The Fire and Emergency Services Culture: Can It Be Changed?

By Brian R. Brauer

The term “culture” is thrown around a lot, both as a positive descriptor for our commitment to the mission of saving lives and protecting property and also as a negative for the darker side of our fire service-for example, discrimination, hazing, and actions that lead to duty injuries and deaths without the likelihood of a reward commensurate to the risks taken. What is culture, and how does it impact the fire and emergency services?

The topic of a fire and emergency services culture has been at the center of my research since I began as a student in global human resource development (HRD) at the University of Illinois in 2004. I ran across the concept in an international HRD course and conceptualized that if you looked at fire and emergency services as having different values from those of our U.S. society as a whole, it helped to explain some of the differences between what was important to the culture of fire and emergency services organizations and other careers in the United States. This article defines culture as a concept, explores the concept of organizational culture, applies that concept to the fire and emergency services, and discusses the recent calls for cultural change.

What Is Culture?

Scholars have described the culture of a group in various ways:

  • “Basic, shared assumptions” learned by a group as it solves its problems. When this problem solving is successful, the methods are taught to new members as correct solutions to the problems.1
  • The “collective programming of the mind.”2
  • “Patterned ways of thinking” based on traditional and historical ideas.3
  • “A coherent system of assumptions and basic values which distinguish one group from another and orient its choices.”4

All four of these definitions identify culture as a process that occurs in the individual based on learned behaviors influenced by a group. Culture is elusive and difficult to describe5 and is often taken for granted.6

Culture in Organizations

An organization’s culture is reflected in the group’s internal characteristics, its character, and its daily existence.7 It has a significant influence on the experiences of individuals who operate within it.8 Researchers view organizational culture as both the value system and assumptions a group uses to frame decisions and behavior models, beliefs, symbols, technologies, and artifacts (7); the “collective programming of the mind that distinguishes members of one organization from another” (2, 391); and as “the pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered, or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and that have worked well enough to be considered valid, and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”9

As culture in general differentiates nations, the culture of an organization differentiates the members of different occupations.

Fire and Emergency Services Culture

Uniformed professions, such as police departments, fire departments, and military units, have a unique culture unto themselves. These organizations possess characteristics such as a sense of duty and allegiance not found in such a strong degree in other professions.10 There is no universal or single culture that describes all aspects of all fire departments, law enforcement organizations, or military units,11 but some generalizations can be made. In 2004, fire and emergency services organizational culture came front and center with the release of the Life Safety Initiatives.12 Initiative 1 called for us to change our culture, and the other 15 initiatives all required some aspect of cultural change. What is the culture that we’ve been tasked with changing?

The cultures of uniformed organizations have the following characteristics in common:

  • They are relatively isolated from society as a whole. (11, 465)
  • They are characterized by their strong culture that includes the use of a uniform, hierarchical command structure, promotion solely from within the existing ranks, and long-standing traditions.13
  • Fire departments further differ from other organizations in that they are exposed to uncommon levels of danger, work unusual schedules, require a lot from their members, and can recall staff and cancel their leaves. (11)
  • Fire department, law enforcement, and military organizations have unique indoctrination procedures that inculcate their specific culture at special schools, acquainting members with the demands of the profession, as well as the special privileges that society affords them. (11)

Some of these practices date back centuries, as military groups were some of the first formal organizations. They are also characterized by a Janusian or two-sided organizational culture-one that has both emergency response/combat (hot) and nonemergency response/noncombat/administrative (cold) aspects and functions to the work.

Three consistent aspects across police, fire, and military group cultures are communal life, a hierarchical command structure, and strong discipline. (11) The feature of communal life that builds a unique and deep organizational culture is its immersive nature-a strong overlap between work activities and leisure activities with the same group of people and a feeling that the rules that govern work time may also extend to leisure-time activities. The hierarchy of these organizations creates internal bureaucracies that rely on a rank structure to make decisions, which drives decision-making frameworks within the organization.

Last, discipline, or the strong compliance with rules, orders, and authority within the organizational culture, can govern actions as a member of the police or military culture.

Traditions such as looking out for each other, working a particular shift, rituals that begin the workday, and company and department insignia and uniforms all reinforce communalism.14 Hierarchy is reinforced through choosing/bidding on shift schedules, new members washing the dishes, seniority, and differing rank insignia and dress. (14) Discipline has two distinct aspects-a formal discipline process using formal human resources (HR) practices and authorities and an informal process that leverages small-unit consequences within a division of the organization, outside of the formal process.

Volunteer fire departments are viewed by some as a cultural resource of a community, a link to simpler days.15 Firefighters are unusually committed to their work and display a high level of pride. This high level of pride produces an environment of competition and risk taking.16 The firefighting organizational culture can be viewed as a perfect storm that has evolved slowly, resists change, encourages long-term employment, draws on strong interpersonal connections, and takes pride in each of these areas.17

This culture of the fire service has evolved through a complex process of group learning.18 In some cases, in the fire service, methods espoused as solutions may be incorrect, but they are perpetuated because they are viewed as traditions.19 Fire department history and traditions can create a culture that is either difficult or impossible to change, and fire departments may need to give up some freedom and better adhere to national standards to reduce line-of-duty deaths (LODDs).20

The fire service discipline code has been described as being “highly prescriptive, promotes from within the organization only … has long standing traditions, and is predominantly white-male dominated” (13, 94). This system is perpetuated through the cultural processes that individuals are introduced to when they go through the paramilitary style initial training. When members leave the fire service, five of the seven major reasons for leaving all surround the organization’s culture.21

