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Treating the Symptoms or Working on a Cure?

The number one Firefighter Life Safety Initiative from the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation is Cultural Change. It’s explained as “Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility.”

Why is this number one? Shouldn’t the number-one concern be cancer or mental health or any of the myriad other problems faced by firefighters on a regular basis?

These issues are extremely important and deserve as much attention and as many resources as can be brought to bear by the fire and emergency service. However, if your department’s culture doesn’t support safety efforts, this attention will serve only as a treatment of symptoms and not a cure.

Before tackling how to change it, we need to know what culture is. Merriam-Webster says culture is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.”

That’s very academic and while it’s useful, Michael Hyatt, CEO and Forbes-list entrepreneur, says “The problem is that culture is largely invisible to those inside of it. It’s like water to a fish or air to a bird. It’s simply the environment we live in” (How Do You Change Organizational Culture). 

By looking at what defines culture, we can put together some thoughts on changing it. Values, goals and environment are all words that stand out when I look at how to address the situation. These are areas leaders should be dealing with on a regular basis.

Understanding Values

Departments should establish early on what values they hold dear. Culture is changed not by listing a bunch of words that sound impressive; it starts with understanding that a department’s values are tantamount to saying, “We value these principles above all else.”

If the rank and file—and especially the leaders—don’t understand this concept, changing culture will prove to be an uphill battle.

Is safety a value of your department? If not, why not? Many would say, “Well, because it’s obvious.” Why is it more obvious than integrity or honesty? Aren’t those obvious as well?

Some might say we can’t value safety above everything else, and I agree. If safety is valued above all else, we would never get on an apparatus. We’d never go into a smoky, hot environment, and we’d never deal with sick people. All of these are risks to our safety and health. Could we phrase this value differently?

Values need to be defined. Simply putting honesty, integrity, safety and similar terms on a website isn’t enough. We can provide a statement such as, “We value the safety of our community as well as our members. As such, we will provide help to those in need while managing the risk to our firefighters.”

This may not work for you, but there are many ways of stating the value of safety.


Basic leadership courses teach the value of ensuring that goals meet certain standards. Whether you use SMART, CLEAR, HARD or any of the numerous acronyms for goal setting, the important part is that it’s obvious to those you’re leading what the vision is.

This goal should be focused like a laser: “Our goal is to have zero occurrences of dirty gear in apparatus cabs in 2019.”

There may need to be more explanation, but almost anyone who reads this will understand what the goal is. Sometimes this is more relatable than a less-focused goal such as, “Our goal is to reduce firefighter cancer.”


If we think of environment as the conditions we work in, we can quickly see how this could play a significant role in promoting safe practices. Don’t think of this just as it pertains to the equipment we use or the emergency situations we find ourselves in, but also in the attitudes that shape our organizations.

It’s not enough to buy extra hoods so your firefighters never wear contaminated ones or to take tactics courses based on new fire-behavior research. Does your department look at such measures as this and see an attack on the aggressive tradition of firefighting? It’s not an attack; treating it as if it is shows a deeper issue with department attitude. If that same attitude is held by the leadership, significant change won’t occur until that attitude changes.

Culture is often spoken of when discussing issues facing the fire service. It’s done so frequently that we often forget its import. By breaking down the meaning of culture and understanding a few key factors, we can use it to better our departments.

Its most important role could well be in supporting the slogan, “Everyone Goes Home!”


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