Few things are more important than the sustained culture of an organization. You see, the culture determines if an organization is thriving or just surviving. The culture indicates if the members are committed or just content. A team cannot reach its full potential with an ailing culture. And equally as true, money does not fix the problems that result from a poorly managed culture.
Recently, we conducted interviews to fill seven newly approved Firefighter/Paramedic positions. In a department our size, this is a big deal because The Colony F.D. is located in one of the fastest growing regions in the country. Just about every fire department in the area was hiring. Bigger departments with nicer rigs, better pay, and more non-fire related calls were each hiring big numbers. Since we are surrounded by ISO Class 1 fire departments that have an array of attractions to lure new candidates, what were the odds that we could find seven candidates that met our standards?
As the process opened, the leadership team strategized on the best way to attract the ideal candidate and then stood by anxiously awaiting to see how T.C.F.D would fare amongst the competition. While all of the traditional employment tools were utilized, the membership took to social media with page invites to join the team. While basic, these posts portrayed the culture of T.C.F.D. As part of the hiring process, each candidate had to successfully complete two interviews to continue. In two days of interviewing the top eighteen applicants, the interview team began to notice a pattern in responses. When asked why do you want to work for The Colony Fire Department, the following answers were repeated:
- Daily training.
- The utilization of a truck/engine deployment model with pre-arrival assignments.
- Growth and the potential for advancement.
- Honoring the good traditions of the fire service.
- “ I like the way you do things”
Of the five most common responses to this question, all but one, are supported by the T.C.F.D. culture. The Colony Fire Department way. I am pleased to report that T.C.F.D. has offered in NFL draft fashion, conditional offers to seven outstanding Firefighter/Paramedics that represent the core values of The Colony Fire Department. In his book, ‘Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code’, Samuel Chand explains the importance of culture. “Culture – not vision or strategy – is the most powerful factor in any organization”, he writes, yet with all of the chief officer training programs out there, few offer training on effective culture management. T.C.F.D. recognizes the value of a healthy culture and the importance of managing it daily. With zero turnover, other than retirements in the last six years, 63 applicants for Firefighter/Paramedic, and 68 applicants for Battalion Chief, culture management seems to be paying off. Additionally, members are increasingly involved in special projects, mentoring, and new hire indoctrination. Each is the direct result of a chosen culture. The intention of this article is not to tell others what to do.
Because I am passionate about the fire service and surrounded by an amazing team, I feel an obligation to share successes as well as lessons learned. As part of this team, I am obligated to pass along anything that which may have value, if only for one person. So I offer up the following questions and observations for consideration.
- Are standards developed internally or externally? While meeting, external standards have value when it comes to liability and defending actions or the lack of. They equate to nothing more than another decal on the side of the apparatus to the rank and file. Firemen like results and they like to clearly see that their efforts have value. Internally developed standards incorporate, support, and can even help sell the chosen culture.
- Do you want to be good or look good? The guys on the rigs know the difference, trust me on this one.
- Does leadership place an emphasis on being safe or on being smart? An extremely safety culture causes conflict. While we should do everything in our power to manage the risks to firefighters, the act of fighting fire, vehicle extrication, and even some medical calls, are anything but safe. During interviews, we had several applicants state with conviction that they were not willing to take risks to save the lives of a stranger. Bringing these people into the organization negatively impacts the chosen culture. “The Colony Way “supports solving problems by being smart and managing risks. This approach can be packaged and communicated to the organization in a way that makes sense. Fire Rescue is an “all-in” proposition.
- What does your culture support regarding saving lives and taking risks? Are you a fire department that provides EMS, or an EMS department that goes to fires? I have concluded that if you have a great fire department, you will provide high-quality EMS. This has to do with the whole pride and ownership thing. I am not convinced we are setting our people up for success and survival if firefighting takes second chair to EMS. I understand the whole 80% of what we do thing but remember, medicine is a greatly studied science, and our protocols are established by MD’s. Factor in Gordon Graham’s ‘Risk/Frequency Model’ and the argument goes right out the window. We don’t have that luxury on the fire side. God help us if we have to rescue the person who called us to rescue them. The culture can only support one or the other.
- Which will attract the people you want to attract and retain, and set the organization up for success and survival? Is leadership more worried about how the rigs look, versus how they are equipped and set-up? Do they know the difference? I can tell the culture of a department within five minutes of looking at their rigs. Are the tools clean and free from rust? Do they project the image that the next call will be chasing an ambulance, or going to a career fire? Are they set up to go directly to work, or go to the store?
- Does the culture support daily training and constant learning? It’s simple…are members encouraged to be firemen, or are they allowed to be employees working at a job? Firemen want to train. Not because they have to, but because they realize that their success and survival depend on it.
- Are events turned into experiences? T.C. Fire is governed by a philosophy of doing the right thing, not by rules and regulations. Our philosophy supports letting firemen be firemen. Sensible, not reckless aggression. New members are welcomed and not harassed. Being the senior guy means something, and it’s earned and not granted. We respond to fires with the mind-set that it’s on fire until we say it’s not on fire, occupied until we say it’s not occupied, and the fire is not out until we say it’s out. And we wear our PPE…always.