The image of the firefighter as a hero and an extreme risk taker is rooted in popular culture, and this concept washes over into the performance of duties based on perceived public expectations of heroism instead of actual job performance requirements.22 This conception originated in the colonial fire departments where the need for rapid response and competition to be the first to show up at a fire led members of fire departments to take great risks to arrive at the emergency scene and take control of the fire quickly and with a lesser regard for personal safety.23 The trade-off of speed vs. safety resulted in negative balances at both ends of the spectrum.24 “Following all rules can make it impossible to complete a job (such as fire suppression or victim rescue) in a timely manner. Skipping steps or breaking rules can lead to increased risk of injury or death to the firefighter or his fellow firefighters and could also lead to punitive organizational actions for failing to follow rules.” (24)

Heroism as a basic value or assumption may be an impediment to developing the situational awareness necessary to safely mitigate high-risk, low-frequency events such as fires, chemical releases, and other uncommon emergencies.25 For the number of LODDs to decrease, there must be a deemphasis on heroism with a greater emphasis on safety. (23)

Why Cultural Change Is Important

In the introduction to the 2008 virtual symposium “Reducing Firefighter Deaths and Injuries: Changes in Concept, Policy, and Procedure,” Dr. John Granito opened with the statement that the fire service needs to focus on organizational culture among other concepts and constructs to lessen the LODD toll within the United States fire service. He stressed that current cultural practices for fighting fires in general and aggressively entering buildings in particular, wellness, and vehicle operations are all areas that need improvement.26 There is a need to reinforce that the organizational culture of the fire service must change to reduce the annual toll of LODDs.27,28,29

The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) produced a paper in 2013 that identified five “Wicked Issues” the fire service can no longer ignore.30 Culture was one of the five issues identified; the others were political acumen, cost efficiency, data, and deployment/staffing. The IAFC has identified a parallel set of issues grounded in the fire service organizational culture. Specifically, the IAFC agrees that the demand for fire department services is evolving, constantly changing, and less focused on fire suppression. It points out that the environment of service delivery in the fire service is changing and that addressing organizational culture is critical for success.

Along with the IAFC, the United States Fire Administration (USFA) has added to the call for cultural change. In 2015, the USFA and IAFC produced a collaborative paper that looked at the positive and negative aspects of the culture of the U.S. fire service. It can be found at The three focal areas of the study were health and wellness with an emphasis on medical screening, vehicle safety in emergency and personal vehicles, and incident risk management. The overall objective of this National Safety Culture Change Initiative was to support the need for cultural change in the fire service by advocating for the need to change at the organizational level by incorporating personal responsibility and department leadership. The International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) identified these same issues as starting points in its discussion on cultural change as a part of overall occupational safety and health in the fire service (2010).

An analysis of LODD investigations identified “a cultural paradigm of firefighting.” This paradigm included “operating with too few resources, compromising certain roles and functions, skipping or short-changing certain operational steps and safeguards, and relying on extreme individual efforts and heroics.”31 These traits, the authors say, are long-standing traditions that reflect how things were done in the past and a form of normalization of deviance-more than a conscious, analytical choice to consistently engage in outdated or misapplied tactics, techniques, and procedures. The model is somewhat effective, but it values speed over safety and must be downplayed in the organizational culture of the fire service if the number of LODDs is to be reduced. (31) The authors noted that the competition between time-sensitive outcomes (victim rescue and fire suppression) against safety and implementation of a management system at an emergency scene and simplifying strategies through a lens of organizational culture of a given department serve as blinders to potential hazards on the fireground.

There is a high tolerance for risk reinforced by past practices and inaccurate public perception and a willingness for members of the culture to do whatever it takes to perform rescue and fire suppression activities. This study was one of the first to not only identify a need for cultural change but also to probe the extant literature for root causes. Unfortunately, this literature is largely limited to death investigations, and these investigations do not provide a deep or detailed analysis of the culture, adding credence to the position that the description of organizational culture of the fire service has been largely neglected in scientific literature.

There is a unique culture within organizations, specifically the U.S. fire service, which begins with a paramilitary orientation and indoctrination process. This organizational culture can be changed, and the fire service history includes both positive and negative examples of such change. Successful change must be modeled at the highest levels of the organization, and the change must be reinforced at all levels throughout the organization. In some cases, it has been possible to change values by altering recruiting and training programs to reflect the desired values.

A closing thought from Geert Hofstede serves as a fitting end to the discussion of the organizational culture in the fire service and the need for a shift in these values to reduce on-duty fatalities: “Uniformed organizations have to balance their attempts to introduce new ways of working … with the necessity of preserving traditional basics. Changing uniformed cultures requires patience and wisdom.” (2, 481). We provide a critical service delivered in a deep, rich culture with room to make incremental changes to provide those services in a safer, more deliberate manner while preserving the history and values that define the United States fire and emergency services.


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12. 16 Life Saving Initiatives, Everyone Goes Home®

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BRIAN R. BRAUER, Ed. D., is the associate director for infrastructure, industrial training, and special projects at the Illinois Fire Service Institute, the statutory state fire academy. He has 25 years of experience as a fire officer, a paramedic, and an emergency room nurse. He has a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Illinois at Chicago, a master’s degree in human resource development, and a doctoral degree in educational policy and organizational leadership from the University of Illinois. His dissertation validated a model for changing organizational culture in emergency service organizations by exploring the changes that occurred in a department that experienced significant positive change through a combination of a new leader and a fireground fatality.

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