The Courage to Lead for Everyone

by | March 17, 2023

Captain Vanderhock surveys the transfer with dismay. They’ve sent me the tiniest firefighter I’ve ever seen! She can’t even be 5 feet tall! Her last crew must have pulled a lot of extra weight to make up for what she can’t do. Well, that’s not going to fly here.

Arriving at the station, Firefighter Harris sees an unfamiliar face at the kitchen table. Must be the new recruit. Finally! Now we have to think up some great pranks. And I’m not talking bucket-of-water-down-the-fire-pole. Nope, the game is on. I had to deal with it, and now he’s going, too. Hope you’re tough, Newbie!

Do these scenarios strike a chord? Firefighters are passionate about and protective of fire service culture. And that’s a good thing! But too often our efforts are misguided. We place a high degree of importance on camaraderie, but miss the point that hazing rituals don’t build everyone up—they often leave probies feeling cut down and left out. Our pride in the job commands a high standard of physical fitness, but sometimes that leads us to exclude those who don’t look like the “typical” firefighter—before they even have a chance.

Meanwhile, departments across the country struggle to recruit and retain personnel. Lawsuits for harassment and bullying abound. And we burn out otherwise good firefighters—all in the name of “preserving our culture.”

So what can we do to ensure we’re preserving the elements that make the fire service great—while cutting out the elements that no longer fit?

Recruiting is about finding people who can do the job—not the people who know how to do the job right now.

Embrace a Culture of Success

Instead of embracing a culture of hazing, demeaning people and tearing them down, we should embrace a culture of success. Instead of telling the rookie, “Here’s your toothbrush, go clean the tile floor,” what if we give them a checklist of how to clean the bathroom in a way that meets our expectations? Then, when they’ve done that five or six times in a row, find a way to recognize them.

Whatever the benchmark, the key here is to start small, helping firefighters lean more toward success on the big things. Rather than leaving them to figure out everything on their own, spell out the expectations, explain how to do things, hold them accountable and celebrate their early successes. This will build a foundation for mutual trust as the firefighter progresses.

If this sounds a bit hokey, think about any exercise class you’ve taken. When people in the class are focused only on besting one another, it’s not very fun. But when participants encourage one another regardless of ability, it’s a much more positive experience. You’ll likely keep coming back and pushing yourself harder.

This strategy applies whether you are a career crew that works together all the time, a combination crew or all-volunteer. In fact, a culture of success may be even more important for volunteer departments. In a low-volume volunteer fire department, it’s easy for firefighters to lose the drive, and it’s difficult to recruit new members. When you get a new volunteer in, it’s a big deal. Make the new person feel welcome. Set clear expectations about what they’re supposed to do. Follow-up to ensure they’re completing the necessary training. We’re long past the days of giving someone their pager and their gear and saying, “Come to the station when it goes off.” Hold them accountable for starting off strong and hold yourself accountable to make sure they do!

Career or volunteer, we have to make people feel needed, like they’re part of the organization. Because when you feel included, you take ownership.

Strive to Create a Team Culture

Another important aspect of fire service tradition is our team culture. Traditionally, we slept in the same room, used the same bathroom, ate together, etc. Today, that team culture is waning in many departments. Separate bunk rooms, dietary restrictions, the tendency to pick up a device rather than interact—all these threaten the camaraderie that is so essential to high performance on the fire and emergency scene.

It’s easy for tenured firefighters to complain about these changes and lament how the fire service has changed. But you can just as easily take steps to actively maintain the culture or bring that culture back—focusing on the positive aspects. Much of this rests on the company officer, but we must all do our part.

For instance, I hear over and over that firefighters don’t eat together anymore. Now, not everything about firehouse meals in the past was good! They were often quite unhealthy. But they were also critical for building crew dynamics, helping firefighters process strenuous calls and refueling for the next one. Today, the food we prepare might look a bit different. We might need to open our minds to new and healthier recipes or prepare several options that meet the needs of everyone on the crew. But we can still come together around the table.

The point: If we don’t actively do something to embrace a group identity, we’re all going to be on our devices, eating our own meals, working out on our own. We need to look at what we used to do that was good, hang onto that, and get rid of the bad.

Evaluate Prep Efforts

The final area where we need to demonstrate the courage to lead for everyone is in the academy. I’m hearing from chiefs whose recruitment problem isn’t getting candidates—it’s that the candidates wash out of basic training. Again, the “weeding out” process has been a part of our culture for a long time. But with departments across the nation understaffed, it’s on us to consider, what are we doing wrong that they’re washing out? For sure, we don’t want to pass people who aren’t competent to be firefighters. But are we clinging to beliefs and practices that are preventing candidates from being successful in the academy?

Today, we’re increasingly recruiting people who have never worked on a farm or with machinery. People who have never been up on ladder or operated a chainsaw. We have two choices: We can scoff at these candidates, stressing how different they are from recruits “in our day,” and leave them to figure things out on their own.

Or, we can help them succeed by letting them know what to expect. Many departments have had success with groups that help women, specifically, prepare for the physical ability test. Maybe we need to expand that model, give people an opportunity to practice and to understand what they’re getting into—and underscore that we are here to help them, not to mock them. Other chiefs I’ve talked to have switched their recruiting process to focus on character, finding those people who demonstrate fire service values, then providing all the training needed in the academy.

Recruiting is about finding people who can do the job—not the people who know how to do the job right now.

What Culture Are We Preserving?

The fire service is changing—slower than society as a whole, but surely. As we observe these changes, our reaction is sometimes, “You don’t look like me. You don’t look like a firefighter.” That’s often true—because for so long, we all looked the same! But the future of the fire service lies in a more diverse firefighter—not just in terms of gender and ethnicity, but in terms of backgrounds, educational levels, body types, and a host of other characteristics.

Performance standards are essential. We can’t bend the rules to accommodate anyone. But as leaders, we can choose whether to give them the best opportunity to succeed, to do the job safely and efficiently. Or, we can dig our heels in, insist on treating them the way we were treated, and leave them to “go it alone.”

There’s a saying, “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.” In the fire service, we sometimes cling to our culture in a way that is actually harmful to that very culture. There is so much to the fire service that is great—we don’t want to undo the great things. But we must also recognize there are things that need to change, evolve and get better. We must have the courage to lead for everyone.

BRUCE BJORGE's fire service career includes more than 38 years of experience in command and training positions with career, combination, volunteer and military fire agencies. Currently, he is a Battalion Chief with the Western Taney County Fire District in Branson, Mo., and has also served as a company officer and Assistant Chief of Training. Bruce is also the Director for Fire Policy Sales at Lexipol. He formerly was the Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) Specialist for the University of Missouri Fire & Rescue Training Institute where he managed their Mobile ARFF and other live-fire training programs. He has also served as a Training Developer for Lexipol. He holds Training Officer certification from the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Training Program Management course. Bruce has been an active instructor and evaluator for the past 28 years and is a regular presenter at state, regional and national conferences and training events.

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