Philosophy and Fact

Issue 7 and Volume 11.

Culture is an influential part of every organization. The nature of the fire service, and the firehouse environment, presents some unique challenges when it comes to culture modification. Combine this with the fire service’s reluctance to change, and you have perfect conditions for the development of toxic cultures. Many questionable practices and behaviors that exist in the modern fire service exist because the culture allows their existence.

Cultures exist either by design or by chance. Unfortunately, in the American fire service, the latter is the norm. If we ever hope to eliminate the bad events that are caused by bad habits, or by questionable accepted practices, we must implement change and initiate a culture modification process. If the fire service ever hopes to eliminate toxic, deadly cultures, there must be a commitment at the local level to a chosen culture, and leadership must have the courage to drive the culture modification process. The lack of established standards and expectations, accountability, courageous leadership, and effective supervision must be remedied if we ever hope to accomplish all that we continually talk about. We know the problems, we know the causes, and we know many of the solutions.

Motivation for Cultural Change

Failure to meet basic performance and safety standards has been an ongoing problem in the American fire service. Realized in individual fire departments big and small, career and volunteer, rural and urban, finding solutions to basic problems continues to challenge fire service leaders. While the focus always seems to be on specific areas of concern, when looking at the big picture it is easy to draw a parallel between the problems and the organization’s culture. Many of the internal challenges facing fire departments have a root cause that is culture related. The beliefs, values, accepted practices, level of accountability, and leadership philosophy are each a byproduct of the fire department’s culture.

There is not a practice, belief, lesson, tradition, or decision that occurs within a fire department that is not in some way governed or impacted by the existing culture. The culture represents all that has been learned and shared among the current members of the organization and all that has been passed down by previous generations. Beliefs, assumptions, norms, and practices exist because each is allowed to exist. Most importantly, the values of the organization-formal or informal-that are communicated in the form of rules and regulations, general orders, stories, or disciplinary actions, good or bad, usually live within the culture and remain until a more influential force intervenes to initiate cultural change.

Declaring that the culture needs to be changed is, in reality, saying that every belief, every assumption, every practice, and every rationalization for future decisions needs to be examined and possibly modified. Choosing a sustainable culture is about discovery and commitment.

Fire Service Culture and Impact

Fire department cultures develop one of two ways. First and most commonly is through evolution and over generations, by what is and what is not valued by the members. In addition, it develops by what is allowed, tolerated, or encouraged in daily activities and decisions. And finally, it develops by the emphasis that is placed on what is and what is not viewed as important.

The second way, and certainly the most uncommon, the culture develops by design and intention. Chosen sustained cultures exist because of vision, observable core values, established standards, identified best practices, accountability at all levels, courageous leadership, and the daily management of the desired culture by influential members.

In 2008, I began researching the subject of culture and its impact on fire service organizations-specifically the impact of training and mentoring and the development of learning cultures. The original focus of the research was on fire departments in general, but what I quickly realized was that, when it comes to culture and culture management, not all fire departments can be viewed as equal. To better quantify the impact of culture on fire department organizations, it was necessary to categorize departments based on size, maturity, resources, and a change factor.

Department size: Department size is important because culture modification involves change-and often breakthrough change. The size of an organization determines how quickly change is likely to occur. For the purpose of the research, it was important to determine if change was likely to occur within one generation of leadership, such as in smaller, more agile departments, or slower as is likely in larger, more established departments in which sustained change would likely require two or more generations of leadership to implement and then sustain. Implementing change without a plan for sustainability is a common oversight in the change management process that many fire departments follow.

Department maturity: The maturity of the department is the next most important factor that relates to both culture and change. As with so many things in the fire service, the things that are passed on from one generation to the next certainly have an influential impact. Mature departments (several generations of members) are more set in their ways because the way things get done has been passed on by respected senior members. This ritual is viewed with high regard in the American fire service, and the change process can expect to meet resistance. The larger and the more mature the department, the more difficult culture modification becomes-not impossible, just more difficult and more time consuming.

Department resources: The availability of resources is not a major factor but is a factor nonetheless. Departments that are struggling to survive are focused on maintaining and surviving, not culture management. Departments with limited resources believe there are more important things to worry about than whether or not their culture is healthy.

Department change factor: The change factor is a combination of subjective and objective criteria. This takes into consideration such things as geographical location, progressiveness, commitment to excellence, commitment to training and professional development, hiring and promotional processes, labor relations, trust, and leadership philosophy.

