Fire service nonconformists: Not always easy to manage but often critical for positive change

While it sometimes makes sense to go along to get along, the lone voice of dissent often provides meaningful insight


Are nonconformists a good fit for the fire service? For many, the easy answer would be no.

Firefighting is a uniformed, team-oriented endeavor. Rules and standards are critical for professional, safe practice. Freelancers or those who seek individual glory can be a hazard to themselves and others.

Of course, the fire service has always included members who are eccentric, odd or colorful. But even those individuals understand that when it comes down to the business of doing the job, failing to conform to established ideologies and practices can be dangerous.

The fire service’s strength comes from its consistency, its uniformity and its team structure. But it also benefits from openness to the off-the-wall idea, the free thinker – the nonconformist.
The fire service’s strength comes from its consistency, its uniformity and its team structure. But it also benefits from openness to the off-the-wall idea, the free thinker – the nonconformist. (Photo/Getty Images)

Good firefighters follow orders. They respect rules. They don’t unnecessarily make waves. They understand the value of sometimes going along to get along. In short, they conform, and this conformity can result in smooth operations and consistent outcomes. This kind of conformity is often rewarded both at the individual and organizational levels.

But unconditional conformity can also be dangerous.

When the fire service needs a nonconformist

In researching case studies for my training work, I keep a file called “Firefighters Behaving Badly.” The incidents included in it cover a wide range of behaviors, but there is one general thread – very few of them involve a single rogue firefighter. Most are cases of groups of firefighters gradually going off the rails, and no one in that group standing up to say no.

It’s hard to single yourself out in this way, especially if you have gone along with similar behavior in the past. It’s easier to conform, to trust the group mind, and go along. Yet think of how many bad outcomes could have been avoided if just one person had stood up and said, “I don’t think that’s such a good idea. I’m not comfortable with that.”

Speaking up with an opposing view is a safety issue. You may be the only person at an emergency scene who sees a critical detail, something that may contradict the prevailing course of action. Your failure to speak up, even in opposition to the group, can cost lives. This was certainly the critical lesson to emerge from the 1986 Challenger disaster – a tragedy that introduced the word “groupthink” to the world. 

The other danger to conformity is that it can stifle creativity and inhibit positive change. The old joke that the fire service is “200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress” isn’t true, but it isn’t entirely false, either. It can be hard to challenge something that has been in place for a long time – a tried-and-true tactic, a favorite piece of equipment, a standard practice. Someone who speaks up advocating for a new way of doing things can be seen as a malcontent. An outsider. A nonconformist.

But positive change is based in trying new things, being open to new ideas. If the organizational culture is one that automatically labels these initiatives as trouble, things will never change.

Some may see this as a good thing. Who hasn’t been told, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Yet change is the only reality of the world we live in. New challenges emerge through shifting demographics and response demands. New technologies are developed to increase safety and effectiveness. New research shows inherent dangers in past practices that were considered safe – consider how attitudes and behavior have changed regarding the care of PPE, for example. It takes a nonconformist to bring these innovations and new realities to light.

The rise of Chief Brunacini

Chief Alan Brunacini liked to tell his origin story. Most people know him as a legendary fire service leader, but they may not know how he started out. As a young fire officer, he had ideas that challenged the accepted norms on his department. He was vocal in advocating for change. He had ambitions for himself and the department he served.

In the early years, these behaviors did not always gain him friends and influence among his peers. He talked about how he was exiled as a young officer, sent to the hinterlands of the department where he would not be a bother to those in power.

Alan Brunacini, by his own definition, was often a nonconformist. At times this was a risk to him, but it was also his power and what gave him the ability to be the innovative leader that he was.

Valuing consistency and nonconformity

Nonconformists are not always the easiest people to have around. They’re not always right, either. But they do bring diversity of thought to groups that may be too ready to follow one familiar path. The fire service’s strength comes from its consistency, its uniformity and its team structure. But it also benefits from openness to the off-the-wall idea, the free thinker – the nonconformist. The best organizations value both.

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