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FDIC 2024: Chief David Rhodes talks ‘fire service culture war’

The FDIC education director urged firefighters to become “revolutionaries” who don’t watch from the outside but rather make change from within fire service institutions

INDIANAPOLIS — “A fire service culture war is in full effect,” declared Chief David Rhodes, education director for Fire Engineering and FDIC, kicking off the annual training and education conference in Indianapolis on Wednesday.

During his opening remarks at FDIC’s first General Session, Rhodes addressed what he called the “unintended consequences” of the risk-averse culture that emerged years ago, namely a “loss in unity of mission” that propelled subsequent debates about aggressive fire tactics and fire department priorities. He argued that the fire service has been corrupted by corporate culture and slogans, driving many fire departments away from a mission focused on saving lives and property toward one focused on checking boxes “to make every group happy.”

Amid a risk-averse culture, Rhodes said, firefighters are being banned from the very operations that allow them to fulfill their mission. “It’s an emotional overreaction to a perception, but not facts,” he said.

Rhodes explained that some officials fear firefighters getting information outside their internal, traditional channels, making it more important than ever for firefighters to challenge their cognitive bias, not becoming so insulated from alternative training opportunities that they cannot hear the new voices that are emerging within the fire service.

Calling for “loyal disobedience,” Rhodes reminded firefighters of the many bottom-up movements that came before them – and called on them to be the next wave of revolutionaries: Revolutionaries need to infiltrate the institutions and engage in the process. You have to speak up and get involved at the highest levels. After all, he queried, is it more productive to brag about breaking a standard, code or policy or to get involved in the process to help change that standard, code or policy – having far greater influence on the fire service as a whole. Rhodes added that this approach does not require firefighters to compromise their values, only change the strategy – chess, not checkers, he deemed it. He added that past visionaries like Chief Alan Brunacini knew how to be strategic about culture change — and implored other firefighters to do the same.

FDIC 2024
Every year, FireRescue1 reviews the latest research, emerging techniques and newly debuted products exhibited at FDIC. Read expert analysis from educational sessions here, and check back to FireRescue1 for news about future shows.

Janelle Foskett is the editor-in-chief of FireRescue1.com, responsible for defining original editorial content, tracking industry trends, managing expert contributors and leading execution of special coverage efforts. She also serves as the co-host of FireRescue1’s Better Every Shift podcast. Foskett joined the Lexipol team in 2019 and has nearly 20 years of experience in fire service media and publishing. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and a certificate in technical communications from the University of California, San Diego. Ask questions or submit ideas via email.
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