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The fire department cultural change evolution

From signs of a toxic FD to signs of positive change, plus how a chief officer can know when to go all in to improve organizational health


“Does your organizational culture help you succeed in times of crisis or significant change, or does it just amplify the chaos?” asks Cupp.

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By Doug Cupp

I’ve heard the phrase “resetting the organization” used several times recently. A reset suggests going back to an earlier time. And when you think about it, we are, in fact, in very different times than even just a few years ago. The increase in the number of active shooter events, mega- and giga-fires, plus the Great Resignation and COVID forced the fire service to make massive changes, some practically overnight.

Does your organizational culture help you succeed in times of crisis or significant change, or does it just amplify the chaos?

Your department’s culture will determine whether your organization thrives or merely survives during times of significant change or adversity. For example, what if your organization’s culture is so toxic that your day is filled with grievances and personnel issues, and no one sees the proverbial train coming, as Gordon Graham would say? Similarly, what if no one can see the opportunities that often emerge in difficult times?

Now, let’s say you are a newly promoted fire chief, chief officer or shift captain and have the responsibility of creating a strong culture that will allow your organization to thrive. What now?

Signs of an unhealthy organization

When considering advancing change, the first step is to determine the level of change required – and this typically requires an organizational health assessment. An unhealthy organization may sound or look like this:

  • Great employees are leaving the organization. Toxic employees are staying.
  • Other departments and stations won’t collaborate or train with you.
  • There is fear to speak up, offering solutions or stepping up.
  • “We the uninformed, working for the inaccessible, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful!” (John Maxell)
  • “Just keep your head down.”
  • “I get punished either way so there is no winning.”
  • Grievances are so frequent, they are normalized.
  • Mistakes are hidden out of fear when we should be learning from them.
  • Lots of manufactured stress!

It’s important to not only identify these signs of toxic culture, but also understand how it happens so we can prevent it from happening again.

How toxic culture get normalized

Normalization of deviance often describes safety-oriented situations where we decide to take shortcuts or deviate from standards due to external pressures. If luck is on our side and nothing bad happens, then the behavior is repeated. Over time, that shortcut or error becomes normalized in the brain and the organization. The same happens in culture and personnel issues. If we accept a lower standard, we are encouraging a lower standard.

For example, you’ve heard refrains like this before: “Oh, that’s just John Doe. John always treats people like that.” Excuses are made in order to not deal with leadership challenges. We choose to live in the dark. Normalizing deviant behaviors helps them become institutionalized.

We have heard sayings like, “Culture eats policy for breakfast” This is true in every sense of the fire service, whether it’s a workers’ compensation issue, legal matter or personnel matter. Although a department might have a policy in place, if we accept gross deviation from policy and ethical standards, then we have built a culture in which policies do not matter. If policies do not matter in your organization, adding more policies will not matter either. You don’t fix the organization through policy alone. The leadership and culture must change, and the policies must be in alignment.

Once you’ve determined that culture change is needed, it’s important to accept that some resistance is inevitable, and you often already know who it will come from. It is the subtle resistance you need to watch. It can come from good team members who are showing real fear or hesitation. Sometimes, it may sound like the expression, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

The saying was believed to come from colonial days, before indoor plumbing. Babies were often bathed last, just before the water was discarded, hence the caution to not throw the baby out with the water. Over time, the expression came mean, essentially, don’t inadvertently throw away something good with the bad.

Resistors might use this idea to push back, arguing that the change will eliminate something good. But what is the “good” they are worried about? It’s critical to clearly identify the proverbial baby. Inability to identify the baby (aka the good) is likely rooted in a broader fear of change, not tangible concerns. Additionally, resistors might fail to clearly identify a baby because they don’t want to admit what they deem to be “good” – like not wanting to explicitly express their lack of support for a diversity initiative (in their mind, the status quo being the “good”).

How do you know when to go all in?

How does the leader know when to go all in, creating intentionality about culture change?

