Let the Culture Change You

By Vicki Schmidt

At a conference a year or so ago, a speaker noted: “We don’t change the culture, the culture changes us.” In the corner of my notes I wrote down those words; knowing I’d come back to them someday.

The presentation went on to show us how a moment in fire history still impacts us today. Mentioned were examples of leadership from chiefs, commanding officers, instructors, and those conducting research. Also noted were the folks who put the research into written text and design practical applications that bring “the science to the streets.” But after all these words, I never did understand how that was changing us. After all, we’re taught we need to make a difference; we need to take all this training and information and further teach, train, and mentor the future leaders of the fire service. Most importantly, we need to do it all in a fashion that keeps us as safe and efficient as possible.

My curiosity about these words was piqued since fire service personnel everywhere, many of whom I hold in high regard, are always saying how we need to change the culture of the fire service. Why then was this speaker, who I also highly respect, telling us the opposite? After several months of reading and studying, I understand. The speaker is absolutely correct. Every cultural change follows a technology or an event that impacts our behavior. For these reasons, we’ll never change the culture of the fire service; it’s a one way street, and it only changes us.

Taking a look back to the 1920s, we see the demise of horse-drawn fire apparatus. This didn’t happen because a group of firefighters decided one day they didn’t like horses. It happened because of the development of the internal combustion engine, and, more importantly, commercial improvements involved in the drilling and production of petroleum. The stimulus of that cultural change diffused through the fire service, and we as firefighters changed because of it.

It’s somewhat ironic that a related wave of highly refined, commercially based petroleum products is driving our second revolution, not only in firefighting but in fire research: the proliferation of plastics, glues, and solidified foams–all products of refined petroleum–in our homes, offices, and building components. These same products, in different forms, also make up the majority of home and office furnishing, chairs, and carpet, thereby additionally increasing the fire burden of buildings.

We are fortunate to live in an era where research is quickly communicated and pockets of progressive thinkers can easily get their science to the streets. But all the science and street-smart skills aren’t going to keep firefighters safe if we don’t allow the information and its resulting culture of knowledge and training to change us.

One stumbling block to enabling change is the fact that our fire service institutions are integrated with codes and curricula that also need to change. This interdependence is a major factor in politics as well as resistance. As individuals, we need to work with those leading code and curriculum development so these avenues of change do not continue to lag decades behind research. Follow your leaders, but know your leaders first. There is a difference between those leading the change, those wanting to change, and those waiting for change. Support those who are leading change. Codes and commercial curricula will take years to catch up with the research, but in the meantime we as firefighters, instructors, commanding chiefs, and officers can make the personal commitment now to let the cultural changes change us.

We further need to embrace the communication revolution and engage the world of progressive thinkers and change our fire and training ground behaviors. Some say we need to change our tactics in response to new research. Do we change our tactics, or do we change the fashion of our tactics? Water is still the most effective firefighting agent, whether used by itself or in combination with surfactants, or forced from a fog, smooth, or master stream device. We change a behavior or skill because knowledge or an element of how we deliver the water changes, but water stays the same.

As our knowledge of how fire impacts a building changes, and especially buildings with modern components, have our strategies changed? Do we use our tactics to complement the new knowledge of how the building will react under the perceived or predicted conditions? Many agree that our basic strategies never change because fire behavior hasn’t changed. Fire is still a mixture of heat, air, and the off-gassing of a fuel, that meets an ignition source and creates a self-sustaining chemical reaction. Impact anyone of those elements and you impact the fire. Sometimes we make it go out, sometimes we make it worse.

The goal is to take knowledge and change our behavior in ways that leverage our basic firefighting skills. By doing this we learn to impact the fires behavior toward our desired objectives. We all change with an increase in knowledge. As firefighters, we use the transformation to complement tactics that allow us to control, slow down, and stop the consumption of the fuel load, thereby extinguishing the fire.

Change requires that an influence successfully alters our behavior in such a fashion that the change is entrenched. In the fire service, there is an emotional and physical security to habitual behavior and patterns. What’s key is knowing what to hold on to and what to allow to change within us. To sincerely commit to reducing firefighter death and injury, we as individuals need to change. If you catch yourself agreeing with “we have to change the culture” crowd, ask yourself: How about I allow the culture to change me? Then make it happen.

Vicki Schmidt is a fire service Instructor and a geographical information specialist (GIS) for the state of Maine. She also serves on the Maine Fire Protection Services Commission and is a firefighter and training officer for the Buckfield Fire Department. Schmidt’s fire service activities also include Maine’s Fire & Life Safety Technical Advisory Group and coordinating the Western Maine Fire Attack School.


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