THE INSTRUCTOR AS A CHANGE AGENT

BY HARRY R. CARTER

“NOTHING ENDURES BUT CHANGE.” While this may sound like something that was said last week by your buddies in the fire station, this quotation from Heraclitus dates back to before the birth of Christ. Over time, change has remained a topic about which much has been written. The conflict between comfort and change has been ongoing throughout history.

One of the most famous quotations was uttered by Alphonse Karr in 1849: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” I have witnessed many changes during my 41 years in the fire and emergency services. In each case, the new policy, procedure, or piece of equipment entered service only after a great deal of debate and controversy accompanied by much wailing and gnashing of teeth. The comfortable, accepted way of doing things always seems to pass into history only after a great deal of foot dragging and procrastination; or so it has seemed during my time as a fire lad.

CHANGE IS INEVITABLE

Yet, change we must. I can recall riding the back step of Engine Company #11 in Newark, hanging from the turntable of an aerial ladder truck with canister mask, high boots, and long rubber coat. I can also recall being part of a five- or six-person operational fire company. As loved as these things were, their time has come and gone.

A different way of doing things was identified and it became the new way of doing business over time. Sometimes, it was a better way; sometimes it was not. That is how I look at the staffing issue changes over the years, which have brought us to the point where many organizations seem to think that responding with a token number of people qualifies as a fire department. That has not been a change for the better.

One of the best explanations of change I have encountered comes from a recent text authored by management expert Warren Bennis. He writes: “(My work) implied a rather simple model of change, based on gentle nudges from the environment coupled with a truth-love strategy; that is, with sufficient trust and collaboration.”1

Bennis sets a tone that will serve as the basis for my discussion of the instructor as a change agent. He writes, “One thing about change I learned was (that) to be an effective leader qua change agent, you had to adhere simultaneously to the symbols of tradition and stability and to the symbols of revision and change.” (1, 272). This basic piece of wisdom is often lost by many people in their rush to create change.

Change must flow outward from the existing platform provided by your fire organization. Initiating change just for the sake of changing is a poor reason to change anything. Let us look at the reason we no longer ride the back step on our fire trucks. A review of the past tells us that people often fell from the rear step and were killed or crippled. Many fought the change to enclosed cabs, but good sense prevailed in the end.

Well-trained, experienced fire instructors should be seen as purveyors of good sense and reason. Instructors in fire or emergency services associations are perceived as teachers. The organization sees them as the shepherds of the knowledge flow for its members. They are expected to stay on top of changes in the fields of fire suppression and emergency operations. They are expected to be the purveyors of new techniques and technology.

Some people see them as a strong, positive asset, whereas others consider them nothing more than a necessary evil. The people in this second classification tolerate being taught-nothing more, nothing less. Fortunately, a great many departments see the importance of having well-trained and knowledgeable instructors on staff.

Instructors are uniquely positioned within their agencies to become the agents of change. In their role as purveyors of knowledge, both new and existing, they have a unique opportunity to influence the future of their departments. They are expected to gather new methods and share them with their fellow fire department members. In this way, they can easily exert a positive influence on the way in which things are done in their departments.

Sadly, many instructors just go through the motions. They end up in training because they have been injured, they angered someone, or any of a number of improper reasons. They do not want to be in training, but there they are and there they will remain.

They have a loose-leaf manual with all of their lesson plans and class outlines. These plans and outlines have not changed a lick in years. This type of instructor will amble to the front of the room, read from the lesson plan, show a couple of videos, break for lunch, and then start all over again in the afternoon. You have seen this sort of instructor. I know I have.

It is fortunate that each of us has been exposed to this sort of charlatan. By seeing through the sham, we can choose to profit from these instructors’ mistakes. That is what I have done over the past 41 years. I have sorted through the instructional examples presented to me as I moved through a variety of venues. I have chosen to separate the wheat from the chaff and to create a student-centered type of instruction.

STUDENT-CENTERED INSTRUCTION

One important idea that has come to the fore in my instructional method revolves around the unique opportunity instructors have to influence change in their organizations. Good instructors are expected to do the necessary research to keep their programs lined up with the latest developments in the fire and emergency service world. By staying on top of the latest trends, instructors can inject the latest tools and technologies into their training sessions.

In this way, instructors can become agents of change. This is not a simple task. Change involves an adjustment in the status quo. As you and I have often read in the fire service journals, change within the fire service is very difficult to implement. People fall in love with what was and fear any change in their way of doing business.

Over the years, I have come to call these people who fear change the “we’ve always been doing it that way warriors.” Any time a change to their world is proposed, they react as follows: They will tell you that it has never been done that way, and then swing into the corollary refrain, “We’ve always done it this way.” These two foes have been at the center of many of my worst battles over the past several decades.

Let me suggest to you again that instructors are uniquely positioned to influence the implementation of change in emergency service agencies. If they are doing their job correctly, they are reading the trade journals, studying the fire service texts, and attending one or more of the major fire service trade shows in America. There is now also a wide array of regional gatherings where the latest in knowledge and procedures is available. All it takes is a bit of drive and a bit of money.

INSTRUCTOR AS CHANGE AGENT

The critical first step in morphing instructors into change agents involves the instructors themselves. They must decide that a change in their approach to teaching is in order and that they are going to move out in front of their organizations and work to lead them into the future. This is not always an easy thing to do. This is a very personal decision. It may be difficult to make this change in organizations where knowledge and training are tolerated instead of encouraged.