Toxic vs. health culture.

Signs of a Chosen and Healthy Culture

Symptoms of Toxic Culture

Two-way trust

Us against them

Commitment to learning

Lack of training and mentoring




Finger pointing

Team members


People want to belong

People want to leave

A sense of purpose

A sense of self



Effective supervisors


Officers interact with their crew

Officers stay in their office

Members are positioned for success and survival

Members are allowed to drift toward failure

PPE and seat belts are worn

The officer determines what rules to follow

Expectations are met

Shortcuts are taken

Outcomes are based on knowledge and skills

Outcomes are the result of luck

Prepared physically, mentally, mechanically, procedurally

No expectations for preparedness

Open to change

Have always done it this way

Commitment to continual improvement

Why fix it if it ain’t broken?

Training occurs because it is valued

Training occurs because it is required

Worried about being good

Worried about looking good

Problems are solved using sensible aggression

Problems are solved with reckless aggression

The culture is managed daily

The culture is neglected

(Image by author.)

Department Categories

The following is a breakdown of the four categories of fire departments and their likely receptiveness to change and culture modification.

The biggest fire departments: In fire departments with more than 500 members, based on research and observation, cultural modification is likely to be more difficult and require two or more generations of leadership to initiate change and sustain culture modifications. Departments with more than 500 members are not considered viable for cultural modification using the theory and the model outlined here.

The average American fire departments: Career or volunteer departments with 500 or fewer members can be described as progressive, old school, modern, or traditional, but by any definition they have a history of being successful in carrying out the mission of protecting lives and property. Most of the average American departments evaluated experienced an influx of new members at some point in the past 30 to 40 years and are now seeing those members retire. Therefore, they are typically led by those who are younger, often educated, and not as experienced by traditional standards as officers of the past. Although these departments may seem to be set in their ways, culture modification can occur with strong, knowledgeable, experienced, and committed leadership. These departments have experienced some change and are less likely to resist change than are larger departments. The need for change is generally voiced by newer members. During periods of change, there is likely to be a disconnect between younger members and senior members who must decide between changing and retiring. Patience is often needed to effectively create a chosen culture. Chiefs who are brought in from outside of the organization typically have more success implementing change and culture modification, good or bad, is almost always recognizable in the first 18 to 36 months. The sustainability of change and culture modification varies greatly and depends heavily on the ownership by the members of the organization.

Rapid-growth fire departments: Fire departments that have experienced rapid growth at some point between the mid-1980s and 2015 are best positioned for cultural change. These departments have been forced to embrace so much change to survive that valuing change is commonly a part of their culture. Because of the lack of maturity of rapid-growth organizations, the culture existence is not easily recognizable either from the outside or within. These departments, by definition, are viewed as successful and progressive but all too often because of their curb appeal. Because everything appears new and modern, it’s often assumed that they must be governed by a healthy culture. Because these departments have been driven by growth, most efforts are focused on hiring, promoting, buying, and building. To meet service demands, leadership is often forced to focus on growth management-not culture management. As a result, as these organizations mature, they are often left with many cultural challenges that prevent these organizations from reaching full potential and issues associated with low morale.

Note: On a side note, the results of a simple survey revealed that a surprisingly low number of departments in this category had in place any form of structured fire training that focused on the basics or operational coordination, consistency, and continuity between shifts and stations. The use of mentors for new hires and newly promoted was almost nonexistent, and there was a lack of formal professional development criteria for current and future officers. It also revealed that often the commitment to training for the organization reported by administrative staff was significantly more than the actual commitment by operations personnel. This indicates a misalignment between training expectations and training reality. The commitment to training, or the lack thereof, highlights many cultural issues. Departments in this category are primed for cultural modification and would benefit the most long term from a deliberate culture modification effort.

Struggling-to-survive fire departments: The focus of these departments is maintaining or surviving. They are often poorly funded and poorly led. Departments that are struggling to provide the basic necessities for service delivery are not considered viable for cultural modification within the parameters outlined here.

Performance and Safety Problems

Assuming good people are brought into the organization and effective supervisors are placed into supervisory positions, performance and safety problems commonly occur for two reasons: lack of standards or lack of accountability for meeting standards. Agree or not, the fact is expectations have not been clearly defined, and/or chief officers, captains, lieutenants, senior members, or anyone else who could have stopped an unacceptable behavior or practice from occurring did not.

