Why the fire service culture needs to run deep

Private companies spend untold sums to create strong cultures, yet never match that of the fire service; despite our culture's strength, it cannot go unattended

I look at a variety of news sources each day to understand what is going on. I tend to lean on the New York Times to understand the "why."

That publication has several columnists who I may not always agree with, but always respect the intelligence and research they put into their opinions.

David Brooks is one of my go-to columnists. He wrote an insightful piece this week that centered on fallen firefighter Joseph Toscano. He and Toscano became friends when they served as volunteers for a community group.

Brooks’ piece wasn’t so much about firefighting as it was about the make up of an organization’s culture. But culture and the fire service are inseparable. You can’t attend a fire service tradeshow or seminar, read an industry publication or have long conversation with a chief without bumping into fire service culture.

The quality of our culture has been an important topic for a long time, because in many ways a fire department’s culture directly affects how well it carries out its mission and delivers its services. A strong commitment to the department, its mission and its people is one mark of a high-performing department.

Brooks talked about thick and thin cultures and what it takes to develop thick ones. Others have referred to this as deep and shallow cultures. Some use an iceberg to illustrate cultural depth and breadth.

Groups with thick or deep cultures exude a sense of common purpose and serve a higher cause – one higher than an individual’s self-interest.

Brooks hit the fire service culture nail on the head in two simple sentences.

“Thick institutions have a different moral ecology. People tend to like the version of themselves that is called forth by such places,” Brooks wrote.

All the elements in place

Many private companies try to artificially create thick cultures. Groupon jumps to mind as a company that tried hard to make itself into a fun place to work. That’s an uphill battle because while possible, it’s tough to create a deep sense of shared mission when the mission is profit.

The fire service has that deep, shared mission prebuilt into its structure. It has all the pieces in place for a thick, deep culture. On the global, macro scale, our culture is among the strongest you’ll find anywhere.

The difficult part is converting that strong, thick macro culture into strong, thick micro cultures. That is, having a deep culture at the department and station level.

Unlike companies, fire departments don’t have to invent or build their cultures from scratch. The ground work is there and the building blocks in place. We already have a long heritage, shared higher purpose, shared rituals, similar uniforms and been tested through common experiences.

We don’t need gimmickry, like a bunch of Hoppity Hops in the station, to give firefighters a sense of belonging.

Yet a deep fire department culture isn’t simply an “add water and stir” recipe. Whether experienced firsthand or via the media, we’ve all seen the crushing effects of a toxic fire department culture. It tears departments apart and hinders their ability to render service.

Cultures have to be constantly and purposefully maintained.

That maintenance can be hard work. It involves fostering trusting, caring, supportive and inclusive environments. But that’s the glue that holds deep cultures together.

It’s easy to say such cultural maintenance starts at the top with the chief and the officer corps. And that’s true.

But it’s also true that we all own a chunk of the responsibility for making the fire culture deep; even grunt firefighters like me play a major part. We all have to contribute in positive ways to our station’s, our department’s and our service’s culture.

That means that each of us, in action and attitude, must put the good of the mission and the good of the group before the good of self. And building deep, thick cultures at the micro level feeds into the deep, thick culture at the macro level.

Many private-sector companies spend small fortunes trying to get close to the cultural depth we enjoy in the fire service. We don’t need Hoppity Hops; we have brotherhood. To thrive, that brotherhood requires daily attention.

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