Challenging Tradition

The fire service is rooted in tradition. Equally cemented in depth is the level of cultural dogma that exists at every department across the nation. These proud organizations have much stake in their organizational infrastructure and how they got there. I have noticed from not only empirical evidence but that of networking nationwide that many an organization is operating in a dysfunctional capacity. Why? What are the barriers creating this dysfunction? Why do they exist?

Culture is the root of our problem. The Everyone Goes Home Project established as much in defining our largest hurdle regarding firefighter safety as cultural change. (USFA, 2015, 3) Our most respected organizations and leaders have defined the main issue to our own safety as the culture we behold and love so much. Change is often met with apathy in our service, as the slogan goes: Hundreds of years of tradition unimpeded by progress. The statistics based on research have followed this decree. The most significant obstacles impacting cultural change are its complexity, the length required, and the existing cultures grip. (Smith, 2003)

Defining Culture

Let’s define culture - more specifically, what does culture mean in the fire service? Culture is a guiding light for how members are supposed to act. Culture also influences subtle behaviors such as whose task it is to clean the bathrooms and check the rigs. Culture can be the mortar filling spaces left open by the brick foundation of standard operating procedures (SOPs). Experts in organizational behavior will define culture as: “The pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered, or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration.” Professionals in this discipline also simply define culture as, “The collective programming of the mind.” A dangerous dynamic in our profession occurs when the wrong influences are driving the programming. Peer pressure still exists in the adult world, and some use the rumor mill to exert power via influence in the social paradigms at the kitchen table.

The fire service tradition defined is a time-honored walk into hierarchal service-oriented heroism. The traditions exist within the cultural implements each day you walk into the station. Senior members are revered, often displayed by their seat at the table, audience given in groups, and work assignments. The heroism mentioned earlier is the selfless mode we operate in confronting inherently dangerous conditions. We do it for them. The heroism tradition is the collective mindset of service and our assumption of risk. We all have joined this job to fulfill a greater purpose. The members of our service know that fortunes are not found on the fire truck. We are service focused, have a strong connection with the community, and are willing to accept risk. These traits are typically found in some form or another within all mission statements nationwide. We also have a strong resistance to outsider influence. We typically promote from within and resist pressure from outside agencies regarding our practices. A final attribute defining our tradition is its resistance to change. We often joke about the fire service’s inability to change, regardless of its constant technological evolution. The nature of our work requires us to have confidence, closeness, and exclusivity in some regard. The job also demands us to have vetted decisions, practices, and habits as guides to call on in a moment’s notice. Have we controlled who is vetting these procedures, implementing them, and impacting our culture? The military takes control of its culture immediately on a soldier’s indoctrination to the ranks. He understands the importance of his functionality as a part of the greater good. When it comes to tactics, procedures, order of business, station life, and general views of work, the fire service can be stunted and suffer from debilitating paradigms.


The barriers resulting from group dynamics are prevalent amidst most cultures. Groupthink is a detractor from progress regarding cultural change. This is best described by John Hayes, who describes groupthink as a deterioration of mental efficiency, realty testing, and moral judgment that is the result of in-group pressure. (Hayes 2014) Hayes’ eight symptoms of groupthink include the following:

  1. The group feels invulnerable.
  2. Warnings that things might be going awry are discounted by group members in the name of rationality.
  3. There is an unquestioned belief in the group’s morality. The group will ignore questionable stances on moral or ethical issues.
  4. Those who dare to oppose the group are called evil, weak, or stupid.
  5. There is direct pressure on anyone who opposes the prevailing mood of the group.
  6. Individuals in the group self-censor if they feel that they are deviating from group norms.
  7. There is an illusion of unanimity. Silence is interpreted as consent.
  8. There are often self-appointed people in the group who protect it from adverse information. These people are referred to as “mind guards.”

All too often, individuals and organizations fail to exploit the full potential for learning because they are unaware of the extent to which their mental models filter out important information. (Hayes, 2014, p.505) Does the above definition describe your department? Popular opinions seem to be reverberated almost as a trance. I often wonder if we knowingly give up our individuality for the comfort of group acceptance. The groupthink barrier is inhibiting the fire service from realizing the fruits of a dynamic, innovative, and adaptive culture born from challenging common views and building new constructs - the type where we bounce ideas back and forth in a trusting environment that is results oriented and rooted in the mission of life preservation. This platform is where we will find the best solutions to practical issues, not passive acceptance to known routines. These routine methods must be considered to be sure but not regarded as best practice being the way it’s always been done. Rather, it should be a best practice when logically and actively researched as best. Forces can detract from this type of vetting. The source of this problem lies within our traditions and indoctrination. Behaviors and actions have been learned through the systems we were raised within. The leaders at the station learned from their academy instructors, first officers, and other senior respected personnel at the station. The values, norms, and way of life have been reciprocated for years. Have they been vetted as being effective? If so, by whom and by what measures? Have we challenged ourselves to improve? Have we lauded our results by accepting accolades of being termed “experienced”? Experience is a valued trait to have in our service, as volume of work builds judgment to be sure, but it is in the eye of the beholder to determine the quality of judgment attained. We also know of other paradigms that influence the value of this “experience.”