  1. When you can clearly identify both the baby and the bathwater.
  2. If the baby is not at risk of being thrown out. The right culture embraces the good, the baby. It is why we’re throwing out the dirty bathwater in the first place.
  3. When the baby is already being thrown out or is continuously being thrown out, and the bathwater is still there.

Be cognizant that you may lose those members who will not survive in a healthy, high-performing culture (HPC). But do you really want these members if they embrace the negative toxic culture? They are not the baby. The baby represents those members who thrive and excel in a positive workplace. We do not want to lose them. Sadly, these are the employees you lose in a toxic culture while those who drove them away would be content with their doings. In today’s workforce environment, these good employees can get hired anywhere. You lost the baby and kept the bathwater!

Signs of an HPC

On the flip side, your organizational health assessment might reveal that the organization shows signs of operating as an HPC – or maybe these signs emerge through the process of making changes. There are several ways to identify an HPC:

  • There is a strategic alignment of personal and organizational values.
  • How does the organization deal with failure? They replace blame and punishment with learning and growth (Conklin, 2019).
  • Members have purpose and they know their “why.”
  • Members willingly accept the challenge of solving problems at the lowest level. Those closest to the problem are in the best position to solve the problem.
  • Members are valued and, in exchange, they are invested in the success of the organization.

To maintain positive momentum, create vision and paint the picture of what a good organization looks like and where and why you’re headed there. Share organizational studies on highly respected organizations and why they are successful.

Follow these recommendations to move toward the hallmarks of a high-reliability organization:

  • Do not seek simple solutions to difficult problems. A reactionary policy will not fix a toxic culture.
  • Defer to the experts. If a member came into the organization as an expert in wildfires, tech rescue, program management, etc., value that knowledge.
  • Establish a healthy relationship with failure. We should see how we could fail and fix it before it becomes catastrophic. Do not set out to prevent all errors. Errors help us identify gaps and learn how we can do it better.
  • Build resilience. Not only do we fall down but we also give permission to fall down. As the saying often goes, “If you are not falling down, well you’re not trying hard enough.”

These steps will help your organization continue moving forward, replacing toxic culture with one that supports its members.

Policies, timing and tempo

Now what? It starts and continues with a constant vision and the leader’s intent.

Establish your culture first, then focus on the policies. Why is culture first and policy revisions second? We must first decide what kind of organization we want to be. Policies can be so much more than a management tool. Policies can help shape that vision and help shape the culture. If you desire a strong learning culture, then you need policies that support learning (overtime for training, tuition assistance, effective AAR processes). Culture must lead and then revise your policies to align with the desired culture.

Remember, timing is everything. Take the appropriate time to observe but do not delay. Commit to solving core issues, not the symptoms. Do not spend all of your time on what went wrong; focus on how to make it right. Furthermore, do not wait for everyone to be on board, otherwise, you will never get started.

The tempo is just like the fireground tempo. Move hastily when it’s necessary and slow and methodical when it’s not. Most importantly, keep moving. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. It may take a year to see any real evidence of change. Early-adopters and those who desire a healthy, high-performing team are the real catalyst for change. Once trust was established, the speed of change will increase. Significant cultural shifts can occur in 2-5 years.

Signs of progress

There are signs that a positive fire department culture is firmly in place:

  • Hiring committees are devoted to finding alignment with new members, hiring the right people who fit with the values of the department.
  • Members spend time educating new members on the importance of fire department culture.
  • Those in officer development and higher education courses choose to learn more about culture and help to continuously improve.

The time it takes for real culture change to take effect depends on the level of trust among members. They must trust that you stay with it, that you believe it and follow it. This could take months, even years, but is well worth the effort.

There is no time like the present to start with a winning culture toward a HHPC organization that can pivot quickly to an ever-changing world.


Doug Cupp is the fire chief at Greater Eagle Fire Protection District in Colorado. Cupp is a graduate of NFA’s Executive Fire Officer program and the Harvard National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, and holds a master’s degree in Emergency Management and Fire and Emergency Services Management. He is a public speaker and delivers courses based on his research on critical decision-making, leading to crisis and human error.


Conklin, T. (2019) “The 5 Principles of Human Performance.” Santa Fe: PreAccident Media.