Continuous Improvement: The True Culture of the American Fire Service

BY DENNIS L. RUBIN

I have worked with some of the best and brightest people in our profession and have participated in dozens of important meetings designed to produce quality improvements to various components of our service. A few of the quality enhancement topics have included career development training, the attainment of higher education, delivery of emergency medical services (EMS), and firefighter safety, not to mention some of the most important purposes for the gatherings. In addition, I coordinated the past two Wingspread Conferences. The purpose of each was to develop a “Statement of Critical Issues to the Fire and Emergency Services in the United States.” At these meetings, discussions pointed to the need to “change the culture” of the fire-rescue service. I have been involved in more change-the-culture discussions than I care to remember.

Some of these meetings have included presentations on how to identify cultural traits of a specific team or group. I would say, in my nonscientific way, that cultural change is difficult at best and perhaps impossible in many cases to obtain and more difficult to sustain over time. To change one’s values, beliefs, and norms is a tall order. People will always meet sweeping change with strong opposition; this is simply a part of being human. Most will resist the “new cultural” changes while clinging onto the old ways they have learned and have blended into their daily routines and lives.

CHANGE ATTEMPTS

A few “real-world” examples (attempts really) to change the culture I have observed and have taken part in were the following: the delivery of EMS by a metro department, elevating the requirements for National Fire Academy students to enter the Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP), and improving firefighter safety procedures.

EMS Delivery

After a botched medical response, the District of Columbia (DC) Inspector General1 reported: “Individuals who played critical roles in providing these (EMS) services failed to adhere to applicable policies, procedures, and other guidance from their respective employers. These failures included incomplete patient assessments, poor communication between emergency responders, and inadequate evaluation and documentation of the incident. The result, significant and unnecessary delays in identifying and treating Mr. Rosenbaum’s injuries, hindered recognition that a crime had been committed.” (1)

After leading the DC Fire Department for four years, we worked overtime to improve the delivery of prehospital medical care in the nation’s capital. The focus was on high-quality delivery and process improvement of the entire EMS system. A Blue Ribbon panel developed a list of 50 action items that we used as our path forward to make the needed improvements to this widely used community service. The hope was that by placing such emphasis on EMS, the organizational culture would change to a much more positive one as it related to providing prehospital care in the community. With some of the membership, this proved to be an uphill battle; the EMS union, oddly enough, led the resistance.

National Fire Academy

I served as the International Association of Fire Chiefs representative at one of the EFOP reviews a few years back. The group of subject matter experts was gathered on campus in Emmitsburg, Maryland, to make recommendations to improve the overall program and learning experience. The Review Committee requested that a bachelor of art or science degree become a minimum prerequisite for entry into this much sought after executive development course. The Review Committee’s recommendation to add a bachelor’s degree to the EFOP entrance process set off some “fireworks.” Even with the four- or five-year phase-in clause as part of the transition, the folks who wanted to attend this program and did not possess a four-year college degree were dead set against this change. I heard complaints about this additional requirement from friend and foe alike. The general cultural belief was that there are many successful chiefs (past and present) who have not attained a four-year college degree. In fact, it was pointed out to me on many occasions that some of the most successful members wearing all five speaking trumpets did not even earn a high school diploma. Move ahead to the Wingspread IV Report2: It recorded a general caution that the fire service must embrace a culture of lifelong learning to truly become a profession. There is that pesky word “culture” again.

Seat Belts on Fire Apparatus

Consider the use of seat belts on fire apparatus. Some studies show that only 55 percent of firefighters use seat belts when riding a fire apparatus. A little more than half of our members click the silver buckle on this most basic life safety device. If you read further into the many reports about seat belt use and so many other safety-related issues, the need to “change the culture” and attitudes of the fire service toward members’ safety is identified. If one were to believe all of the research information and listen to the experts working within our business, the need to change or perhaps at least improve the culture within the fire service is ever present. This is a daunting task even for the most successful leaders.3

THE BEST PLACE TO CHANGE THE CULTURE

Perhaps the best place to change the culture and attitude of the firefighters is at the entry-level selection process. Some very smart folks think that it is the only way to make the types of changes that may be needed to improve the culture of our business and survive to tell about the changes. Before we get too far afield, let me make two of my personally held critically important beliefs perfectly clear. First, about 95-plus percent of the members within our departments are the best firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and paramedics on this planet! They come to the firehouse with the best attitudes and “culture of service,” packaged from the factory (the vast majority most likely got those character traits from their moms and dads).

