By: Lawrence Doelling, Dave Gillespie, Ric Jorge
Every Fire Department, Battalion, and Fire House has its own culture. It is far deeper than what gets passed around at the kitchen table. It encompasses priorities, values, norms, SOGs, policies, and more. They all make up your firehouse culture. Often what isn’t written down is the dominant part of a culture.
A healthy culture is what fosters innovation and adaptability. This approach bonds crew members and creates a love of the job. But growing a culture takes time. A tight culture, like reputation building, won’t come from one or two decisive actions or magic bullets. It will come from experience, training, and leadership skills. It becomes a moral compass for your people. A culture that values a strong work ethic, honesty, training, pride, and professionalism is self-policing. This culture is far easier to work in and lead than one that values complacency and “Getting By.”
Culture affects everyone in the organization – not just the frontline firefighters. All employees – administrative staff, dispatchers, mechanics, inspectors, etc. will benefit from a tight culture. It’s not just the Chief’s job; it’s everyone’s job. A healthy culture can better firefighter performance, help to increase job satisfaction, lower stress, raise morale and ultimately, build resiliency.
Look around your station. Is it sterile and cold like a post office? Or does it reflect the values and traditions of a deeply engrained, tight, and flourishing culture?
Photos are central to memories. FD memorabilia collected over time, such as old fire equipment, photos, relics, trophies, and keepsakes, anchor us in our collective past. Senior personnel and rookies benefit from these reminders of where we came from. Take the memories that you have caught on your phone and print them to hang around the station. When you can capture a memorable moment with a rescue squad or fire crew, you foster kinship.
Hang that letter from a grateful patient or resident or even inspirational sayings or quotes on the bulletin board. It helps carry on the stories around the kitchen table. Plan some good shots at next week’s company training or the next recruit academy. Today’s rookie is tomorrow’s leader.
Personalizing the workplace and its people
The use of monikers, nicknames, symbols and slogans date back into medieval times, such as the Maltese Cross. Never underestimate the power of symbols and imagery to form a culture. What do your mottos and logos say about your culture? Are they presented professionally? Do they express pride of ownership? Most importantly, are they COOL?
Department mottos should be broad and straightforward, such as Honolulu Fire Department’s “Pride, Service, Dedication.” A little humor and friendly competition are healthy at the station level, such as “Look Busy Until We Get There.”
Get to know the people on your crew. It may seem obvious, but this will strengthen the team and build a tight culture. Encourage camaraderie by simply eating together. That is why cooking a Sunday brunch or having a Friday pizza night is so effective. Plan the occasional group event or meal off duty together once a month or once a season.
Don’t forget to pay attention to little things like knowing the names of the spouses and children of your people. If you have a terrible memory, utilize your phone’s contact list to record their family information. It prompts you to ask about them by name. Using names shows personal interest, which helps build culture.
Getting family involved
Introduce family members at gatherings and develop that social circle with spouse-to-spouse interaction. Encourage them to create a support system with each other. We lean on each other. So should they. When we go through a bad call, shift, or time and bring it home, they should have someone to bounce things off. Our divorce rate is horrible, change the culture … it’s cheaper than divorce!
Hunt for the good stuff and celebrate it. When firefighters do well, be sure to recognize their achievements. It can be as simple as starting with a simple “Well Done .” If it warrants formal recognition, send it up the chain of command. At a particular firehouse, they give awards, a plaque, or a framed picture of the crew members to honor performance. On retirement from a different firehouse, the retiree receives the station flag in a flag box that was flown on the last tour of the individual.
Do you use challenge coins?
Challenge Coins are good for more than just a free beer. Give a challenge coin to firefighters who demonstrate noteworthy performance and exemplify the targeted cultural values. If your personal or association budget doesn’t allow for coins – an “Atta Boy” letter for their Department file is free. At the very minimum, tell people they did a good job.
Always over-communicate your vision and goals. Develop simple talking points and phrases, then repeat them until deep-rooted in your crew. The first indicator it is working is when they repeat it to others. Tight cultures don’t just appear overnight. But they can guide people through dark times.
One of the best things about building a tight culture is that it doesn’t require anyone else’s permission or blessing. You can do it without a lot of money, with any size department, anywhere in the world. You can start building yours today. Not only will you have a high-performing team, but you’ll also develop deep-rooted friendships with your Fire Service Brothers and Sisters.