The fire service has gotten very creative with the cause and effect of bad occurrences to draw the attention away from the lack of standards and accountability. If we ever hope to improve the culture, we must first be honest and identify the chain of causation that led up to the bad event. Standards or acceptable best practices must come from the top. Adherence to established standards or best practices is everyone’s responsibility. Supervisors who condone unacceptable acts or behaviors own those acts or behaviors and must be prepared to deal with the consequences in the future.

DepartmentWide Investment

Cultural modification requires breakthrough change. Culture modification must start at the top. Cultural modification requires a long-term commitment and must be viewed as a journey and not a destination. It requires courage and real leadership. To achieve a chosen and sustainable culture requires daily management of the culture.

The very first step to any change process is commitment. For culture modification to occur, the leadership team must commit to a process and to accountability. There must be an organized effort to prevent detours and maintain momentum. Selling change is every bit as important as managing the change process. The chief of department must be all in and be viewed as the head cheerleader for the process. Without support from the leadership team and the chief delivering horsepower to the process, a chosen culture is impossible. Change may occur, but sustainability will be questionable.

Culture Modification Process

Create and communicate a vision: A chosen culture starts with vision. The chief must be able to clearly define what he would like the culture to look like and then package the vision into words and phrases that can be clearly communicated by leaders and supervisors and clearly understood by the newest members. The vision is the target for which all change and culture modification efforts are aimed.

Purpose: Hopefully the culture focuses on the organization’s purpose or fulfilling a mission. Too many fire departments have strayed from the core purpose or mission in an attempt to look progressive and, in turn, have caused conflict in the organization and damage to the culture. Everybody needs a purpose that they can understand and fulfill if committed.

Core values: Core values and core value action steps are the foundation of the culture. In the absence of core values, the culture will lack a soul-a compass for checks and balances. Core values also serve as an excellent leadership and decision making tool.

Courageous leadership: Courageous leadership is an absolute necessity for success in the fire service. Without it, the culture will become toxic. The leaders of the organization are the change agents. In the absence of leaders who display courage by not being afraid to do the right thing, the culture is left to chance or will be determined by the most influential members. Effective leadership takes courage. Change and culture modification must involve courageous leadership.

Effective supervision: Not every supervisor is a leader. However, every person with supervisor responsibilities must be effective in that role. Ideally, effective supervision is an expectation that comes from the top. A supervisor who allows shortcuts, accepts mediocrity, fails to prepare his people, or neglects the responsibility of the position owns the problem and must deal with the consequences. Additionally, any person over that supervisor who allows ineffective supervision owns the outcome twofold … he has the authority, the rank, and the obligation and has accepted the responsibility and yet has allowed substandard performance. He owns the toxic culture.

Fixing Leadership Issues

Lack of courageous leadership and lack of effective supervision are the two biggest links in the chain of causation for bad events and a toxic culture. In addition, I have yet to find a department in which lack of accountability, lack of commitment to purposeful training, lack of officer development, and lack of trust haven’t been brought up as cultural issues. The culture modification process must include the following:

Commit to a culture of accountability: Provide supervisors with well-thought-out and realistic expectations that reinforce standards, leadership philosophy, core values, purpose, and the chief’s vision. Have monthly mentoring sessions to hold supervisors accountable and to build momentum by providing constructive feedback, encouragement, praise when earned, and timely redirection when needed.

Commit to a learning culture: Make training a priority. Focus on learning and confidence building. Strive for quality and not quantity. Make training realistic and relevant but, most important, make training happen. Make training personal by using mentors for the newly hired and newly promoted. Look for mentoring opportunities.

Commit to a culture that values leadership and effective supervision: Prepare and position officers for success in the firehouse and survival on the fireground. Start the professional development process by building knowledge, confidence, and trust, and watch what happens. To the contrary, put incompetent people in responsible positions and watch the toxin spread.

Commit to a culture of trust: Start by eliminating any perceptions that may cause mistrust. Commit to transparency, meaningful communication, and owning mistakes. Finally, get out and listen to personnel. A cup of coffee casually shared at the kitchen table without an agenda is a great chosen culture cultivator.

As you visit, remember the following three things:

(1) Your job is to see to the success and survival of your people.

(2) They can do it without you, but you can’t do it without them.

(3) Your crew is a reflection of your commitment to them.

In the absence of standards, leadership, and accountability exists a culture of chaos.