For an example of how we lose focus on the fact that most of our folks are great people and declare that the culture needs to changed, I refer to the DC Inspector General’s report referenced above. The report paints the entire department of more than 2,000 employees as “indifferent” because of the investigation of two members who were the emergency medical care givers at a single event. Next, about six or seven firefighters per year are killed for lack of wearing their seat belts (ejected from a riding position to their death). This number is a small fraction of a percentage of members who safely responded to alarms during that same period. I understand that even one firefighter line-of-duty death is too many. However, it is easy to see that this “group-think” process becomes problematic when evaluating how to make sustainable cultural changes within an agency.

My final disclaimer is that the selection process for entry-level firefighters is a major concern of all types of fire departments. When it comes to selecting folks to become successful firefighters and EMTs, the exact same requirements apply for all types of organizational structures whether they are career, combination, or volunteer fire departments. We all need the very best people we can attract to complete the work at hand. It is challenging for a career department to consider all of the internal and external factors to recruit, test, and qualify new members. This same process represents even more of a burden on volunteer departments because of the lack of resources at the chief’s disposal. Perhaps the local government folks can lend a hand to help with the administrative workload I am proposing for volunteer agencies.

What if the volunteer (and career, for that matter) fire department members were selected using the same process the local government uses to hire police officers? I have worked in three communities that use “reserve” police officers (volunteer police officers) to bolster the career police staffing, and they go through the same selection process as a full-time officer. If the governing body agreed to provide this service, this could be an attainable goal, and why not?

WHEN THE RUBBER MEETS THE ROAD

Hire or elect (vote in) only the best members possible to be a part of your department-no exceptions. If the department varies from the practice of appointing the best and most successful candidates, the fire department will likely suffer in many ways that could have been avoided if it would have used the nationally recognized hiring standards. The reality is that about five percent of our membership takes up 95 percent of the organizational time to enforce policy and procedures and, in some cases, implementing the progressive disciplinary process. In one of the older incident safety officer courses, the core theme is that almost all firefighter injuries and fatalities are predictable. And, if the firefighter injuries and fatalities are predictable, they are preventable!

The same rule can be applied to the hiring process. If you hire and allow “rotten apples” to join your department, expect a rocky road of internal issues, poor cultural attitudes, social media battles, and personnel problems to plague your department. There is no guaranteed formula to predict who will likely be successful as firefighters and who will not. However, if the fire service is brave enough to enforce the minimum national standards for the hiring process while at the same time making sure that the playing field is level and fair for all who have the bona fide occupational qualifications skill set, this is as close to guaranteeing success as you can get.

HIRING FIREFIGHTERS

Since I believe in the works of Commander (Retired) Gordon Graham of the California Highway Patrol, I have heard his presentation on risk management many times. Each time I hear the speech, I get more useful information. One of my all-time-great Graham quotes is, “Never hire thugs or idiots! If you do, they will not let you down.” I have added one more element to Graham’s timeless truth: “Never hire military misfits, for they will always be misfits.” The other saying Graham uses frequently is, “… past behaviors equal future performance ….” This may sound like a blinding flash of the obvious, but it is worth repeating. Some departments have lowered their entry standards or, worse yet, do not have written entry standards for firefighters. The goal of changing the fire service culture should be directly connected to the hiring process to attract the best: the brightest and the most “culturally” in touch (the culture of service and the culture of safety) recruits possible.

