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Moving From a Policy-Based to a Values-Driven Fire Department

     One of the key components of any crew, team or organization is having a group of people who believe in the same thing. An organization that knows what it truly believes in, and brings together people who believe what the organization believes, can be extremely effective in accomplishing the mission of the organization. Shared identified core values, such as courage, duty, honor, or integrity, give the organization and everyone who is a part of it a benchmark against which they can base all of their actions and decisions. While written policies and procedures are important, sometimes decisions have to be made and actions taken that are not addressed by the written policies and procedures, or situations arise where the right thing do to goes contrary to what is written. Core values allow flexibility in decision-making in order to ensure that decisions and actions are in line with what the organization really believes and that will help it achieve its mission and vision. Core values can help an organization make the right decisions, recruit the right people and become more productive and effective.

     Identifying a set of organizational core values is one thing, but actually making them a part of the organization’s culture is something else. Quite often organizations identify a set of core values, frame them on the wall, post them on their website and talk about them, but they never transition from just words into actions or a mindset.  Instilling a shared set of core values into the fabric of an organization is not a fast process, culture change never is, but it can transform an organization from mediocre or simply good to excellent if it is taken seriously and embraced by everyone. Below are six recommendations to help a fire department, or any organization work towards transitioning from strictly policy-based to being values-driven:

  1. Leadership By Example: One of the main, and arguably most important ways of ingraining core values into the culture of any organization is to ensure that those in positions of authority lead by example by both preaching and living the core values in everything they do. It is very difficult to get others to buy-in to the espoused values and beliefs of an organization if the leader’s actions and decisions do not reflect those core values. In that case, people in the organization look at the core values as nothing more than nice words framed on the wall.
  2. Trust and Support: Also very important in fostering a values-driven organization is ensuring that people feel that they have the trust and support of the leadership to make those values-based decisions, especially when those decisions bend or are in conflict with the written policies. People know they take the risk of facing disciplinary action or other consequences when deviating from a written policy or making a decision in the absence of a policy without asking for permission up the chain of command.  If an organization wants people to feel empowered to make those good values-driven decisions, based on what the organization really believes in, in order to fulfill the mission and achieve an excellent outcome for its customers or its own people, it has to ensure that people feel safe and supported doing so.
  3. Clarity: It is also important to ensure that everyone has a clear understanding of the core values and how they are lived and reflected in everyday actions and decisions. This would involve not just identifying each value as a word, such as courage or professionalism, but providing a definition of each core value, as well as clarifying the values in terms of examples of behaviors, actions and decisions so that the members have a much clearer understanding of how to model the values. In other words, paint a picture for your people of what it means to be courageous and professional. Training should also be provided to all department personnel on these clarified values, especially to new probationary firefighter academy classes. Training on the core values, what they are, how they affect actions and decision-making should also be provided to all officers as a part of initial and continuing leadership training.
  4. Recognition and Reward: Departments should make an effort to recognize behaviors, actions and decisions by personnel that reflect the core values, and highlight their contribution to achieving the department’s mission and creating excellent outcomes for customers and its own people. This recognition could come in the form of a department-wide e-mail or newsletter, or personnel could be recognized at an annual award ceremony, and it could be highlighted in the form of a story. This would not only recognize the person, but would also further communicate clarity of the core values to others by giving a clear example of a real life situation where adhering to the core values resulted in a positive outcome and how the leadership of the department supported that decision.
  5. Accountability to the Values: The organization must consistently and fairly hold all personnel, regardless of position, seniority, rank or position accountable for actions, behaviors and decisions that are not consistent with the core values. People must realize that the core values are important to the organization as a whole, and that it will not allow them to be violated under any circumstances. The core values are, in the end, the bottom line as far as what defines acceptable behaviors and actions. Without fair and consistent accountability for those who violate the beliefs that everyone is supposed to hold very dear to them and the organization, the values will never be fully incorporated in the culture. On this same subject area, departments should re-develop their annual performance evaluation process so that the criteria on which people are evaluated are always tied back to the department’s core values. In this way, feedback can be given to personnel annually as to how well they are doing in upholding the beliefs and values of the organization.
  6. Hiring People Who Believe What the Organization Believes: In order to continue the embedding of the core values into the future culture of the organization, departments should place an emphasis on recruiting and hiring firefighters whose personal values and character are a good fit for the culture of the organization. Most firefighters don’t get disciplined or in trouble during their careers for a failure of job related skills, but rather for behavior related infractions. It is difficult or impossible to change a person’s values or character, so it makes sense to place a high emphasis on a potential recruit’s character when making hiring decisions. Applicants should be made aware of the values of the department and how important they are to the organization. One of the criteria evaluated during an initial interview should also be the applicant’s character and beliefs. Those who are hired as career members or brought on board a volunteer department, should be constantly evaluated by Training staff during their Fire Academy or other initial training, based on the department’s core values. The evaluation of the probationary firefighter candidate should then be continued after being assigned to the field following completion of the academy, and during the continuing probationary period. Candidates that do not display a good cultural fit for the organization should not be retained.


     As the process of incorporating core values into the culture of the organization continues over several years, honestly evaluating the effectiveness of this process will be important. Knowing whether personnel are really embracing the values, and considering them in their everyday actions and decisions will allow the organization to know if it is really changing from a policy-based to a values-driven organization.

CHRIS LANGLOIS, is a Captain with the Omaha Fire Department and a 30-year veteran of the fire service serving in volunteer, combination and career fire departments in Louisiana and Nebraska. He has been with the Omaha Fire Department for the last 17 years, including over 5 years with the OFD Training Division. He currently serves as the captain of an engine company. He was the 2014 Nebraska Society of Fire Service Instructors- Instructor of the Year and was an FDIC instructor in 2013 and 2014. His national certifications include Firefighter II, Instructor II, Officer II, Driver/operator, Incident Safety Officer, and NREMT-paramedic. He holds an associate degree in fire science, a bachelor's degree in public fire administration, a master's degree in executive fire service leadership and is in the 4th year of pursuing his Executive Fire Officer certification.

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