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How does a Fire Department lose its identity?

There are many ways a fire department can lose its identity. Identity loss is a problem within the fire service as whole today. In a post September eleventh world, many departments are going through large changes within their structure and beliefs. Let’s face it, the fire service as we know it is turning over a new leaf. Firefighters and Fire Officers are retiring, new fire suppression methods and techniques are becoming more popular, and the safety minded “Everyone goes home” campaign is seen everywhere you look.

While there is nothing wrong with any of these things, they can lead to confusion and an a identity crisis in the department. This disease grows and spreads throughout many fire departments around the country. This problem does not occur overnight and can have a snowball effect if not taken care of quickly. So, how do you keep your fire department from losing its identity? This article will focus in on the importance of leadership, the problem of declining morale, tradition and its role in the changing face of the fire service, and the asphyxiating toxin of complacency.

First and foremost is leadership. Leadership is what defines a department. If you do not have great leadership in your department, then who determines the attitude of the organization, what direction it will take, and where will it go into the future? Leadership is the primary tenant of the fire department.

Today’s leadership is strong, but gets questioned often. Many of our seasoned leaders are retiring out of their positions to live a better life on the beach. That leaves the opportunity for newer leaders to step in. This poses two issues: number one is these individuals probably have little to no experience in a position such as this and number two is these individuals want to mold and shape their acclaimed department into their own. While the truth is that changing the face of a fire department begins at the top brass in the leadership organization, I have often heard that changes should start from the bottom, at the station level. Firefighters, officers, and drivers are the ones who should change the fire department. These are the individuals who are out there day to day, working the late nights, running the life-changing calls, and always serving the citizens. However, leadership starts at the top. The Fire Chief is the one who the whole department should look to for identity. If that individual has never worked in the fire station or put on his or her boots multiple times after midnight for a medical or fire call, then where is the credibility? If he or she has never fought fire, or been in a command position besides during training at the burn building, then how can that individual lead with integrity and admiration? The Fire Chief represents what your fire department is and which direction it is heading. This individual needs to maintain composure and confidence. Firefighters should look up to the fire chief and trust that this individual will lead them forward and never second guess a decision. Without a respectable leader, the firefighters will soon find themselves questioning why they chose to serve in this organization.

Second is morale. Morale is the fire department’s engine. This is what drives your fire department forward and continues to keep it going forward with no backward motion. Morale keeps these men and women together in union to serve the community. There are ways to build this morale and in turn there are many ways to collapse this morale. Pay, equipment, and training opportunities are some of the few ways that can cause a decline in one’s morale. These are major issues that a firefighter faces each day when he or she walks through the door. Think of when you came out of recruit school. The first day as a rookie, there was emotion, excitement, a bit of confidence and lots of enthusiasm. This is a positive morale at its finest. As time goes on, fires are hard fought; training becomes a four letter word “WORK”; statements such as “it’s too hot”, “we don’t have time for that”, and “we don’t do things like that here”, are some of the quotes that are often said. A firefighter’s morale can be like the flu pandemic, it spreads over night and brings down everyone in its path. Think about it, one firefighter starts to wear on other in the station about how things aren’t what they like. Next everyone runs a call together and now the virus starts spreading into the other stations. Now everyone is gathered at the kitchen table for dinner where negativity and animosity have begun to set in amongst all those involved. A chain reaction starts with one person and then the department shifts downhill. The age old saying, “One bad apple spoils the bunch” is a great example. A firefighter cannot let a poor morale take over and bring others down. It is very easy to find yourself involved in the negative remarks of others and before you know it you have been infected. Once this attitude sets in, there is little a fire department can do to transition back to positive.

Tradition is the base of the department. Tradition serves as a standard and holds integrity to a department’s name. Some say that tradition is going away in the fire service, that we don’t need tradition to run a department, or tradition is tough to continue nowadays. I recently read an article about “these new guys in the fire service today”. The article briefly expands on how the rookies we get out of probation school today do not know anything, just what got them by to pass the test. It goes on to talk about how today's firefighters should “pass it on” to the new guys, because they will be the ones to do the same job in a couple of years to someone else. This is tradition. If the senior man or any firefighter is not doing their job “leading by example” and showing others the trade of being a firefighter, then where is the tradition? Fire departments around the country are rich in tradition. These firefighters take pride in where they came from and lead others to where they are going. Tradition makes the fire department look back and be proud of its history. It keeps building a road for others to follow and guides them to becoming a successful firefighter.

Complacency is the silent killer. Complacency stops the fire department from thinking. This too, like morale is can spread like the flu pandemic. This disease takes over your brain and puts blinders on your eyes; it traps your mind from thinking outside of the box. Yes, those calls that you make up sitting around the kitchen table and laugh at that “it will never happen here” that’s complacency taking over. I ran a call about a month ago where a carbon monoxide alarm was going off. We did all the right steps and found no CO in the house. After the call, one of the firemen said to the homeowner “CO is the silent killer; you cannot see it or smell it.” I thought about that and when we got back to the station I said to him “CO may be the silent killer of citizens, but complacency is the silent killer of a fireman.” A fire department should never loose site of its overall purpose in the community. FDNY Lt. Ray McCormack once said “When you think that you are number one, because all you ever heard is you are number one, you will start to believe it.” When a fire department becomes complacent, firemen do not think, and when firemen are not thinking, then firemen die. It’s ok to change from the norm and think outside the box, try new techniques, learn from other departments. That’s why we are firemen. We are called to do something that no one else can or will do. We are the public’s only hope for success so let’s get it right the first time.

A fire department should look itself in the mirror often, and ask itself where are we heading, what is our goal, just as we do as firemen. These four points can change who we are, it can also make us who we are not. Identity loss can be a downward spiral for a fire department. Identity loss can change the whole goal of a fire department, the loss for public trust. A fire department as a whole can get back on its feet if one or all of these points can change. These points can bring new meaning and life to a fire department. These points can also change how the fire department responds. If you feel like this is your fire department, then you need to ask yourself, has my fire department lost its identity?

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