Cognitive Bias

Cognitive biases can be a byproduct manifested by groupthink. Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of deviations from rational judgment influenced by our social environment drawing on illogical perceptions from our experience. The mindset these biases create is subjective within our social context, and conclusions are drawn off differing social inputs. Once the pattern to make decisions that have brought acceptable results and comfort is normed, further progress is limited. Judgment is at stake, and poor judgment is the builder of instinct unless you’re ignorant of the potential problems.

The biases limit results-oriented progressions. Cognitive biases will be reinforced if cultural stakeholders have a history of success. (Hayes, 2014, p.13) The bias limits their vision to negative impacts of current actions. Where comfort and conformity rules, a level of self-belief in the cognitive bias is strengthened. The paradigm in many fire stations highlights this issue as being one of the primary mind blocks from effective change. Stakeholders and mind guards typically view certain procedures as their way of “handling business.” The phenomenon of groupthink only strengthens their cognitive bias, being normed with numbers. The bias thus becomes the heavily guarded agent of our identity. Changing the bias and, thus, the procedure can be viewed as an effort to change me. These biases can become cultural norms based on the influence of stakeholders promoting them. Members who are tenured and verbose mind guards typically can influence conformity from the audience. The culture in that kitchen thus becomes one of cultural conformity for the sake of comfort. A stagnant atmosphere exists where mutual trust is not fostered. Mind guarding and applying peer pressure for the sake of comfort may enhance an ego but stunt performance and kill potential.

Nowhere in this paradigm have we mentioned a dialogue that respectfully challenges, dissects, and collaborates to the most effective means of operating. Cognitive dissonance evolves from these unstable change periods. In lieu of the pressure applied because of mind guarding groupthink, cognitive biases cause outsiders to experience dissonance. Dissonance in attitudes and behaviors creates discomfort, and most will look to change their view, thus conforming.

Deviance Normalization

Normalization of deviance is another barrier regarding employee behavior impacting cultural change. Normalization of deviance is a phenomenon where individuals or companies often drift from accepted standards until it becomes normal practice. (King, 2010, p.285) When these deviations become the norm because of the lack of dire consequences, a path to catastrophe is paved. Procedures are administrative constructs born of lessons learned and best practices for predictable outcomes. Our service has a propensity for judging situations whose circumstances require less urgency than called on in the SOP, leaving the officer to relax his disposition. The drift we mentioned earlier is illustrated in this relaxed disposition by actions neglected during the response.

Normalization of deviance becomes a routine mindset where humans become reactionary. We often don’t consciously make decisions by relating them to our values or logic; rather, we simplify as if on autopilot. Hence, the mistakes are derived from behaviors lacking thought. Bypassing presence of thought while placing political pressure ahead of values can be costly. The absence of negative experiences from bad decisions after deviating from values so often makes shortcuts seem like commonsense. Our judgment is skewed because of this paradigm of luck. The risk-averse decision then winning favor among the troops becomes driven by culture and politics regardless of results or logic. What’s at risk? Popularity is as ridiculous as it sounds. Don’t believe me? Consider the opinions of our veteran instructors who have led firefighters in drills all over the nation for decades.

Fire Department Training Network instructors Jim McCormack and Bob Pressler list peer pressure as one of the main reasons firefighter survival training is not routinely conducted. (McCormack and Pressler, 2002, p.4) Driving the point home even more empathetically regarding human nature in decision making and taking shortcuts, a decorated Vietnam War commander describes his struggles with young subordinate leaders: “Besides technical and tactical incompetence, the next biggest shortcomings of new infantry leader replacements were a failure to be demanding and a reluctance to ensure that their men carried out the basics that would keep them alive on the battle field. One of the reasons for these deficiencies was that many of the social values were diametrically opposed to what’s expected of a combat leader … I had to constantly deal with a basic civilian-instilled value that drastically conflicts with combat leadership: popularity … The average new lieutenant who joined the hardcore had an almost Pavlovian instinct for being popular, so the definition of ‘welfare’ was up for grabs. Because he had to be a good guy, he’d become a ‘joiner’ instead of an ‘enforcer.’” (Hackworth, 2002, p.416) People’s tendencies are to make decisions based on loss aversion. (Hayes, 2014, p.240) When the variable for safety becomes a judgment call and not a given, then peer pressure will ensure, depending on the increased workload. Should that call be made by an officer influenced by culture more than values, most will take the shortcut. The logical firefighter is not always the popular one, but the popular one is many times rooted in shortcuts and long-term irrationality. Firefighters base much of their decisions in practicality on the cultural inputs we are exposed to daily. The stakeholders in our culture aid in formulating our “gut reactions” by letting us know how we are deviating should we put our values in action. Pressures placed on deviants cause them to reconsider their values in moments impacting the stakeholders. The pressure creates barriers, which leave open variable experiences in an unsympathetic line of work.