One more membership entry consideration comes to mind from listening to a presentation by Deputy Fire Chief George Morgan of the Naval District of Washington (DC) Fire Department. His quote goes something like, “If the potential employee (or volunteer member) is a maybe hire, that person should become a no hire!” The chief explains that a large number of people want to become firefighters. He then asks why a department would settle for someone who may end up not being able to do the job. Why take the chance to hire questionable employees when there are many great potential employees waiting for the opportunity? It is impossible to predict that a person will be great at his job. However, when there are enough indicators that some candidates will not be successful, take a pass and don’t hire the questionable ones. Do the potential employee and the department a favor, and keep looking for an employee who fits the needs. A hasty decision in the hiring process will come back to haunt the department.

WHAT ABOUT A SECOND CHANCE?

Some departments have second-chance programs. I firmly agree that people do make mistakes and that they should be allowed a second chance to do better. They should be able to pick themselves up and get back to chasing the American dream of success and happiness. However, there is a narrow margin for error when you have been appointed as a firefighter and instantly have the public’s trust simply by pinning on the badge. When a person’s behavior violates that trust, he can no longer be a successful part of an emergency services organization. If you have violated the trust it takes to do the job, you cannot function in that position.

I am not talking about coming to work late, driving the engine over a curb, or scoring a 69 percent on your EMT recertification. The system can absorb small errors and get the member back on the correct path. If a firefighter has committed a felony, used illegal drugs, committed rape, violated gun laws, received repeated misdemeanors and driving under the influence violations, or is a spouse or child beater, the department should take a pass and keep looking for an acceptable person with a sound background and driving record.

WHY BE SO PICKY?

Somewhere in our country today (likely many times this day), a few firefighters will enter someone’s home to provide critically needed medical care. That customer will be alone and in perhaps the greatest moment of need in his life when the “publicly trusted” firefighters arrive to an unlocked and opened door (no search warrant needed). Most likely, that person’s entire life savings may be on the countertops when the rescuers arrive. If we select the correct members, every item will be in its place, and the door will be locked as the firefighters leave to take “Mr. or Mrs. Smith” off to the local hospital. That faithful and trusted action will not happen by accident and represents much of the value we offer to our communities. Fire departments must recruit, hire, train, and retain members who are always above reproach and follow the simple guideline of maintaining the public’s trust.

ABOUT OUR CULTURE

If your department makes sure that the folks you hire meet the above mentioned criteria, the cultural divide between what is desired by the community and what the firefighter brings to work every day will not be large. Next, there are some testing instruments that can help provide insight into a person’s psychological makeup and well-being. Perhaps we should do more work with the mental health experts to determine what measurements we can use to identify folks who have the right cultural traits; maybe the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) can fill this need.

This could be accomplished with a lot of research and hard work on our part-perhaps a few great long-term projects for some EFOP students (with a four-year degree, of course). The MMPI is a tool used to screen folks who hold critically sensitive credentials such as access to nuclear power plants or a commercial pilot’s license. If the mental health community can screen for the correct attitudes and values to determine who can be trusted inside a nuclear power facility or to fly a Boeing 787, we could ask them to determine the necessary traits and values that are best indicators of successful firefighters-EMTs.

References

1. DC Office of the Inspector General No. 06-I-003-UC-FB-FA-FX. Released June 2006.

2. Wingspread IV Report, meeting dates October 23 -25, 1996.

3. Clark, Dr. Burton. “How to Get Firefighters to Wear Their Seat Belts.” Fire Engineering, October 2004, 97-106.

DENNIS L. RUBIN is the principal partner in the fire protection-consulting firm D.L. Rubin & Associates, which provides training, course development, and independent review of policy and procedures for fire-rescue agencies. His experience in fire and rescue service spans more than 35 years. He has served as a company officer, command level officer, and chief in several major cities including Dothan, Alabama; Norfolk, Virginia; and Atlanta, Georgia. In 1994, Rubin served as the president of the State Fire Chiefs Association of Virginia. He was the host chief for the 1999 Southeastern Fire Chiefs Association conference in Dothan, Alabama. He served on several committees with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, including a two-year term as the Health and Safety Committee chair. He was the host fire chief for the “Wingspread IV and V” conferences held in 1996 and 2006. He is the author of the forthcoming book DC Fire (Fire Engineering).

Dennis L. Rubin will present “Rube’s Rules of Leadership,” on Tuesday, April 23, 1:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m., at FDIC 2013 in Indianapolis.

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