Although instructors should recognize the need to embrace change, they should not become slaves to the latest whims and fads. They must make a series of astute judgments about which changes will benefit their departments and which will just be window dressing. They also must be able to tell the difference between how the department is managed and how it functions. Your agency has an official chain of command and a distinct way of doing things. However, there are also organizational influences at work that affect the way things get done.

FACTORS THAT INFLUENCE ORGANIZATIONS

A number of operational overlays influence the way in which an organization does business.2 To influence change, these forces-function, sociometry, decision, and power-must be understood.

The functional overlay is perhaps the easiest to describe. It involves the way in which members of the staff interact with the line folks out in the fire stations. Before you can champion change, you must be familiar with exactly how your department operates. The social interactions among individuals can provide clues relative to who associates with whom within the sociometric overlay. This knowledge may help you to influence individuals with whom you will need to interact.

Also, unless you know where the true power is and who makes the decisions in your department, your efforts to institute change will have little chance of succeeding. When instructors understand the department’s manner of operating, they can begin to influence change from the front of the classroom.

What are some of the things instructors can do to facilitate their role as change agents? One place to start is to create an in-house library of the most current texts and fire service journals. Making knowledge readily available allows new ideas and concepts to flow into the organization. Another approach is to create a discussion or study group that will serve as a mechanism for ongoing dialog on new concepts.

It is critical for the instructor who wishes to become a change agent to continually gather data that support the latest developments in the fire service. For some people, data make the declaration of a new theory true. Although this may not always be true, the more data that say a change is good and proper, the greater the chance that people will buy into the concept.

The departmental meeting is another mechanism for enhancing the role of change agent. These gatherings serve as a platform for the new ideas you would like to introduce in the organization. The would-be change agent must be enthusiastic and sincere, present his thoughts in an orderly manner, and provide supporting materials to justify his position. The data gathered to support the issue positions can be included in these materials.

Perhaps the change agent can influence department leaders to send other members of the department to seminars and industry trade shows. As these members travel outside the department and become exposed to new ideas, they, too, might become change agents. They may even bring back new ideas that can foster even more change in the work environment.

Once ready to create departmental change strategies, develop promotional methods to bring the changes into your department’s main stream, such as slogans and T-shirts.

Just look at the success the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation is enjoying with its “Everyone goes home” slogan. The simpler the concept, the greater the chance of success. I have pins, wristbands, and seat belt covers with the same slogan.

Sometimes, it becomes obvious to the instructor that things are not going to change from within, at least not easily and quickly. At such times, the instructor can advocate retaining a management consultant to assist the department in meeting the changing needs of the world around it. Coming from the outside, these consultants can bring a much-needed burst of objectivity. They have no vested interest in the organization and are interested only in rendering a fair and impartial hearing of the organization’s need for change.

Sometimes it is helpful to bring in motivational consultants who can awaken the potential for change in people who otherwise would be stagnant. These consultants can create enthusiasm the fire instructor can then channel into greater support for the new ideas and focus on integrating organizational goals and individual member values. Some points of caution are in order here. Do not get swept away by the speeches and forget that creating an environment for change is the reason for the sessions. Do not run afoul of members’ value systems. People will not entertain changes that violate the basic tenets of their beliefs.

A solid way to bolster the need for change is to use real-life examples and case studies. This is something with which I am intimately familiar. Serving as the editor of the Respondersafety.com Web site has placed me right in the middle of a critical debate on the issue of police, fire, and EMS people who are killed and injured while operating on North American highways.

Each week our site publishes the latest incidents involving people killed or injured. We show what went wrong in each of these instances. Our staff then works to tie the real-life tragedies to our available training materials. In this way, we seek to influence a change in the behaviors of emergency service personnel when they step out of their vehicles onto the highways and byways of their communities.

Anyone seeking to become a change agent must be extremely responsive to the people with whom they interact. Responsiveness is a simple concept. If people make suggestions or requests that are rejected, not acknowledged, or otherwise not answered, they will get discouraged. They will lose interest and stop participating. Since people need to participate in change events, nonresponsiveness can kill any hope for change.

Perhaps the key issue in implementing change involves team spirit. The instructor must work to bring people together. Teams need to emerge naturally from the organization’s shared beliefs and values. The instructor must understand and encourage this action. Failure to actively create teams can lead to a split in the fire department’s focus. This negative consequence can destroy all of the instructor’s positive efforts.

Bennis laid it all out quite neatly. His discussion of blending the past, present, and future into a seamless, well-traveled trail is the goal a fire instructor should shoot for in the drive to become an effective, change-oriented force for future success. This move toward the future is not an easy journey, but it is worth undertaking. The above steps can help you to become a force for change within your fire department.

Let me leave you with this single, solid thought: Change is inevitable. You can plan for it or be blown about like the leaves that fall from the trees annually. Someone has to create a roadmap to reach the future. Why shouldn’t it be you?

References

1. Bennis, W., G.M. Spreitzer, and T.G. Cummings. The Future of Leadership. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 272.

2. Gibson, J.S., J.M. Ivancevich, and J.H. Connelly. Organizations. (New York: Irwin, McGraw Hill, 2000).

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., is a 41-year veteran of the fire service. He is chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners for Howell Township (NJ) Fire District #2. He served 26 years with the Newark (NJ) Fire Department and also had a long career with the Adelphia Fire Company in Howell Township. He is a former chief and now serves as the fire company chaplain. He is the author of seven books and has written more than 1,500 magazine, Web, and journal articles.

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