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Mission-oriented culture: Focus on training basics and advanced skills as a team

When members become too driven by personal competition rather than crew development, the organization can suffer


A crew engages in mask-up drill.

Photo/Daniel Folks

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By Daniel Folks

Much has been written about fire department mission statements, namely how to create one that reflects the organization’s overall values and goal to protect life and property. However, mission can also be defined as a specific task with which a person or a group is charged with a pre-established and often self-imposed objective or purpose. This is how firefighters typically think of mission – getting the job done.

Our mission is the call for service by a citizen who is experiencing an emergency. Our mission starts and ends with them in focus. Whether it’s a structure fire or lift assist, firefighters accept the mission and use our tactics to complete the mission.

What we all must understand is that the mission begins long before this 911 call. It begins on the training ground, on the tailboard and at the kitchen table, where firefighters sharpen their skills – mentally, emotionally and physically – in order to succeed on the fireground.

Our citizens’ needs can change over time, and that means the missions change too. Whether it’s more EMS-centered missions, higher call volumes or the switch from internal combustion engines to battery power, the fire service has to adapt to these changes in order to be ready to complete our missions.

It’s no surprise that we can struggle with change, as we have often spent significant time developing systems, tasks and tactics to fit the current model. Changes to the mission mean new tasks and tactics will have to be used to become successful. No matter their evolutions, our missions must remain our primary focus. Everything that happens in and around the firehouse should be for the betterment of the members and department to accomplish the mission.

What this looks like in practice is best explained through a discussion of department culture, which has a direct impact on how quickly members adapt to change as well as the overall buy-in of the new vision or direction. This is most acutely visible in the difference between two types of department culture: self-oriented and mission-oriented culture.

Self-oriented culture

A self-oriented culture is one where the members are focused on what’s good for them. The question typically asked is, “How can what we do today impact ourselves?”

While personal growth is a good thing, a department with a generally self-oriented culture usually breeds a toxic environment. Members often engage in internal competition to see who can promote faster, gain credentials faster, or even be held in elite status simply because of their status or personal accomplishments. Focus on the basics is often lost to individual desire to become unique and advanced.

The organization does benefit from advanced training and credentials; however, our missions can suffer because basic evolutions are not practiced and polished on a regular basis. After all, we stretch on fires more than we complete trench rescue, and we conduct searches more than we perform sampling at a hazmat incident. These advanced tasks are important, but in the grand scheme of things, mastering the basic skills of the fire service should be our top priority, helping us save time when it is scarcest.

Bottom line: Organizations that promote a self-oriented culture will see diminished performance on the fireground and, ultimately, failures at all levels of the organization if allowed to persevere.

Mission-oriented culture

A mission-orientated culture promotes the importance of mastering the basics and refining them on a regular basis. This approach puts the needs of the citizens first by focusing on the members’ skills in completing the most common missions. Stretching a hoseline, forcing a door, performing VEIS are all constantly practiced and reinforced.

This type of culture also adapts to the changing nature of our missions, focusing training and skill-building where needed to protect the community. The organization invests in its members to become better, learn new skills, refresh the basics and be open to changes.

A mission-oriented culture does not neglect or avoid training on advanced skills. In fact, a mission-oriented culture actually pushes all members to acquire advanced skills and gives everyone equal opportunity to achieve them. The organization supports acquiring advanced skills or certifications in order to support the overall mission. Those who attain these advanced skills are encouraged to share and encourage others to acquire the same skills. A competitive environment is then replaced with an environment of support, encouragement and ambition. We shouldn’t compete with our teammates. We should all strive to do be the best as a whole.

One person having a unique skill set isn’t enough. Bringing everyone up to the advanced levels as a team will benefit the citizens and their missions more than having just a handful of personnel with advanced skills and knowledge.

How to change culture

Mentorship is a critical part of changing culture – but it starts with you.

Begin the change within yourself. As you lead by example, support those who begin to follow you. Eventually you will have created more leaders just by supporting those who follow you. Motivate those leaders to become mentors and lead others.

Good, solid mentors are key in changing the culture of an organization. Good mentors are found everywhere, often from the most inconspicuous places. Sometimes the best mentor is the quiet member who never says much until it’s time to get the job done. Some traits of good mentors include leading by example, being open, honest and accountable, and striving for excellence.

Mentors who display these traits will naturally attract others with similar traits or who seek to be better leaders. This will manifest in the form of the crew that everyone wants to be on, even the fire department that other departments try to emulate.

Remember, the most important rep is the one you do right after failure: continue or persevere. When we embrace mistakes and failures, we disassemble their ability to hold us back. This is where true growth and adaptations happen.

In sum, while there is no exact blueprint or script to follow for culture change, it does tend to follow these steps:

  1. Create an environment that allows for growth and opportunities.
  2. Lead from the front.
  3. Make sure that when you fail, you accept the failure, get up and try again.

Managing resistance to culture change

There will always be some resistance to change. You’ll likely hear phrases like “That’s the way we’ve always done it” or “You can’t teach and old dog new tricks.” It’s essential not to allow those people to derail the vision simply because they are uncomfortable. After all, growth typically involves some discomfort.

One tip: Make sure to include everyone, including resistors, in the planning stages; this can alleviate some of the pushback by addressing their concerns head on.

You might also hear something like, “We are moving too fast.” This is a sign that you haven’t achieved true buy-in yet. If you are in fact moving too fast, the members will let you know. Progress might be slower than expected, but that’s OK; it is still progress. (Keep in mind that something moving fast or not being done the same way as in the past isn’t an excuse for not trying.)

Remember, failure is always possible, no matter how strong the plan. The failure itself isn’t what matters; it’s that we pick up after failure and start again with a revised plan and clearer vision.

Get out there

As a leader, keeping your members focused on the right things is the biggest challenge you will face. If we master the basics, we can put those skills together to accomplish just about anything.

If you are a company officer or senior firefighter, continually refresh the basics to achieve mastery, and move to advance the team as a whole. And if you are a chief officer or chief of department, put a heavy emphasis on basic skills and support your members. Exit your office and go stretch an attack line or force a door. Leadership by example and participation will move a department more than leadership by proxy.

About the author

Daniel Folks is the fire chief of the City of Hammond (Louisiana) Fire Department. He has 23 years of full-time and volunteer fire experience. He is also a fire instructor with the Louisiana Fire and Emergency Training Academy.