Accepting poor practices over time compounds matters that normalize deviance from safe procedures and creates other mindset barriers. Retrospective rationality is the need to justify past decisions - lacking humility and the ability to detach from past practices to truly observe their efficacy in the face of scrutiny. Rather, stakeholders may commit more resources, political pressure, or other influences to display the ultimate rationality for earlier courses of action. (Hayes, 2014, p.11) An escalation of commitment may ensue, which creates a need for stakeholders to protect their own competence and justify their actions. The final ego shield born is done so by being consistent in actions. Stakeholders may feel justified for remaining consistent to a course of action and find strength in this stance.

Struggling with Change

Interpersonal matters will quickly become a barrier to cultural change if not addressed. People experience a personal transition when organizational change is encountered. People will differ in their adaptability to such change. Some will require more support than others. The stages of personal transition include the following: awareness/shock; denial; depression; letting go; testing; consolidation, reflection learning, and internalization. (Hayes, 2014, p.269)

Firefighters struggling emotionally with organizational change may be hard to fathom. I struggled with the notion as well. Considering the multitude of calamities we manage, to think that a bit of change at the firehouse causes all these emotional byproducts. Oddly enough, members of our service did not just hop on the rigs and begin fighting fires without any inoculation training. They conceptualized responding to fires. They thought about the dangers endured, the potentially disturbing experiences to encounter, and eventually accepted the reality to move forward. After this acceptance phase, they began intensive training to help their personal transition. The risks were normed and members trained to manage the possible hazards. Finally, after the first year or two of experience, many firefighters don’t think twice about the dangerous situations they will encounter. This is a glaring result of cultural barriers creating ineffective response to inherently dangerous environments. Regarding the cultural change, this can be quite unnerving. The clear majority of time, members don’t see it coming. They lose their footing on the beliefs and expectations that have been normed for years. Considering the emotional trauma that change routinely strikes up with people, supporting personnel is essential. We know the transition is inevitable and can expect emotional trauma for some members. We must anticipate this from a leadership point of view and not only confront those issues but support them. Your responsibility as a leader forging change is to humbly mentor all members through the process. You will partake in uncomfortable dialogue, and this will not be easy. Failing to address concerns regardless of frustration levels will impact trust. A lack of trust will impede progress more than any other factor. (Hayes, 2014, p.237) In fact, those who don’t trust you will often look to sabotage your efforts. Members will look to maintain the status quo, a state of equilibrium. Resist the urge to criticize their frustration and view it as an opportunity to lead and a chance to gain feedback. Apathetic compliance will only provide short-term change.

Firefighters have their own goals in the chain of power or influence. Parochial self-interest will play a role in change acceptance. Leaders will need to consider impacts of all levels within the department to ensure what impacts will be experienced in areas such as fringe benefits, schedule nuances, status, job satisfaction, and opportunities. People are loss averse and will be motivated to resist change should they lose any benefit they value regardless of change advantage. Leaders need to continuously communicate positive impacts the change will produce. Members who are not involved in the process may feel disconnected from the organization. Empowering employees motivates them and creates buy in. Expecting them to change without feedback leads to resistance. All employees have expectancy theories to be treated equally among their peers. When they are treated differently because of their opinions or ability to change, they may feel ostracized. Buy in will not be attained should this environment exist for some employees.

Stakeholders require special attention in these interpersonal dynamics. Failing to address who the influential stakeholders are and their concerns regarding change efforts can be a critical mistake. Groups can promote behaviors out of self-interest rather than department benefit. When dysfunction exists between these stakeholders and management, politics will influence the outcome more than logical argument. (Hayes, 2014, p.208) Often your stakeholders will be company officers who are the liaison between chief and troops. Alignment between administration and mid-level leaders is necessary for change success. (Smith, 2003) Fire service leaders need to recognize that these relationships require high degrees of functionality for any changes to take hold. When considering organizational behavior, we have learned that cultural change is likely to be required for any significant procedural or operational change effort to be sustained. (Smith, 2003) Adapting as a fire department is a moral responsibility. Our firefighters and citizens deserve the finest product possible.


