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The power of the ‘inside-outsider’: Clear-eyed observations that can change everything

Where to find those people who have just the right connection to make systemic or cultural change in an organization


There are times when fire departments can lose sight of the bigger picture, and this is where a good inside-outsider can really help.

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Many years ago, the dispatch center that served my fire department was going through some major changes. The intentions were good and ultimately led to better mutual operations, but the process itself was often rocky. At one point, firefighters were accommodating the transition by needing to say everything over the radio twice, on two different channels.

One day during this time, one of the fire department’s biggest fans, Randy, stopped by the fire station. Randy was an earnest young man who loved the fire department. He made a point of knowing all the firefighters by name and followed our activities on a scanner in his car. While visiting with Randy that day, some traffic came over the station radio, and the officer dealt with it by saying everything twice, as had become the norm.

“Why are you doing that?” Randy asked. The officer went into a detailed explanation of changes at the dispatch center and how we now had to communicate in this new way. Randy stared at the officer for a long moment, and then slowly said, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense.”

And just like that, it was as if the clouds cleared and we could see the horizon again. Of course, it didn’t make any sense, but we had lost the ability to see that in our incremental path to accepting the new norm. Only when Randy innocently commented on it were we able to see things clearly, and take steps to make the system into something more logical and workable.

That day, Randy acted as an “inside-outsider,” someone who can be extremely valuable when making systemic or cultural change in an organization. Randy was an insider in the sense that he understood the mission of the fire service and how we operated. But he was also an outsider – not part of the institution or its culture. This status allowed him to see something we could not see from the inside, and his clear-eyed comment was a wake-up call for us.

Losing sight of the bigger picture

Firefighters tend to be culturally insular. The nature of the job, the schedule, the language and jargon used, the close relationships with coworkers – all these things can make firefighters feel like a separate nation among themselves. Even fire departments in close geographic proximity might be insulated from one another, for example, using different terms for equipment or using different assumed strategies and tactics.

There has been a good effort in recent years to bridge some of these divides via standardized systems of incident command or through the adoption of certifications. But there are still times when fire departments can lose sight of the bigger picture, and this is where a good inside-outsider can really help.

Identifying inside-outsiders

Who can fill this role? Anyone with substantial knowledge of what firefighters do, but who also has a different perspective. One of the great benefits of in-person training and collaboration with firefighters from other departments is this inside-outsider perspective.

As an instructor at the National Fire Academy, I always felt this was one of the best learning experiences for attendees: informal discussions in the dining hall or the pub where fire service leaders could compare notes and ask one another questions like, “What do you do? How does that work for you?”

It is also helpful to have the inside-outsider element when addressing non-fire service-specific topics. For example, it is critical when conducting HR training for firefighters that all trainers have a good working knowledge of fire service life and culture, and not just try to translate a corporate approach to the emergency services. Further, when hiring professionals to complete fire station design or renovation, including architects with first-hand fire service knowledge can make a huge difference in how successful the outcome of the project is.

But you don’t want your advisers or trainers to be too much on the inside either. In-house personnel can be so imbued in the culture and expectations of the organization that they stop clearly seeing the problems that exist – just like my department did with the dispatch dysfunction.

Diverse points of view

The key to good decision-making and optimal operations is to have diverse points of view that also have common understanding and a strong sense of common purpose among them. It’s critical to be open to wisdom and insight coming from any direction. But for these different perspectives to have the most value, there must be the freedom and safety to ask the question: Why are we doing that? And then be completely open and honest when forming an answer.

Editor’s note: How has an inside-outsider helped your organization? Share in the comments below or email your story to

[Read next: How to change fire service culture]

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.