As one of our Battalion Chiefs puts it, “give me a set of irons and a water can and let me go to work.” While not literal, this symbolizes the simple, committed and traditional spirit of being a firemen…a problem solver. As a fire service leader, you have two choices. You can choose a sustainable culture and thrive, or you can take the culture that develops by chance and make the best of it. It’s the difference between being good and being lucky. But most importantly, be honest. The next time a member resigns or the candidate pool is low, don’t be so quick to write it off as they are seeking higher pay or a bigger department, the usual rationalizations. Ask yourself, are you managing a culture that supports and retains the people that you want to belong to your family? Don’t neglect the culture, not even for one day.
I will be rolling out a leadership program on culture management called Coaching The Culture for those leaders interested in taking their organization to the next level. My hope is to fill a gap in the chief officer development process.
– J.S. Thompson
Not long ago I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with an “old” firefighter. Being able to visit with a man who worked as a career firefighter before I was even born was a real treat. During our talk, I started to realize something that I had known all along, but had never really thought about. The fire service has changed. The fire service will keep changing, and I had better learn to keep up. In the 1960s and 1970s there were more fires to fight due to weaker building codes as well as a lack of fire education and prevention programs. Structure fires were a very common occurrence and these guys did the job without the aid of thermal imaging technology or an air pack on their back. In the 1980s, some of the SCBA technology we have today was beginning to become readily available in its “generation one” form. It was expensive, and wearing an air pack was not looked upon favorably by the culture at the time. And yet we still have all heard the old saying, “we’ve always done it that way.”
We’ve always done it that way. That statement seems so archaic to me. It sounds so closed to new thinking. It doesn’t allow for technology or science to make good changes in how we operate. It is almost a good way to say, “I learned it this way and I refuse to change. And by the way, kid, I’m taking you with me.” Well guess what folks, we haven’t ALWAYS done anything that way. As a matter of fact, we are doing it much different from how it was done just 20 years ago.
Listening to stories of riding on the tailboard of a fire truck as it responds code 3 to a call is awesome. Knowing people who fought fire wearing rubber coats, and day boots, is at the very least educational for me. Holding your breath as you crawl through a smoke-filled house, waiting for your ears to heat up and tell you that you were close to the fire really sounds like a rush. I am privileged to know some of these men, and I have the utmost respect for those who fought fire and lived through this era. But there is no place for these things in today’s fire service.
In 2005, I lost a friend in a LODD because he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. I think about that event, and how it could’ve been different every day. Shortly after his death, the culture in the fire service took notice and the National Seatbelt Pledge came into being. Yet, even in 2014 a firefighter was killed when he was ejected while responding to an incident, NOT WEARING A SEATBELT. How is this possible? “We’ve always done it that way.”
I am privileged to be an instructor at our local fire academy. One of the subjects that I teach is Firefighter Safety. During this class, I try to explain this concept: Our perception of what is safe is bred by our experience. That means if you are a 35 year veteran of the fire service and have ridden the tailboard to every call without incident, then you probably hold the belief that riding the tailboard is safe. The same thing is true of many parts of this job. Freelancing, improper use of PPE, seatbelts – the list goes on and on!
Two examples of the “we have always done it that way” attitude scream out at me: Detroit MI, and Hartford CT. I am using these two examples only because of the very high amount of media coverage given to each.
First, let’s look at Detroit. The highly popular movie filmed in this city called “Burn” was brought to my attention about a year ago. A very young member of our department was speaking highly of the movie, had a copy of it with him, and offered to let the crew watch it. As the movie unfolded I saw a department unwilling to change how they operated no matter what. Injury of personnel, loss of equipment, and even direct orders from the Chief were not enough to override “we have always done it that way.”
Hartford, CT was in the news not too long ago. It has been credibly reported that the use of a Nomex hood in HFD was optional. OPTIONAL! WHAT? How does an essential piece of firefighting PPE, widely in use since the 1970s, and mandated by NFPA standards become optional? The answer to this question is the same as the answer to so many of the failures that we continue to embrace in the name of tradition. “We have always done it that way.”
I truly love fire service traditions. I am an active member of our department’s Pipes and Drums Corps; its purpose is to honor the memories of the fallen, and to uphold the traditional values that make the fire service the best job in the world. I enjoy washing a brand new apparatus for the first time, and pushing it back into the station. I support having logos that set fire stations apart and give the crews working there a feeling of pride and honor. Class A dress uniforms being available for members to purchase is another traditional fire service “thing” that I love. I love lighthearted pranks or jokes that make 24 hours pass more quickly, or a bowl of ice cream eaten because the rookie made his first interior attack. Those are the types of “traditions” I hold dear. However, I want no part of the irresponsible acts that some of us call tradition. We all need to step back, and take a hard look at our department’s specific culture. The things that we do in the name of “tradition” must be able to pass the test of “reasonable and responsible.”
The next time you are asked, “Why do we_____?”, think about your answer.
I challenge you to remove “We have always done it that way” from your answer bank, and find the real answer to the question. I also challenge you to be wary of this answer, and the people giving it.
Stay Sharp, Stay Safe,
John 15:13 Greater love hath no man than he who will give up his life for a friend.
Firefighters, all too often, may lose their lives protecting the lives of total strangers.