require us to do two things, 1) forge a new one through strategic planning’s power of mission, vision and values, and 2) redefine the culture of safety.
Take for example, the NFPA standard that requires seatbelt alarms in all apparatus. This standard was only necessary because we as a fire service failed to wear our seatbelts, and we (those in positions of authority) failed to enforce the policy that virtually every organization has that requires the use of seatbelts. As a result, firefighters were killed or seriously injured. The creation of a rule (standard) requiring alarms that will go off if someone in a moving apparatus is not wearing a seatbelt is a technical solution to an adaptive problem. Solving this issue requires a culture change in how we think. What is the reason we do not wear seatbelts, the root cause? It is not that it cannot be effectively done, even while responding to a fire and the need to arrive prepared, wearing gear and SCBA, because numerous departments have found easy procedures to do so, that simply require some practice to master. The problem seems to be that we choose not to, even when faced with overwhelming evidence that we should, because it will save our lives, and the lives of the firefighters we are responsible for.
To start a culture change, leadership focuses on the mission, which can be summed up in the word “service”. Service is what we do, and why we exist. The mission of service is not just to those who call 911, but also to each other, and for those in positions of authority, to those they are responsible for. Leadership defines and clarifies the mission to the members, and how everything we do should be helping the organization to accomplish the mission. In the above example, leadership makes it clear how the use of seatbelts helps us to accomplish the mission, especially in the service to each other.
Core values are those principles that the organization and all of its members hold so dear that they will not compromise them under any circumstances. While the mission defines what we do, values define how we go about doing it. The members of an organization will never believe in the values if the leaders and the organization as a whole do not live the values every day in every decision and action taken. “It is vitally important that the membership of the department see the leadership living the core values in every action and decision that is made” (Langlois, 2017). Courage is a typical core value espoused by many fire service organizations. However, does this simply mean physical courage displayed at emergency incidents, or is it also clarified to mean the moral courage to do what is right, even though it is not popular with others? Do we live the core value of moral courage when a person in a position of authority does not wear their seatbelt, or hold others accountable to do so?
While the mission defines our purpose, and values define how we accomplish the purpose, the vision tells everyone in an organization where we are all going. When the leader shares the vision, he/she helps everyone to understand what kind of organization they want to create in the future. It also helps everyone to gain a better understanding of how they can all contribute to moving the organization in that direction in everything they do, whether it is in public education, inspections, investigations, EMS, training, operations, or in the simple act of wearing a seatbelt.
The leadership of an organization can also initiate culture change through management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility. Some examples include:
- Management: Utilizing the tools, budget, procedures, processes and policies of the organization to emphasize the change needed. In the seatbelt example, it may consist of reporting broken seatbelts, supervisors taking that issue seriously, making repairing them an emergency action item, and financially supporting seatbelts. It happens when the organization incorporates training firefighters in the use of seatbelts and how to effectively utilize them when responding to emergency incidents and donning gear and SCBA. It starts when new firefighters are trained in the academy, not just to don gear and SCBA properly and quickly, but also to incorporate those procedures into effectively mounting the apparatus and using seatbelts. (Culture change).
- Supervision: Culture change happens when supervisors make the needed change part of the expectations that they have for their personnel, and they clearly define those expectations and the WHY behind them. How is it part of our mission, our values, and how it will help us achieve the shared vision? It will not become important to the rank and file until it becomes important to those leading the organization at all levels, senior firefighters, company officers, chief officers and the fire chief.
- Accountability: “When setting expectations, no matter what has been said or written, if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable – if there are no consequences – that poor performance becomes the new standard”(Willink & Babin, 2015). The leadership of the organization MUST hold everyone, including themselves accountable to the mission, vision and values, and the culture change that they wish to see in the organization. If it is important to the leadership, it will become important to the members, and they will begin to hold each other accountable.
