The cultural shift: Breaking free from complacency in fire departments
By Dave RobertsonFeatures Opinion
I live in a North American urban area. It features a typical population density and a typical fire department and staffing complement for a city this size. So typical, in fact, that over the years this city has been used as a product testing ground for several global companies. It was, essentially, a cross-section of every town North America.
I drive by one of this town’s fire stations all the time. Friends live near there, the beach I swim at, my gym, my ophthalmologist, and where I walk my dog are all in that end of town. I drive by this fire station sometimes four times a day—eight times if I include the drive back.
A few months ago, I noticed that the apparatus door was always closed. The rig was in-house, but the door was closed with no one in sight. In the interest of being fair to this crew, I thought maybe they’d had a tough night of calls, or they were training inside, or I just happened to be missing them. I started mentally, and then literally, keeping a tally. When I started writing this article, I stopped at 100 drive-bys of the station; this seemed like a good, round, arbitrary number to stop at. I will admit to seeing firefighters three times: a captain standing by his right seat setting up his gear; a firefighter having a cigarette; and another firefighter walking out to his truck. Three out of one hundred passes is not a great average.
Here is what I didn’t see: firefighters pulling hose, washing the rig, having coffee on the front bumper as an invitation for passers-by to chat, throwing ladders, school tours, station cleaning, (indoor or out), practicing donning/doffing SCBA. I had also not seen recruits opening and closing apparatus doors to familiarize themselves, climbing around the inside of the rig, reading the hydrant maps on the cowling. So, not just general activity, but more importantly no training activity.
What I have seen is poor station care: chipped paint on the bay doors, the grass regularly uncut and weedy, the apron not washed down, and the blinds in the front office damaged and unclean.
I will provide full disclosure and share that the city is currently building a new station at this location. However, not only has the new station been a decades-long political volleyball, but the current station has been famously ramshackle for years. In the end, old station or new, the station belongs to the public we serve and should be treated as such. It should also be a point of pride for every firefighter who works there, and it should look inviting. A firehouse is more than just four walls and a roof.
It’s fair to say that this station, and by extension this department, adheres to a “Closed-door Policy”, which usually extends to a “union drives all we do” policy, or “The city isn’t taking care of us, so why should we take care of our house” policy. Each of these screams department-wide complacency.
Is all this hyperbole? Have I stretched the closed-door metaphor too far? Well, if you saw one of your local firefighters in an unkempt uniform, hat backwards and scruff on his face, or a dirty, mud-splattered rig driving your streets, what would that tell you about the department as a whole? The little things often reveal what’s really happening in an organization. So, yes, the closed door tells a bigger story.
Complacency kills. That’s not hyperbole. If the door is always closed, if the rig and/or crew are never outside – aside from the occasional call or meeting at Station 1 – then the daily drills and training that are critical to be not just competent, but proficient, in this high-risk gig of ours, aren’t happening either. And that is dangerous.
Understand the power of connection.
A closed-door policy can be culturally dangerous as well. It’s a shutting out of the very people we serve, the ones we respond to and for, and who own the right to see our world in the firehouse. Culturally, the closed door can be an indicator that the station captain allows this and that those above them either allow it or don’t take notice. I’m not sure which is worse, except that both are also indicative of complacency in the top ranks, which means the cultural issue is department-wide.
Are these kinds of departments staffed by good people? I’d like to think so. Are they staffed with operationally sound firefighters? They probably were when they got hired, but by working in a poor atmosphere where regular training isn’t the norm, then I don’t see how they could be.
To sum it all up, they’re not doing their core job, which is to take care of their rig, take care of their house, and take care of their citizens by being tactically great.
So, what should a department recognizing itself in this article do? First, it would need to understand that moving away from complacency and towards a training-heavy policy is a cultural fix, which is a “turning of the ship” scenario that will take time and considerable effort. But there are simple fixes that those in authority and positions of leadership can apply right now that will make an immediate difference.
First, hire the right people. Those in authority that are allowing complacency to occur, well, someone hired them. Begin at the beginning. During the next round of hiring, start filling your ranks with the right kind of recruit.
Second, start enforcing your policies and standard operating procedures. I’m sure you have them sitting somewhere in a binder on a shelf. If there are any questions about how, when and what training should be done, point to the binder. Don’t have the policy? Write it.
Third, reach for any book on leadership. Somewhere inside, there will be a chapter on leading by example. Grab your gear, head to a station and ask the crew to throw some ladders with you. Or wash a station’s rig outside for the public to see. Buy them all a coffee and walk the streets close to the station. You’ll be seen and it will be a great opportunity for them to see their district from street level. On the walk, talk about building construction, forcible entry, issues with rig placement at certain addresses – whatever you’d like. Just lead by example, which usually means getting out there in front of your crew and showing them how it’s done.
This leads to my final suggestion, which is another take on leading by example – if you’re a chief or station captain, understand the power of connection. Show up at shift start, order a front bumper meeting, grab a mug and open those bay doors. Sit there and solve the world’s problems; talk hockey, different types of cars; how bad the coffee is. Take the lead and wave at drivers passing by. Mostly, though, listen to your team. The complacency is happening for a reason. One of the most common reasons is crew members not feeling heard or, more accurately, that they feel they don’t matter. So, hear them out. If you’re a firefighter rather than leadership, show up and make yourself heard.
It might take time and it may feel forced at first. Some will jump on board sooner than others, but eventually, by revealing and recognizing the mistakes made in training, or that your firehouse isn’t pretty or perfect, the changed attitudes will become natural. The morning meet will become a part of shift change, and your training will be something you’ll want citizens to see because you’ll be that much better at it.
Eventually, opening the bay door will open so much more.
Chief Dave Robertson has 25 years in the fire service in five different departments, from busy urban systems to wildland to rural/semi-rural. He has instructed within his fire departments, in fire academies, paramedic schools, private fire institutions, and as a Chief of Training. He is fuelled by a deeply sincere passion to make the fire service better.
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