(Photo: Zimmerman Media LLC)
I have never understood why we develop requirements which are sold as “industry standards”, yet we choose to lead, run, and plan our departments based on often outdated traditions and customs which are quite commonly direct contradictions of such “standards”. The fact that the fire service as a whole is governed by a set of “recommendations” which are KNOWN to be unachievable and impractical for many fire departments across the country should be the first sign that we are promoting ideology rather than reality. Instead of working on realistic plans and options for meeting these standards, we defensively spout off sayings and half-truths about how our way is better, the curriculum doesn’t work for a department like ours, the people who made them don’t know how things really are, or we must teach it to satisfy some type of funding or legal “requirement” even though we have no intention of applying said knowledge. We teach and educate one way, then penalize our people for performing, citing, and using this information in the street. Telling recruits to learn things one way for the test but they will learn the “real” way when they go to their company is baffling to say the least. We are so afraid of change that we literally waste months of both instructor and student time and create habits that will now need to be overcome by teaching things we KNOW will not be done the way we have taught them! This disconnect is the very foundation of the constant quarrels and disputes which divide our departments and eat up valuable time in our day.
Leadership is certainly a topic which this phenomenon has a firm grasp on. There is no shortage of advice out there regarding change, leadership, and their opposition. Most is filled with fancy catch phrases, acronyms, strategies, goals, and wisdoms that are designed to motivate the reader or student but tend to have little actual follow through in the real world. Most departments require classes and certifications which specifically address these topics as preparatory steps to becoming an officer. While such advice is generally well intentioned and educational, the fact of the matter is much of it is a theory rather than a reality. This idealistic approach to leading and running a fire department forms quite the conundrum for the average firefighter who is trying to improve their department from the ground up as the strategies they were taught for leading and affecting change frequently come up short. I believe it is this flaw in officer development that leads many to the darkness of failure, exhaustion, fear, and depression which generally accompany the slap in the face of being let down by your training.
I try to keep up with these strategies which come to us in many forms these days including formal education, in-service training, conferences, trade magazines, books, and social media. I do this because as much as I have been taught about leadership in my life, I am still searching for the answer of how to make the way it “should be” and reality the same thing. The goal of my crusade is not to necessarily form a brand, but rather form strategies that can be used realistically in your firehouse rather than idealistically on a test or essay. Unfortunately, as leadership has become a higher priority topic, the space has become overcrowded with those who are just regurgitating information they came across in the various outlets and trying to brand it as their own. Although many of the existing strategies are sound and practical, their implementation remains troublesome because they do not account for the favorites, buddies, and exceptions which infest the status quo that “leadership” has become. I attribute this specific lack of accountability to be the main reason firefighters become discouraged and eventually abandon their department, or the fire service altogether!
|(Photo: Low Country Firefighter Support Team)|
I get so upset when I read articles by very influential people in the fire service that suggest giving up on a person or department is a “selfish” action. Jumping ship at the first sign of difficulty and continuously banging your head against the wall to the point you have become lost are vastly different situations. Even though we are in an occupation that is centered around solving problems at all costs and never quitting, I think it is inappropriate to make people believe that treating the internal politics of a fire department and the emergencies we mitigate as one in the same. We are lying when we pretend there never comes a time to throw in the towel. Whether you are dealing with other employees, a particular station, or the department as a whole there is a tipping point that occurs when you have exhausted all of your options, strategies, and tactics to change, compromise, or rectify something that you do not agree with. This tipping point is the difference between your ability to cope and being in a situation which is not conducive to a positive outcome. For some people, this limit comes early on and for some it can take years, even decades to show its ugly face. Many never even experience such conditions and enjoy long, wonderful careers in the same station or department. Regardless of if or when it happens, identifying you have hit the point of no return is crucial to maintaining your productiveness, passion, and mental health!
Culture is defined as "the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group." In other words, the traditions and events that shaped your station or department into what it is today are its culture. We are constantly bombarded with the fact that the “culture” of our fire department affects the way we do things. We are being led to believe that the solution to every flaw, failure, and defeat lies in changing this culture. Well I am here to tell you, trying to sell cultural change as an individual or extremely limited minority is not an easy path. Even the strongest, most motivated individuals will find themselves questioning their abilities when they fire the first shot in a cultural war that the majority does not want, whether it is needed or not. There is a huge difference between the rank and file collectively taking on an oppressive administration and an individual taking on the culture of the entire department. In some cases, the culture may not even the problem, but rather that culture is not right for a particular person! Right, wrong, or indifferent the REALITY is you probably will not succeed, and if you do it will be at such a high cost to your personal reputation and passion that it probably won’t be worth it in the end anyways. I understand that is not what you have been taught or led to believe, but it is the truth.
However, there is another option for those who are faced with situations where cultural change seems to be nothing short of impossible and that is a climate change. I am not talking about the climate change being hammered on by politicians and scientists, but rather seeking a departmental climate that is more in line with your values, desires, and principles. Climate is defined as "the prevailing attitudes, standards, or environmental conditions of a group, period, or place. Firefighting is no different than weather in that certain parts of the country have different fire service climates. Fire departments are similar but different in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Deep South, Midwest, and West partially because their of their cultures, but mainly because their landscapes, resources, threats, and attitudes are different. There are even different climates within the same regions. You may find departments in the same state or even stations in a larger department that have different climates! Not every place drinks the same Kool Aid, ignores standards and requirements, or tries to beat to their own drum. Contrary to what you are led to believe, there may be a better fit for you somewhere else. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with you if you don't fit in with your current assignment or department, you may just need to find somewhere that is more in tune with your specific beliefs, aptitudes and passions!
I am by no means advocating that anyone who is unhappy with their current station, department, or the fire service in general should immediately resort to finding a new place to call home but rather challenging the idea that removing yourself from a situation that you view as hopeless after endless attempts to remedy it is somehow selfish or cowardly. There are far too many brothers and sisters pouring their passion into stations and departments who are getting ZERO return on their investment and end up so beat down and defeated they simply quit without actually resigning. Sadly, they turn into the placeholders they have resented their whole career because they are simply out of fight as they try to wait things out until retirement. Rather than sacrifice their passion and drive, why not simply try to find a new home that can nurture and restore it?
Sometimes we all need a new beginning whether it be a transfer, new assignment, different department, or a completely new career. Even though such changes will all come with a risk, we must consider any option that protects our sanity. Simply hanging around because we are too scared or proud to find something that is better for us hurts our department more than helps it! You are NEVER too invested in something to back out. Certain places and situations are good fit for some and not for others. Just because most thrive in a particular setting does not mean everyone will. If a single situation was right for everyone, there wouldn’t be options in life. Make sure you are choosing the option that best fits you as your value to the agency is lost when you are operating based on fear, resentment, and anger. There is something to be learned from every situation, good or bad. While a different climate may not end up being a good fit either, entering a point of no return offers such a low probability of transformation it is more than worth the risk. Your aim should always be to improve yourself, your crew, and your department, but if all else fails and you are unable to find peace in your current environment there is no shame in seeking a better climate for you!