- Personal responsibility: If the leadership emphasizes that a safety culture change is important, as a part of the mission, vision and values, it must also help make the connection that members cannot just rely on the organization, or someone else (supervisors) to accomplish this. A majority of this change falls on the individual and their personal responsibility to take charge of this change, and lead themselves. This ties directly in to another common fire service core value, that of integrity, and the idea that doing what is right is important, even when no one else is watching, or will ever know you did it.
Initiating a culture change in the fire service with regard to safety, also requires us to clearly redefine what the idea of safety is. There has been a recent pushback in the fire service against a “culture of safety”, saying that we cannot be true to our mission if our goal is to ensure that “everyone goes home”. Fire service leadership needs to take this argument back by redefining the “culture of safety”!
John A. Shedd said,”A ship is safest anchored in the harbor, but that’s not what ships were made for” (Shedd, 2019). Firefighting is not dangerous, it is rather, filled with risks of different types and levels. None of us can eliminate all of these risks and still be effective at accomplishing our mission of serving those who call us as their last ditch effort on the worst day of their lives. However, we can give our members the best possible chance we can to go home safely to their families at the end of each call we respond to. We do this by managing the risks involved, either by eliminating or preventing the risks we can, or by being pro-active, prepared for and reducing the effects of those risks on us when something bad happens. A fireground example of this is the rapid intervention team, whose mission is to #1 prevent a MAYDAY, #2 be pro-actively prepared for the MAYDAY, and #3 respond quickly and effectively to the MAYDAY when it happens.
The only way that we can get safer and reduce risks while still being effective at our mission, is to become better at everything we do. We must create a culture of change with relation to safety, not by backing away from our responsibilities in order to keep us safe, but by mastering our responsibilities. We must get better in major areas such as:
- Emergency Response: This includes incident command, quick and effective decision-making, intellectual aggressiveness, communications, risk assessment and accountability. It means we must master the strategic, tactical and task levels of what we do, including, but not limited to throwing ladders, stretching lines, searching effectively and quickly, size up, pump operations, ventilation, understanding modern fire dynamics, responding to potentially violent encounters, etc.
- Management: Utilizing data to identify trends and issues such as cancer, building construction, proper staffing, firefighter suicide, effective response times, etc. It also means budgeting appropriately to reflect our mission, vision and values, and to manage and reduce the risks our members face. It means utilizing and publicly recognizing all of the areas of our organization and how they contribute to firefighter risk reduction, including inspections and code enforcement, public education, training, fire/arson investigation, administration, etc.
- Leadership: Leading this culture change means that we must clarify and harness the power of servant leadership. This does not mean that leaders give their people everything they want, but rather giving them everything they need to be successful and make the organization successful. Some of these needs include: giving them trust and enabling them to trust the leadership, giving them support, cutting the bureaucratic red tape away when necessary to allow them to accomplish the mission, providing them with equipment, training, education, mentorship and holding people accountable to our mission, values, policies and to doing the right thing.
Lastly, change will never be possible until we lead by example. The leadership of an organization, at all levels, must talk the talk, but more importantly, must walk the walk. We must become the change we wish to see in the fire service by making sure all of our decisions and actions reflect what we say we believe in and where we want to go with the organization, and we must hold ourselves accountable to the mission, vision and values in all things, every day.
Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Langlois, C. (2017). Evaluating the Impact of the Established Core Values of the Omaha Fire Department. Emittsburg, MD: National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. Retrieved December 5, 2017, from https://usfa.kohalibrary.com/app/work/243410
Shedd, J. A. (2019). Goodreads.com. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/1388-a-ship-is-safe-in-harbor-but-…
Willink, J., & Babin, L. (2015). Extreme Ownership. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
CHRIS LANGLOIS, is a Battalion Chief with the Omaha (NE) Fire Department and a 32-year veteran of the fire service serving in volunteer, combination and career fire departments in both Louisiana and Nebraska, the last 19 years with Omaha Fire. He has been a fire instructor for the last 25 years, and was an FDIC instructor in 2013, 2014, and 2018. He holds an associate degree in fire science, a bachelor’s degree in public fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership and the NFA’s Executive Fire Officer Certification.