Whenever I do a presentation about changing fire service culture, I inevitably get some pushback from at least a few participants.
"You can't change the fire service," they say. "Tradition is too strong, and that tradition is important. Fire service culture is what it is."
I take issue with this attitude on two levels.
First, it has to be possible to make cultural change in the fire service. Too many firefighters are still dying or suffering injuries due to simple things like not wearing seat belts or not wearing proper protective gear on emergency scenes. Too many departments are still defending themselves in court against charges of discrimination and harassment.
All of these bad outcomes are preventable, but change must be made at an organizational level and not just an individual one.
The other reason I disagree with those who say cultural change is not possible in the fire service is that I know this statement is false. Firefighters can change, both as individuals and as a group. They just have to understand the value of that change and be effectively led in achieving it.
Consider the change in attitudes toward smoking among firefighters. When I joined the fire department in 1980, cigarette smoking was not only tolerated, it was nearly encouraged.
Smoking was allowed anywhere, anytime in the fire station or on emergency scenes. There was even one fire officer who routinely smoked in bed in the dorm.
In less than 15 years, my department went from this condition to one where smoking was completely forbidden on the job and the overwhelming attitude was that smoking was bad and should never be done. A similar evolution has played out in most fire departments across the country.
Why was the fire service successful with changing the culture related to smoking, and what can be learned from this experience to relate to other necessary change? In all successful cultural change, three factors play a critical role.
Three factors for change
First, the change is supported and mandated from the top down. Leaders clearly identify the goal and the steps that will be taken to achieve it.
In my department, eliminating smoking was an incremental process. First, smoking was forbidden in all living spaces in the station, but allowed in the apparatus bay. Then it was eliminated from the station entirely. Finally, smoking was not allowed anywhere on fire station property, inside or outside.
Department leaders made expectations clear and led through policy, outcomes and example. The desired change was explicitly communicated and those in positions of authority at all levels, especially company officers, were held accountable.
Second, the change has to make sense for people to embrace it. In the case of smoking, even those addicted to cigarettes could understand the value of having a smoke-free workplace for health, safety and personal comfort. The sense of this change was also reinforced by society's changing attitudes about smoking.
Finally, when making cultural change, there has to be a constancy of purpose over the long haul. Eliminating smoking from the fire stations did not happen overnight. There was backsliding and some pockets of resistance. People needed support to change old habits.
To be successful with cultural change, you can't decide that something needs to change, mandate that change, but then give up in frustration if the change is not entirely successful in the short run. Cultural change takes time. Unwavering commitment to the desired outcome is the key to success.
Company officers play a critical role in any effort to change a department's culture. They should be included when goals are developed and held accountable when those goals are pursued over the long run. Their commitment, and especially their example, are essential factors in any successful cultural change in the fire service.