Is the fire service culture good?

This question is more complex than it may seem and at time what's good about the culture can be what's bad

Is fire service culture good or bad? This is a question I ask at the beginning of a presentation I do for fire service leaders called "Winning the Culture Wars."

The question stimulates considerable discussion, but the conclusion is always the same – that overwhelmingly, fire service culture is good.

But of course it's a trick question. Asking whether any culture is good or bad entirely misses the point about what culture really is and how it affects individuals' actions and choices.

A simple definition of culture is "values in action." In other words, culture is how any group's values are reflected in its behavior, artifacts, stories, rituals and organizational structures.

Can-do entity

Many fire service values and norms have positive outcomes, which is why many people come to the conclusion that fire service culture is good. As one person commented, "I define the culture of the fire service as being a can-do entity that is willing to sacrifice for the greater good … and one that has always taken care of its own in times of need."

These values can undeniably lead to good outcomes and contribute to the definition of what is best about firefighters: their willingness to sacrifice for others, their commitment to service, and their loyalty to their coworkers beyond any personal ties.

At its best, "taking care of its own in times of need" leads to amazing actions. I had barely been on the job two years when I had to have surgery that would keep me off the job for several months. I had only enough sick and vacation time saved to cover six weeks.

Before I could even start to figure out how I would live for over a month without a paycheck, a sign-up list began circulating among department members for people to work for me during my recovery. Ten people worked for me during that time, and several of them were people I hardly knew on the job. Only two people ever asked for those days to be paid back.

Culture's dark side

The value of taking care of its own is clear as firefighters organize fundraisers for families of injured members, as they travel great distances to attend firefighter funerals, and as they help one another in a thousand ways, both on and off the fire ground.

But the strength of the value of "taking care of its own" can also manifest in ways that are not positive. This same sense of unwavering loyalty can cause some firefighters to look the other way when individuals are behaving badly or to cover for those who are not performing.

More than one department has had a scandal related to firefighters engaging in unethical behavior such as cheating on tests or falsifying official records. In one case where nearly 50 firefighters from one department were found to have padded expense reports, the investigation found that such behavior in that division was so entrenched that it was "almost a work rule."

And when loyalty causes coworkers and leaders to overlook performance problems or disturbing behavioral changes, the results can be injury to those firefighters as well as their coworkers.

Wrong Question

All cultural values or norms can have both positive and negative outcomes, depending on how those values are applied. A can-do attitude is obviously a good thing – resulting in crews that are resourceful, creative and tenacious. But that same can-do attitude, if pushed to an extreme, may lead firefighters to take unnecessary risks for themselves or their crews.

To ask whether fire service culture is good or bad is the wrong question. And when you ask the wrong question, you usually get the wrong answer.

More useful would be to ask: What is fire service culture and the culture of this fire department in particular? What values and norms drive behavior on a day-to-day basis?

Once those values are clearly identified and understood, an organization can be conscious of how culture may drive decision making for better and for worse. With this awareness, an organization can reinforce what is best about its culture and be vigilant about where cultural norms might lead the organization astray.

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