More Change Lessons

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

Last month I began a DISCUSsion on the dynamics of fire service change. I may have sounded a bit cynical in my description of how Engine One (where I was assigned for 10 years) reacts to organizational change. That reaction is based on having been actually (not academically) connected up close and personal to the process of fire department change for my entire career. Based on position/promotion, I got to be the “messenger” early in life, and that caused me to quickly become a lifelong student of change. I discovered that the standard textbook stuff on change sometimes necessitated a pretty radical adaptation when you stood up in front of real, live firefighters at the “let’s do it a different way” pep rally.

My observations about the challenge of making fire service transitions is not meant in any way to discount the basic ability of firefighters to understand and deal with new (or old) information. In my experience, firefighters are the smartest, most adaptable, most capable group of humans I have ever encountered. In fact, firefighters routinely do work that requires the most physical/mental skill, intelligence and creativity right in the middle of a hazard zone producing the most dangerous imaginable changing conditions.

Surviving in such active firefighting positions requires they are always able to instantly create an effective, agile tactical response (i.e., quick change) that matches what is going on right now and what will occur five seconds (!) from now. If they don’t stay ahead of (or sometimes out of the way of) those dynamic conditions, which are literally changing by the second, those conditions can, and sometime do, kill them. Any boss who does not recognize that firefighters are change champs, not change chumps, is going to have some long, difficult days on the change circuit.

The basic profile of exceptional firefighter capability creates both the ability to effectively embrace change and also to use those same skills to effectively resist change. Simply, smart people can create really smart problems. The challenge of fire service change is not the inherent ability of the troops to understand and perform; rather, it is the ongoing context of how firefighters fit into the basic culture of their fire department. The basic context is pretty simple.

1 A fire department is set up basically to solve urgent problems, and the problem most firefighters focus on is going to a fire. They act out their identity by laying hose and raising ladders. The best day they have is when there is a worker. Most firefighters will tell you, “We don’t have enough fires.” I have never been able to figure out how many (fires) would be enough. The problem for bosses is that in between fires, firefighters can use their energy in very, very creative ways. If the boss is a problem, they have the ability to “solve” that. Our basic firefighting problem-solving spirit is our strongest asset. I can’t imagine trying to manage a timid group of firefighters.

2 Firefighting is a team sport. Fire companies are strong, small, tight teams that, like most fighting teams, become their own internal reference point. As an insane example, I was so attached to my original company that I bought and restored the fire engine (Engine One) I was raised on. Fire companies operate together to gang up on and overpower incident conditions. They will race to beat their next-door neighbor in and will then kill themselves (literally) to protect and save that same neighbor. Firefighting is a strange combination of cooperation and competition.

3 Firefighters typically have a lot of “stand by” time to discuss, argue, pontificate, and then construct their own descriptions of inside/outside reality. Many firefighters have been granted law degrees based on their ability to define, articulate, and easily solve world problems in the kitchen of Station One. They are a lot more connected to each other than what is going on in the fire chief’s office (sorry, Chief). I worked with an old guy who routinely mumbled, “I was on this corner when they got here, and I’ll be on this corner when they are gone.” Generally, he was indeed still there when “they” were gone. The change process must understand and deal with this “I’ve seen ’em come and I’ve seen ’em go” reality.

4 Fire companies have a very structured day-to-day routine they follow inside their group that creates order, stability, and dependability. That internal routine reinforces the profile of the operational level subculture of that fire company. The structured routine serves both the day-to-day process of living in that fire station and the team response to incidents. That internal routine provides powerful protection to the identity of that company. Any effective change dynamic must somehow get past that internal routine to get “inside” the minds and bodies of those company members. I can remember scheduling training sessions with fire companies around the stop/start time of “The Andy Griffith Show.”

5 On-duty firefighters have an extremely vocational orientation. When they come on duty and put on a navy blue shirt, they deal with the world as if it were on fire. They are highly impatient when they are on duty with academic or theoretical stuff, not because they can’t in any way understand such information or material. Away from the fire station, they are highly capable students, teachers, technicians, business people, day traders, and big-time contractors, but this is a duty day and for today the focus is to put water on the fire. Any change agent who shows up that day and wants to keep the audience awake had best have some smoke in his presentation.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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