Clan Behavior and its Influence on Fire Service Culture

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Is it possible that clan behavior plays a part in the fire service culture? And if so, might that be an element in the continued hazing, bullying, and harassment that seems to plaque too many fire departments today?

Before continuing, allow me to explain that I’m referring to clan behavior in its long historical context. “The clan or

tribe is the oldest, most natural form of human organization Even in societies that that are not ruled by clans, people have instinctive kinship loyalties. In the U.S., this loyalty is weakest among whites, who rarely show much attachment beyond their immediate family, and strongest among blacks, most of whom have a strong sense of loyalty to their entire race.”

So states Professor Mark S. Weiner, in his book, The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Human Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom. 

Weiner writes that a legitimate American organization that closely resembles a clan is the Marine Corps. Although the corps is not a kinship group, many corpsmen are loyal for life, take pride in each other’s accomplishments, and share the humiliation when a Marine misbehaves.

Clan Behavior in Early American Fire Service

I’ll add that the fire service in America is a clan, much like the Marine Corps. Looking back, when the first paid fire departments began forming in the larger cities in the U.S. many of those early members came from the ranks of immigrants, particularly immigrants of Irish, Scotch, and Welsh descent.

The clan has always played a central role in the societies of those countries. The sense of kinship and belonging to “something bigger” that came from the clan culture of their homelands helped those early immigrants in dealing with the hate and discrimination they experienced from the Anglo-Saxon majority population of the time. Particularly those of English descent who were their nemesis from the Old Country where wars between England, Ireland, and Scotland go back a thousand years or more.

Those immigrants, especially the Irish, tended to stay in the cities to which they had sailed because they lacked the

Help wanted ads in the 1800’s and early 1900’s in the U.S. frequently included the messages similar to this, commonly known as NINA (No Irish Need Apply). Similar signs were often posted in storefront windows.

money to move anywhere else. By 1850, Irish made up a quarter of the populations of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore.

Being mostly uneducated with few marketable job skills, they took the worst jobs and at that time which included being firefighters and police officers (Not two of the most admired professions at the time either). Irish immigrants were often openly discriminated in employment ads, ads which often included the words, “No Irish Need Apply.”

It’s not hard to imagine that clan behavior would become deeply rooted in the culture in firehouses where the majority of firefighters belonged to such a persecuted class of workers. I, for one, can see clan DNA in that of the firefighter today:

  • Strong willed;
  • Strong distrust of higher authority;
  • Great respect for the clan leader (the strong figure in the firehouse);
  • loyal to a fault when it comes to their fellow firefighters;
  • Pride in their profession, especially at the firehouse level; and
  • A deeply held conviction that “being a firefighter is not a job, it’s a calling.”

The Evolution of Clan Behavior in the American Fire Service

It’s said that imitation in the sincerest form of flattery. That’s probably never truer than in the development of the fire service in America in the 20th century. As the U.S. population moved westward and more towns and cities were established, fire departments were established along with other city services that those emigrants were familiar with from their previous homes.

Those emigrants included firefighters from those larger cities; as they moved westward, they undoubtedly took the firehouse clan culture with them. It’s not hard to imagine that new firefighters–of other nationalities–that joined those departments would not be accepted into the clan without some sort of “vetting process.” That process probably included both physical and psychological hazing, to prove their worthiness to the incumbent members of the department, just as any new member of a clan would experience back in the Old Country.

Those clan behaviors were likely reinforced as firefighters and officers from those larger metropolitan fire departments became engaged as teachers taking their ways of doing business to those smaller and less mature fire departments.

Like the Spanish missionaries that helped settle–and control California (prior to American expansion) –those fire services “missionaries” not only brought their technical knowledge of firefighting with them, they also brought the “war stories”, legends, and myths of their previous departments with them. The firefighters who were exposed to their teachings undoubtedly were influenced in both good and bad ways.

We continue to see such influence today in the way that some firefighters dress, wear their PPE, equip their apparatus, and conduct themselves on the fire scene. Who hasn’t seen a three-year fire department “veteran” wearing a smoke-stained and heat-damaged leather helmet with the back brim molded down because “That’s how real firefighters like FDNY do it.” Or the resistance to change in our firefighting strategies and tactics in the face of scientific evidence and facts.

We also continue to see hazing, bullying, and harassment in too many fire departments. And those behaviors, too, have been part of that transfer of culture. The perpetrators of those actions are using their perceived power to exert control at the firehouse level to combat what they see as threats to the clan.

They see efforts by upper fire department management to increase the numbers of women and minorities as a threat. They see operational policies developed by “desk jockey” officers, who they do not trust, as a threat. They see any source of disruption of the firehouse clan as a threat.

Understanding Clan Behavior is Necessary for Cultural Change

Like many of you, I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about how we need to change the fire service culture. I’ve written several blogs in the past on the subject. But meaningful change in that culture is only going to come about by knowing and understanding the role of clan behavior at the firehouse level.

Fire department leaders are under tremendous pressure these days to recruit and retain more women and minorities so that the demographics of their departments more closely resemble the communities they serve. Many departments are finding that recruiting is the easier of the two to accomplish. But what good is it for a department to recruit and hire women and minorities, only to have them “fail” during entry-level training or during their first couple of years on the job?

I submit for your consideration that fire department leaders will not find the “fix” until they recognize that those new members (outsiders) are being exposed to the behaviors and expectations of the firehouse clan from Day #1 with a department. Who’s teaching them in those entry-level training programs? Who’s working with them at the firehouse when they come on board?

You know the answer.

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

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 and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].