Devon Wells: Leading Change through Training

By Devon Wells

Leadership, change, and training–what do these words have in common? The fire service is in a state of change. It takes leadership to usher in this change in the best way possible for your organization. One of the best ways to adapt to change is to teach the new principles and practices in training. Whether it is hands-on training, kitchen table discussions, classroom instruction, or online webinars and podcasts, training is where change takes hold in organizations.

Almost every major change that has happened in the fire service finds its roots in the training division. New nozzles being evaluated are put through various tasks on the training ground. A new tactic being adopted is tested in different situations on the training ground to see how it can best be worked into the agency’s overall tactical plan. A new organizational philosophy is packaged into a training program to be delivered by the chief officers throughout the department. All of these types of change go through the training program in one way or another.

An analogy one of my department members recently drew uses a football team. Without a team effort, the ball will never get advanced down the field. It takes all 11 positions doing their part to make a successful drive to a touchdown, the ultimate goal. The chief is the quarterback of the team. The Training Division is the main ball carrier. The remaining factions of the department (fire operations, emergency medical services operations, volunteer associations, union associations, support personnel, and so on) are the players on the field that run blocking patterns and take the ball up the field on occasion. Unfortunately, there is a defense on the field, too. These defenders are commonly known as doubt, prideful behavior, deceit, laziness, and other detriments to a successful organization. It is up to the department leadership to knock down these defenders so the ball carriers can get through and score.

How do we get the team to use the same playbook and run the same plays? Through practice and training. Athletes put countless hours of training in compared to the number in which they are actually competing. Take a sprinter, for example. Sprinters train daily for hours to be the best and fastest at the event. They even train in long-distance events, weight training, and agility techniques to make them the fastest possible–all of this training throughout the year is for a race that is over in 10 seconds. Do we put that same proportion of training into our jobs?

Division Chief Eddie Buchanan [Hanover (VA) Fire & EMS] calls this changing environment in the fire service a “Tactical Renaissance.” This cultural rebirth is happening across the U.S. and is finding its path through training programs. To get these ideas that are in the air to be adopted, the training program, backed by the department leadership, must take action to help members gain an understanding of the topics. This has to happen with precise actions aimed at educating and influencing the members on the new ideas being presented.

But how do you know what needs to be changed, added, or deleted from your department’s tactical plans? They cannot be the ideas of just one person. There needs to be a collaborative effort aimed at identifying the important changes needed in the department. Once that list is developed, it must be prioritized and goals must be set for attaining the changes. A Gap Analysis is the best technique for making this happen.

A Gap Analysis asks the following questions:

1. Where do we want to be, or what do we want to do?

2. Where are we no, or what are we doing now?

3. What are we going to do to bridge the gap that was just identified?

Administration and leadership teams analyze the newly created list of answers to decide which items on the list are priorities. After the priorities are established, you can start to develop a road map for the training department. This process, depending on who is used during the exercise, allows for input from many of the team members. This creates buy-in at multiple levels in the organization, paving the way for progress.

As with any change that occurs, there will be various stages of acceptance among the members of the organization. Some will occur simultaneously; others will be on their own time schedule. These behaviors can be seen in five progressive stages:

1.    Anger or emotional rejection.

2.    Ignore it (maybe it will go away).

3.    Resentful compliance.

4.    Acceptance or commitment.

5.    General amnesia that the change took place.

As the members of your organization move through these phases, the most important thing you can do is to provide support, continue delivering a consistent message, and ensure that you fully understand the changes taking place. More likely than not, you will be challenged on many levels. This is normal and should be expected, so prepare yourself with knowledge, passion, and understanding of the paradigm shift.

As with any type of change or new practice, the use of a feedback loop concept is critical to continued progress and acceptance. Once the new tactic or policy is in place and the members have been trained, you must observe its effectiveness in real situations. These observations can be formal and informal, just a gathering of information on how well the new changes are being used. Once observations have been made, evaluate the need for adjustments to the practical application. Change will never take a strong footing if the message isn’t consistent message, actions aren’t continuously monitored, and wrong behavior is not corrected.  

One of the necessary evaluations is a “magazine rack” inspection. What types of reading materials are in your magazine racks and on your kitchen tables? If you find other department policies or opinion articles that are in direct opposition to the changes being, you need to more thoroughly investigate the situation.  Were the articles purposely placed to persuade people in opposition to the department’s direction? Are the articles enough of an opposition to be concerned about? Are people reading them and agreeing with them, or are they defending the department’s position? Be careful not to jump to conclusions when opposing literature is found. It may be a good thing, but you will never know if you don’t investigate further.

Change leadership is difficult. It takes perseverance, passion, dignity, and drive. In the book Good to Great, author Jim Collins discusses the change to greatness. He explains that you will not move from good to great in the blink of an eye. It takes time, energy, hard work, and endurance. Be strong. Stand up as a leader, and take the opportunity to lead change in your organization. Using the training division to help get the change implemented is fundamental to the successful adoption of the movement. Remember to help your members get an understanding of the change so they buy in at all levels of the organization. This will help you to lead change through training.

Leading Change is one of the most difficulty tasks fire agency leaders will face.


DEVON WELLS, EFO, is the chief of Hood River (OR) Fire & EMS. He is a 22-year veteran of the fire service and the 2nd vice president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. He presents at conferences across the country on safety, training management, leadership, and organizational philosophy.



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