Is it our Traditions or our Culture?

Why is it we laugh about the phrase “100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress”?  Maybe because it’s hard to rationalize that we are part of that tradition that is holding back progress.  It’s easier to laugh it off than it is to take action and stand up against the old ways.We know there are better ways to do business, but we can’t be run like a business,right? Or can we?

Our proud culture builds strong dragon slayers from day one. These warriors of the flame are fairly polarized about their mission in life.  “Fight Fire and Save Lives” that’s what they do.  We created them and when we try to get them outside the box they resist.  How can we get any better at our craft than those that came before us if we embrace our traditions so tightly that we can’t imagine a world without them?

Our role cannot define our purpose

If you ask one hundred firefighters what it is they do, and you’ll get many different responses.  I would guess few would actually come close to an accurate purpose of their job. This confusion starts early in our career. The solution would be to start re-imaging what it is firefighters really do. Teach cadets that our role may be to slay fire and rappel from tall buildings but our purpose is to take care of each 911 call like they’re our family. The other side of our role, is the acknowledgement that we serve many levels of emergencies that are defined by the caller, not us. Understanding our role and how it allows us to accomplish our purpose will create a culture that will most likely differ from today’s.

I am very proud of my profession and it’s traditions. My department embraces the ceremonial traditions with pomp and circumstance. My department is entrenched in some of the old ways, but we are slowly realizing that the world we live in is passing our profession up with technology, business acumen, creativity and leadership that cares.  I urge you to not only learn the ways of the business world that is flying by at a dizzying pace, but to employ some of the practices.  Even if they don’t fit into our traditions.

Robert I.

Photo Credit; East Austin # 4 Firefighter Ed Petersen


5 thoughts on “Is it our Traditions or our Culture?

  1. Chief, I agree with your statements but being in the position I am we need to add understanding behavioral health as a leadership quality. The new “breed” of firefighters entering our services create a challenge for officers. The traditions we experienced when we started many years ago are different from the beliefs and actions of many of our new firefighters. We, as officers, need to understand their behaviors, understand the resources available, and train to understand the actions of all of our members. Our society has changed, so has the fire service and some of its traditions. Firefighter suicides, depression, and PTSD to name a few behaviors, have become way to familiar in the fire service. Tradition told us to “gut it out” but today our officers need to overlook this and begin a new legacy, one that will be able to understand our firefighter behaviors, which in turn will strengthen the fire service for years to come. B/C Jeff Dill Palatine Rural FPD and founder of Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance

  2. Robert,

    Well stated. I often wonder how how bizarre some of our traditions seem. At one class I was teaching on firefighter situational awareness we got on this discussion and they shared that at the start of each shift they wash the wheels of each fire apparatus, a throw back to what was done when the horses pulled their apparatus and the wheels would get horse manure on them. I asked about their start-of-shift apparatus and equipment safety checks… non-existent. Oh my…

    Rich Gasaway

  3. Chief, Great article. I would offer a couple of observations based on my 40 years in the service. This is still an honorable profession with a rich legacy of worthy traditions that I am proud to be a part of. However, there are a smattering of illegal and dangerous traditions (i.e., discrimination, drinking, pranks and hazing) that need to go away. Traditions, good and bad, prepetuate within the current culture both industry-wide and at the local level. Leaders need to facilitate and encourage changes in the culture that will preserve the positive traditions and erradicate the bad ones. I believe that the “fire” service also has a branding issue when it comes to what we do. I think “Fight Fire and Save Lives” was probably spot-on in the 1960’s but has evolved more into “Save Lives and Protect Property” these days considering most of us pump more O2 than H2O and are all-hazards in our scope of services.

    • I agree Doug, But we I believe we are doing more harm than good when it comes to adapting our service delivery to a more modern model. Even the military has re-invented itself and changed to be more efficient and effective. Today our military does a lot more than fight wars. We have to let go of some of our heart tugging traditions and look for better ways. My Opinion only…. thanks for the comment.

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