The fire service is rooted in tradition. Equally cemented in depth is the level of cultural dogma that exists at every department across the nation. These proud organizations have much stake in
their organizational infrastructure and how they got there. I have
noticed from not only empirical evidence but that of networking
nationwide that many an organization is operating in a dysfunctional capacity. Why? What are the barriers creating this dysfunction? Why do they exist?
Culture is the root of our problem. The Everyone Goes Home
Project established as much in defining our largest hurdle regarding firefighter safety as cultural change. (USFA, 2015, 3) Our
most respected organizations and leaders have defined the main
issue to our own safety as the culture we behold and love so much.
Change is often met with apathy in our service, as the slogan
goes: Hundreds of years of tradition unimpeded by progress. The
statistics based on research have followed this decree. The most
significant obstacles impacting cultural change are its complexity,
the length required, and the existing cultures grip. (Smith, 2003)
Let’s define culture—more specifically, what does culture mean
in the fire service? Culture is a guiding light for how members
are supposed to act. Culture also influences subtle behaviors such
as whose task it is to clean the bathrooms and check the rigs.
Culture can be the mortar filling spaces left open by the brick
foundation of standard operating procedures (SOPs). Experts in
organizational behavior will define culture as: “The pattern of
basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered, or
developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adap-
tation and internal integration.” Professionals in this discipline
also simply define culture as, “The collective programming of the
mind.” A dangerous dynamic in our profession occurs when the
wrong influences are driving the programming. Peer pressure still
exists in the adult world, and some use the rumor mill to exert
power via influence in the social paradigms at the kitchen table.
The fire service tradition defined is a time-honored walk into
hierarchal service-oriented heroism. The traditions exist within
the cultural implements each day you walk into the station.
Senior members are revered, often displayed by their seat at the
table, audience given in groups, and work assignments. The
heroism mentioned earlier is the selfless mode we operate in
confronting inherently dangerous conditions. We do it for them.
The heroism tradition is the collective mindset of service and our
assumption of risk. We all have joined this job to fulfill a greater
purpose. The members of our service know that fortunes are not
found on the fire truck. We are service focused, have a strong
connection with the community, and are willing to accept risk.
These traits are typically found in some form or another within
all mission statements nationwide. We also have a strong resis-
tance to outsider influence. We typically promote from within
and resist pressure from outside agencies regarding our practices.
A final attribute defining our tradition is its resistance to change.
We often joke about the fire service’s inability to change, regard-
Barriers to cultural
change in the
BY JEFF ROTHMEIER
The barriers resulting from group
dynamics are prevalent amidst
most cultures. (Image by Pixabay.)