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How fire service culture suppresses prejudice and implicit bias

Examining why firefighters with negative feelings toward specific groups still provide equitable treatment to all citizens


Fire service leaders should consider how firefighting culture impacts every firefighter who steps foot on the apparatus.

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

By Roscoe Scarborough, Ph.D.

Why do you, as firefighters, do the job? More specifically, why are you willing to risk your lives for people you have never met?

Some firefighters’ answers will focus on the motivation to serve: “I want to help my community.” Others talk about their personality: “It’s all I ever wanted to do” and “It’s a calling.”

Motivations and personality attributes are individualistic, psychological explanations of behavior. Sociology offers an alternative, social explanation. Rather than looking within the character of the individual, sociology challenges us to understand behavior as a result of our socialization and immersion in fire service culture. And as such, fire service leaders should consider how firefighting culture impacts every firefighter who steps foot on the apparatus.

Fire service sociology and culture

Rather than focusing on personality and motivations, a sociological perspective shows how our upbringing, experiences and organizational involvement shapes our behavior (what we do) and identity (who we are). Integration into a strong organizational culture – such as fraternity, church, sports team, the military or fire department – impacts every person who joins the organization.

Drawing on three years of participant observation as a volunteer firefighter, as well as 30 interviews with firefighters in a busy suburban department in the South, my research – Risk a Lot to Save a Lot: How Firefighters Decide Whose Life Matters – examines how fire service culture influences firefighter behavior. After all, every firefighter is shaped by the cultural conventions of the American fire service, their department culture and their crew culture. These nested firefighter cultures influence behavior on the fireground and around the firehouse.

Firefighting has a rich institutional culture. Every firefighter is familiar with the traditions of the American fire service: the leather helmets, memorializing the events of September 11th, strong community ties, and many other shared beliefs and practices. Drawing on broader fire service culture, each department has its own organizational culture: retirement or promotion rituals, placards displayed in the apparatus bay listing “Firefighter of the Year” or honoring fallen members, a kitchen table where the crew eats together or fireground routines, such as laddering every window on a structure fire. Further, each crew also has its own rituals and shared experiences: memorable calls, inside jokes, shared traumas and rescues on incidents, or steaks on a weekend shift.

Participating in these national, department, and crew cultural practices generates deep feelings of solidarity and belonging among firefighters. Eventually, the probie becomes part of the brotherhood and sisterhood. Together, fire service, department and crew cultures influence the actions and identity of each individual firefighter.

Culture suppresses prejudice

Socialization into a strong institutional culture tends to subdue personality traits, beliefs and behaviors that do not align with social norms. I found this to be the case in my own research into fire service culture, specifically, that culture can suppress prejudice.

Just like members of other groups, some firefighters harbor prejudices and implicit biases toward various social groups. Around the firehouse, it would be unusual to hear one of the members sanction an inappropriate joke, dismissing this banter as “firehouse talk,” “busting balls, “blowing off steam” or “all in good fun.” Yet these comments indicate prejudice or, at minimum, tolerance of prejudice.

However, when the alarm sounds, these same firefighters don their gear and provide equitable treatment to all members of the public. When a call comes in for a reported fire, the same firefighters who make disparaging jokes at the expense of poor or immigrant residents hustle to the engine and demand excellence of their peers on the fireground. Over and over again in the course of my time in the field, I observed a discrepancy between bigoted statements and selfless service of those same groups. It seems that any existing prejudiced beliefs do not result in discriminatory behavior.

So, why do firefighters risk their lives for those they may purport to dislike or even hate?

American fire service, department and crew cultures valorize selfless service to the community and excellence at performing fireground tasks, such as arriving first on scene to a blaze, rescuing entrapped victims, and extinguishing fires. Integration into this strong institutional culture of egalitarian service appears to trump individual prejudices. The social pressure to conform to cultural norms of the fire service and desire to belong to the group mitigates discriminatory behavior, at least while surrounded by fellow firefighters who uphold the shared ideals of firefighting culture.

To be clear, immersion in this culture does not extinguish bigoted beliefs, but fire service culture suppresses discriminatory behavior in interactions with the public. Integration and investment into this culture of service compels prejudiced individuals to act as model community servants.

Prioritizing and analyzing department culture

Every firefighter who joins a volunteer department or pursues a fire service career is impacted by the culture of the fire service, their department and their crew. My discussion of how fire service culture suppresses discriminatory behavior is just one example of how these ideas might be applied. Anyone interested in strengthening or improving the fire service should consider how changes to organizational culture can impact the behavior of all who wear the uniform.

Many career, combination and volunteer departments devote insufficient attention to organizational culture. Volunteer departments with dwindling rosters need to immerse the next generation into fire service traditions and department rituals. Financial incentive programs are not why most volunteers forfeit sleep and time with family. Career departments and the IAFF devote much energy to developing training standards, updating standard operating guidelines (SOGs), negotiating wages and benefits, and firefighter safety. In addition, a strong institutional culture must be a priority to maintain morale, retain firefighters, promote mental and physical fitness, and ensure excellence on the fireground.

Chiefs, captains and anyone trying to impact the behavior of those on their crew or in their department should consider the significance of institutional culture.

Institutional culture and cultural reforms impact the behavior of firefighters. A shift of the cultural status quo in emergency services organizations, though a daunting task, promises to produce an enduring impact on the actions of the men and women in our departments and serving on our crews.

About the Author

Dr. Roscoe Scarborough is an assistant professor of sociology at College of Coastal Georgia. His research interests include culture, inequality, media, theory and qualitative research methods. He served for six years as a volunteer firefighter.

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