What is the Fire Service Culture?

By:  Robert Avsec

It’s like the weather: everyone talks about it.  “It” is the culture of the fire service in the United States of America.  We hear it, we see it (in print and on-line), and we talk about it.  Lately, what’s most prominent in this communication is: We need to change the fire service culture.

Tim Sendelbach, Editor-in-Chief, Fire Rescue Magazine

Dr. Burt Clark, Executive Fire Officer Program, National Fire Academy

Many influential people in and around the fire service, e.g., Dr. Burt Clark, Tim Sendelbach, Alan Brunacini, etc., say that we need to change the culture so that we can truly eliminate firefighter deaths and injuries.  Other people say we need to change the culture to ensure that all men and women get fair and equal treatment in our fire and EMS organizations regardless of their gender, race, nationality, religion or sexual orientation.

I happen to belong to both of those “camps” if not more.  But before this “train” gets too far down the track, I think it would be helpful to first have a good understanding of what exactly is the “culture of the fire service.”  Because if we don’t understand the “current state”, how do we know what to change and what to keep?  So let’s get started, shall we?

What are the visible attributes of culture? What are the elements that you can point to and say, “that is there to show and sustain this culture”?

Artifacts

Artifacts are the physical things that are found that have particular symbolism for a culture. They may even be endowed with mystical properties.  The first products of a company.  Prizes won in grueling challenges and so on are all artifacts.

Think about some of the artifacts in the fire service and in your own www.mansfield-tx.govdepartment.  Just to name a few, we have:

  • Departmental patches and logos and certification patches;
  • The apparatus we buy, how it’s painted and lettered;
  • The uniforms we wear, including all the “bells and whistles” that make up a dress uniform; and
  • Our turnout gear, particularly our helmets with front shields that ID our company or department.

Artifacts serve as reminders or “triggers”.  When members of the organization see them, they think about their meaning and hence are reminded of their identity as a member of the culture, and, by association, of the rules of the culture.

Stories, histories, myths, legends, jokes

Storytelling, or oral history, have served to help perpetuate a culture within a society for thousands of years, especially before the written word became commonplace.  Such stories often had the culture embedded, whether they are deep and obviously intended as learning devices, or whether they appear more subtly, for example in humor and jokes.

A typical story includes a bad guy (often shady and unnamed) and a good guy (often the founder or a prototypical cultural member). There may also be an innocent. The story evolves in a classic format, with the bad guy being spotted and vanquished by the good guy, with the innocent being rescued and learning the greatness of the culture into the bargain.

So who’s our “bad guy”?  Why fire of course!  The “red devil”!  Since the beginning of firefighting it has been the mission of firefighters to: Find the “beast”; slay the “dragon”; and defeat the “enemy.”  These “deeds” become the “war stories” that get passed on from one generation of firefighters to the next, both formally, e.g., in training programs, and informally.

Unfortunately, another “bad guy” (or gal) in many departments is anyone who’s not a white male.  Stories can a powerful way to convey prejudices and biases toward those of a different gender, race, nationality, or sexual orientation.  The “good guys”, aka, the incumbent white males, see it as their mission to “maintain” the integrity of the organization by ridding it of the “bad guys/gals”.

Sometimes there stories are true. Sometimes nobody knows. Sometimes they are elaborations on a relatively simple truth. The power of the stories are in when and how they are told, and the effect they have on their recipients.

Rituals, rites, ceremonies, celebrations

Rituals are processes or sets of actions which are repeated in specific circumstances and with specific meaning.  Certainly, few organizations “do” rituals like the fire service:

  • A department’s entrance process, particularly the physical ability portion;
  • Completion of training programs, particularly the “grueling ones”, e.g., Smoke Divers School;
  • Promotional ceremonies and award ceremonies;
  • Retirement ceremonies and parties; and
  • A funeral for a line-of-duty firefighter death.

Whatever the circumstance, the predictability of the rituals and the seriousness of the meaning all combine to sustain the culture.

Heroes

Heroes in a culture are named people who act as prototypes, or idealized examples, by which cultural members learn of the correct or “perfect” behavior.  The classic heroes are the founders of the organization, who are often portrayed as much more perfect then they actually are or were.  Who are fire service “heroes”?  They come in many “shapes and sizes” such as:

  • The firefighter who saves a life at risk to their own, or loses their life trying to do so;
  • The officer who stands by their subordinate when the “chips are down”;
  • The firefighter or officer who always has time to coach and mentor another;
  • The firefighter or officer who “leads” the efforts to make another feel unwanted or unworthy of their position;
  • The firefighter or officer who constantly “bucks the system” and develops a following because of it; or
  • The firefighter or officer who flaunts or ignores safe work practices to demonstrate their “toughness” and develops a following because of it.

These heroes, and the stories that are told about them, symbolize and teach people the ideal behaviors and norms of the culture.

Symbols and symbolic action

Symbols, like artifacts, are things which act as triggers to remind people in the culture of its rules, beliefs, etc. They act as a “shorthand” way to keep people aligned.

The paramilitary system has been a part of the fire service for many generations.  The symbols of that system, e.g., rank, duty assignments, office space assignment, riding position on the apparatus, etc., can also be used to indicate status within a culture.  These status symbols send subtle “signals” to others to help them use the correct behavior with others in the hierarchy.  They also “lock” the users of those symbols into prescribed behaviors that are appropriate for their status and position.

Beliefs, assumptions and mental models

An organization and culture will often share beliefs and ways of understanding the world.  This helps smooth communications and agreement, but can also become fatal blinkers that blind everyone to impending dangers.  Some of our beliefs, assumptions and mental models include:

 

  • Women cannot be good firefighters because they lack upper body strength;
  • Always fight the fire from the unburned portion of the building so that you don’t “push” the fire;
  • We can discontinue using SCBA once the fire is out;
  • Getting to the scene as quickly as possible is imperative to a successful outcome;
  • Firefighters of color lack the intellectual capacity to be good officers; and
  • A primary search must be done at every structure fire, even if the structure is vacant or abandoned, because someone might be in the building.

Attitudes

Attitudes are the external displays of underlying beliefs that people use to signal to other people of their membership. This includes internal members (Look: I’m conforming to the rules. Please don’t exclude me).

Much is made by firefighters that they belong to a “brotherhood”; that being part of the team is crucial to group success.  The attitudes that members display toward one another, particularly when they come from those in leadership roles, have a strong influence on an individual’s self-esteem and sense of belonging to the group.

Rules, norms, ethical codes, values

The norms and values of a culture are effectively the rules by which its members must abide, or risk rejection from the culture (which is one of the most feared sanctions known). They are embedded in the artifacts, symbols, stories, attitudes, and so on.

Most fire departments have volumes of rules and regulations and other governing documents that are intended to ensure proper behavior on the part of members of the organization.  Along with the “written word” are the values that are common to many departments such as: sacrifice; service to others; having each other’s back when the “heat is on”; having pride in the organization; not accepting gratuities for services rendered; and many more.

So what?

Size-up is the critical first step in the management of any emergency situation, right?  Well, something as “big” as making cultural changes in the fire service certainly deserves so good size-up, no?

I submit, however, that such a size-up and any cultural changes that result from it will be most successful when done at the local level.  The fire service in the USA is far too diverse in nature—career, volunteer, combination, large department, small department, urban, suburban, rural—that it’s virtually impossible to (1) have one culture to size-up, and (2) develop and implement meaningful changes that “fit” every department.

That’s what I think?  What changes, if any, do you think should take place in the fire service culture?

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Avatar
Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec and his wife of 30+ years now make their home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, rpa1157@gmail.com.