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‘Un-Re-New’ your fire department culture

A three-step roadmap for cultural transformation


Pictured is the ceremonial push-in ceremony for Engine 803. Taking part in fire service traditions is important to our culture.

In the fire service, the importance of culture cannot be overstated. It shapes employee behavior, influences decision-making and, in the end, determines the success of an entire department or an individual crew. But what if there is a flaw in that culture? How can you identify and adjust accordingly?

Un-Re-Newing your culture is one strategy designed for just this, correcting the negative aspects of culture, improving existing practices, and ultimately introducing a new positive change. I believe that this model is appropriate at any level of the organization.

Uncovering the Un

The first step in the Un-Re-New process involves an examination of any existing cultural elements that may be detrimental to your success. The ‘Un’ phase involves identifying and addressing any negative attributes like an unhealthy work environment, untrusting relationships, an uninformed workforce or an unforgiving atmosphere. Your people will identify these ‘Un’ elements; just ask them.

To get the feedback you need, you must make people feel comfortable sharing their opinions. If they are not willing to directly share them with you as the leader, you will need to create other avenues that allow opinions to be shared. One effective approach is for leaders to identify trusted individuals within the organization who can serve as culture guides. Allow these teammates to be the people who seek feedback and provide the valuable perspectives you can use. Another option is implementing anonymous feedback methods, like suggestion boxes or online surveys, that give others a safe way to share their opinions without fear of repercussions.

Ultimately, by creating multiple channels for feedback and actively soliciting input from a variety of sources, leaders can gain a more accurate understanding of the organization’s culture in order to address the Un’s more effectively. No matter how the issues are uncovered, leaders must acknowledge the detrimental aspects they find, allowing them to begin a new culture built on trust.

Rebuilding with Re

The next phase requires the leader to do some thinking. The ‘Re’ phase centers on ideas like reviewing, reestablishing, reevaluating and restoring. It will be important to look at all existing policies and processes. Leaders, along with their teams, need to review their current practices, identify areas of improvement, and reestablish relationships that may have eroded over time. This involves more than just a policy review, it should include revisiting your organizational values and restoring faith in the department’s mission.

Making things New

The final step in the process is to actively make things new. This may involve implementing new commitments, creating additional policies and establishing innovative processes that align with the desired cultural shift. Removing reminders of a past culture that may be uncomfortable for employees is important for success. This could mean physical changes to the visual elements within the workspace, like replacing old items with new ones that reflect the new culture and serve as constant reminders of the positive change.

Putting the concept into action

Consider the way the Un-Re-New approach could be used in your department with this simple but important example – the pictures on your walls. If your department has a culture that is Unprofessional or Uncomfortable for your crews, those pictures or other items on the wall may be reminders of that negative culture. Reevaluate and Review the stories they tell. Remove them if appropriate. Introduce New items in your displays that highlight the culture you are building, and speak to the renewed commitments, guiding principles and values you are establishing.

There will no doubt be more challenging issues to handle in your culture change. The big cultural issues of trust and transparency demand significant amounts of time, effort and energy to address. In our department, we identified an issue with communication. This created an Uninformed workforce that had feelings of distrust (aka Untrust) in our decision-making processes. We Reevaluated ways we shared information in the department. The solution was to create several standing meetings every month for the purpose of transparency. Our New model includes a monthly newsletter and shift-wide meeting to share news, address concerns and clarify any confusing messages. We are committed to constantly Reevaluating the effectiveness of these tools and changing them when they no longer meet their intended goals.

The job of the leader(s) directing this change is to look at all elements of the culture. Make sure you focus on the big issues, but don’t neglect the low-hanging fruit, like the stories your walls tell your department. In culture change, the small details are a big part of the overall message your people see.

Key points

In my use of this model, I’ve realized that while the Un-Re-New framework provides a structure for culture change, the steps may not always be taken in order. The concept of culture is complex, and you should expect to find instances where the steps are taken out of order or at the same time. Flexibility in implementing these steps is important to the outcome.

I have witnessed cultural change at both the crew level and department wide. While I didn’t initially give names to these steps, it has become clear that the method is applicable at all levels of an organization. In addition, these same concepts that work in the fire service could be applied anywhere. The creation of a positive culture is critical to any organization’s success.

In sum

The Un-Re-New model offers a structured and effective roadmap for cultural transformation. By addressing negative aspects (Un), reevaluating existing practices (Re) and implementing positive changes (New), a department or a crew can foster an environment that promotes collaboration, trust and innovation. Embracing this approach empowers leaders and teams to find ways to move from an outdated culture and instead move forward toward a healthier future.

Remember, your culture is worth fighting for, whether at the crew level or across the entire department. I believe that investing in a positive culture will lead to improvements in employee satisfaction, retention and overall organizational resilience.

As leaders, we must recognize that cultural change is an achievable goal. By embracing the Un-Re-New framework and acknowledging the flexibility needed in its application, you can be on your way to a positive culture that makes your organization a better place for everyone.

Fire Chief Tony Haden has more than 25 years of fire service experience, transitioning from division chief at the Austin (Texas) Fire Department to his current role as chief at Travis County ESD 8/Pedernales Fire Department in Texas. Connect with Haden on LinkedIn.