The Traditions That Hold Us Back
Editor's note: As another year passes, be sure to check out our Year in Review special coverage page featuring contributions from Billy Goldfeder, Mike McEvoy, NVFC Chairman Philip C. Stittleburg and many more.
When I founded VolunteerFD.org nearly seven years ago, I used the premise that most volunteer departments were "100 Years of Tradition, Unimpeded by Progress." Since that time both VolunteerFD.org and volunteer departments as a whole have come a long way into the 21st century. As another year passes, we have an opportunity to look at our traditions and see which ones are holding us back and which we can learn from.
The biggest tradition holding us back is by far the tendency of departments to be run by a select group of friends or family, to the exclusion of all others. This comes in many forms but most often I hear about how the Chief's drinking, hunting or other social group is running the department. Anyone outside of that group is shunned, ignored or forced out.
Usually this becomes most apparent when it comes time to elect or appoint officers and continues year after year. The result is that new ideas, or ideas from "outsiders," are ignored or rejected outright, stalling the department's progress. These good ole' boy networks have caused many departments to not only fail to grow, but actually close or be shut down.
The second tradition holding departments back is a general reluctance to change. Change is both inevitable and difficult. I always think of "Who Moved My Cheese" when I think of change. Unless we change to meet our environment, we risk losing everything we have.
Firefighting is about calculated risks, but when it comes to change we often forget to do the calculation and get stuck with the mantra of "we don't do it that way here." Not all change is necessarily good, but steadfastly refusing to consider change is a tradition that we cannot afford. Departments that refuse to change, especially in these difficult economic times, are doomed to failure, which is not only a shame but may cost lives.
Traditions have caused conflict in all areas, and resulted in a battle between the so-called "dinosaurs" and "robots." These battles between those who have been with the department forever and newcomers represent tradition coming directly against change, with egos thrown in to add fuel to the fire. Both sides think they are right, and both sides are right to an extent, but neither can stand alone. When I first started VolunteerFD.org, I was definitely more in the robot camp, but after 15 years volunteering I am slowly learning to appreciate the dinosaurs more and maybe even becoming one myself!
Many of us have forgotten that there are lots we can learn from our resident dinosaurs, as not all of our traditions are bad. Traditions, such as maintaining the brotherhood of firefighters are being forgotten, much to the detriment of departments as a whole. So is the tradition of passing down knowledge from member to member. Knowledge and kinship are priceless traditions that act as the glue that holds departments together.
As our members age and retire, we lose both our traditions and institutional knowledge. Unfortunately we do not always realize how much knowledge our dinosaurs possess or their importance until they are no longer around. Every department has that member or even a couple if they are lucky, that you can always count on when an obscure question comes up. The answer to the question may not always make sense, but they can usually explain the reasoning, even if it is obscure. Knowing the background of an issue, even if you do not agree with it, can help departments to make an informed decision when change has to occur.
The problem with a tradition is in deciding whether it is good or bad. Some traditions, such as only promoting the Chief's friends, need to go. But other traditions can help our departments survive and thrive. Rather than just disregarding an "old" idea outright, it would help each of us if we asked what the source of the tradition was. Maybe the reluctance to change actually comes from a bad experience with trying a similar change. These can be used to learn from and to find a compromise that will work for everyone.
As the New Year begins, I encourage each of you to take a good look at your personal and departmental traditions. I also encourage each member to reach out to someone with five to 10 years more experience than them and five to 10 years less than them. In reaching out to both more senior and junior members, we can share both our traditions and knowledge. Together we can find ways to learn from each other and improve.