More and more each day, fire service professionals are engaging in conversations about the culture of their departments. The conversations vary from how great it is in one department to how bad it is in another. Why, we may wonder, do firefighters care about what is commonly acceptable regarding our behavior toward each other and the citizens of the community? Why do we care about our department’s reputation, character, and accountability to ourselves and each other?
This concern is often apparent in the frequency of conversations among firefighters on the topic of culture when discussing their departments. Conversations will take an avenue such as, “How are things at your department?” The responses may vary: “Well, they are still paying us; that’s about all I can say. Nothing has changed” or, “It’s great. Everybody seems to be happy. We enjoy coming to work.”
The differences in the responses may be associated with differences in culture. One department may have a culture that is defined; the other department may just exist and have no identifiable culture. Most leaders do not define their organization’s culture. The culture is a result of the organization’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) and policies: As long as everyone follows them, these guidelines and documents define the culture. They are meant to maintain a sense of order and keep personnel safe. It is true that SOPs and policies often look quite similar in many departments. This could lead one to believe that all organizational cultures, therefore, are similar, or at least closely mimic each other. If that’s true, why do cultures vary exponentially when most of the rules set in place mimic those of other organizations?
Many organizations expect satisfactory results from having and following rules alone. But, these rules and procedures do not address culture as it relates to members’ values and behaviors and the image of the department. Culture, not rules, defines the department’s reputation. Rules are not hard to follow, and most people will comply. But, the culture will take its own path – in some cases, a path of destruction if cultural guidelines are not identified formally.
The Celina (TX) Fire Department has created the formal “cultural” document “Our Family, Our Culture,” which is displayed at every fire station in the city. All department members participated in drafting and revising it. The document covers the values we feel are important to our job – service, brotherhood, teamwork, accountability, ethics, and commitment, to name a few. Examples of behavior associated with each value are included. We do our best to live by the principles we created; the document reminds us of who we are and why we exist. It keeps members focused on trying to improve as a person and as a better servant to each other and to serve our community as best we can.
Our document is based on servant leadership. It’s hard to argue that we shouldn’t be servants on and off the job. This model has served us well so far and will continue to do so as we grow.
Nobody but us will define our culture. Culture defines the department for members, other departments, and potential new members. The culture you create is the best marketing tool you have.
Celina (TX) Fire Department
Leader on the Back Step
Are you a “probie,” a “Johnny,” or a “salty dog” fire-forged vet? Do you know where you fit in, if at all, with the catchy terms or seniority? Well, as a member of the fire service, you don’t need terms or titles or rank to be a leader. If you’ve been in the service, career or volunteer, long enough to have someone new join the organization, you’re a leader. That new face in the firehouse is looking to you for an answer, a direction, a hand at learning the ropes.
The question becomes, “Do you have the integrity to treat the new members properly – to show them by example and to make them comfortable enough to learn and become confident and capable firefighters?
I have been in the fire service for 18 years and have been around firehouses all my life – from my dad, uncle, and older cousin to my present career in the federal fire service. Over the past few years, I’ve begun to reflect on the incidents and occurrences I’ve witnessed and the many faces and voices that helped form my career.
Even as a young boy, I knew I wanted to be that firefighter in the (then) long black coat and hip boots hanging onto the back of the engine wailing down the street. I didn’t know then that I didn’t want to be the guy sitting in the back room of the firehouse smoking a cigarette covered in donut crumbs and nagging the new firefighters about how they have never seen the action and will never see the action I’ve seen. Yes, I remember “that guy.” However, I also remember that “other guy,” the one out on the apparatus floor working on the engine, polishing the bell, working the pump valves, and even changing bulbs on the rear rotators. He displayed the extra bit of pride and put a little extra effort into making things just right, and he was always willing to show an interested kid how the pump worked or how to set a relief valve.
Working for the Department of Defense fire service and having a deep patriotic passion for military history, I also see a correlation between the military’s noncommissioned officers and the unsung leaders of the fire service. These leaders, like Sgt. Carwood Lipton of “Easy Company” and Sgt. John Basilone, “the Hero of Guadalcanal,” did not set out to become the legendary images of leaders they ultimately became and did not recognize that they were role models. Basilone went almost 48 hours without sleep, manned two machine guns while under heavy enemy fire, ran back to base to resupply his ammo, then charged the enemy and engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. He did it because it was his duty and to take care of his men, not for the Medal of Honor he later was awarded. When he was denied his request to return to the battlefield, he fought to train the young troops so they could benefit from his experiences.
Likewise, Lipton guided the members of “Easy Company” through battle after battle, covering for the lack of leadership, not for recognition or praise. He knew the value of members having respect for the chain of command and unofficially filled the role of leader because he loved his brothers and knew the group would fall apart without a leader. He had no idea that he had been nominated for the position of the lieutenant of Easy Company by his superiors, who respected the abilities he had demonstrated. These men knew that individuals have a need to belong and guidance, unity, vision, and a leader with backbone are needed to survive and to succeed. The generals or the politicians did not win World War II; it was the soldiers in the trenches of Bastogne, on the beaches of Normandy, and on the beaches and hills of so many tiny islands. They pushed their platoons, companies, and squads that extra little bit and fought with them for every inch.
Now, this is all well and good, but how do you become a leader or a mentor? There is no one universal answer, but I can tell you that you do not achieve these positions by putting people down, feeding and buying into rumors, or telling the probie to go scrub the toilet again because he did not do it correctly. What I have seen work is showing people the correct way to do a task and explaining why fire service members go the extra step and do things a little differently than the rest of the world. You do not have to be perfect; I have never seen perfection. Leaders – again, we are not talking a senior person, a driver, or an official rank – display integrity and self-accountability by admitting when something they have done could have been better and by owning up to their faults and flaws and working to improve them. They don’t preach on topics they don’t know enough about but instead leave that to someone who is more knowledgeable on that subject. Leaders lift the new members in the station and learn and help others to learn from these members’ talents or skills.
Nicholas A. Palumbo
Fire Engineering Archives