Quite frankly, leadership is the most influential aspect of cultural change. (Clement, 1994, 38) Therefore, leadership is absolutely a possible barrier to an effective change effort. The leader’s ability to establish a vision is critical for change to be road mapped; hence, a leader with no vision will likely squander any change initiatives. The leader who is ambivalent because of the time required for change actualization will not be effective. The fire service has too much depth and commitment to its previous culture to entertain a casual resistance. Constant, unwavering support of the proposed change is required to be championed by the leader. Alder and Fratus assert as much: “Strong leadership must be the linchpin for establishing a safe culture, which is not a mission for the meek.” (Alder and Fratus, 2007) Communication is a key in the change process. Employees will seek transparency in rationality for change, personnel expectations, anticipated outcomes, and benefits realized. Leaders who lack the capacity to articulate the process are a barrier to cultural change initiatives.

Firefighters will not be able to conceptualize change without knowing what’s expected and why it’s needed. Leaders must be reflective in their nature. Having the ability to detach from a situation and analyze how different strategies have influenced your employees is key. Leaders who exert too much ego into the process will fail to keep an open mind and absorb key indicators of direction. Smith asserts: “Managers showed limited awareness of many of the most significant success factors and barriers to culture change.” (Smith, 2003) They will likely not have the presence of mind to see key responses to their efforts and the humility to change the course of action for preferable results. Transformational change requires the leader to make the process a staple in his daily personal agenda; any wavering from this position will result in lost ground. (Hayes, 2014, p.61)

Change will need to be managed. The cycle requires analyzing current issues; gathering information; and diagnosing possible courses of action, implementation strategies collaborated, strategy formed, and buy in sought. A well-managed plan will have a strong training and mentoring program to constantly reinforce the change objectives. Employees will experience an emotional detachment from previously established comfort zones and require support. Leaders need to be receptive to these negative emotions and plan on supporting their subordinates through each stage. Leaders who are unable to manage the program will produce suboptimal results. Weak leadership is the most significant barrier to successful culture change efforts. Smith highlights the leadership imperative: “A number of negative factors correlated with failure, but the strongest correlations all had to do with breakdowns in leadership, in communication with employees about the change, and project management failures.” (Smith, 2003)

Leaders’ ability to communicate becomes paramount throughout the change process. Smith notes, “The most commonly cited reason for failure of a change effort was the presence of inaccurate and negative rumors often caused by managements neglecting to provide timely and accurate information … the final cause of failure Smeltzer noted was managements reliance on a ‘lean’ channel of communication, such as a memo instead of a face-to-face meeting.” (Clement, 1994, p.36) The communication effort must be a collaborative enterprise in nature for effectiveness. Simply telling firefighters this is how the new culture looks will be met with apathy. Leaders will need to model desired traits throughout this process. Their actions communicate more than words. Every fire department deals with politics on some level. Understanding your department’s politics will pay dividends. Identifying power sources and their networks will allow you to use them to your advantage. You will need to infiltrate this arena and manipulate the tide of political influence to your cause; not doing so provides for a constant source of friction. Change presents a potential swing in power to political savvy players, and you must address their viewpoints. Politics are power in action and influence those invested stakeholders greatly. Intervening through constant communication and monitoring your political climate pays dividends.

Cultural Change

Implementing cultural change is a difficult mountain to climb. Failing to consider resources, stakeholders, paradigms, and dynamic situations is devastating in change management. Leaders have often looked to implement change in classic management style, setting objectives for process and looking to ensure compliance at benchmarks. However, cultural change is not so easily pursued. Leaders must be charismatic enough to address the issues on an overview level, cite the benefits of a renewed future, and communicate the plan to bring it to fruition. Multiple researchers in organizational behavior have indicated that cultural change is complex. Casual pursuit is sure to end in wasted effort. Research has also indicated that cultural change takes time. Leaders need to find stability and be resilient for change sustainment. Constant mentoring, monitoring, and reinforcement will be the successor’s battle cry. The final complex barrier to this process is the leadership’s ability to develop a comprehensive organizational change management plan and the commitment to see it through.

The fire service has some particularly special issues in the deep structures (traditions) ingrained in its society and exclusivity inherent to its culture. Group dynamics are a must in our service; we live together, rely on each other, and experience dramatic life situations together. We need to develop strong group dynamics to survive. The leading reasons to change for most organizations do not readily avail themselves to our industry. Research has shown that high performance can be driven by positive culture. (Shahzad, 2014, p.225) The striving organization can still find contributing factors that employ safety and effectiveness. Leaders can articulate and compare these factors to their practices, aiming for industry excellence. Leaders can create a vision for a higher standard of care and navigate a plan to implement those actions until the organization adopts new behaviors. Leaders create standards in their absence. Leaders can support employees through the transition and model expected behaviors. Leaders can take their organizations to the next level through a culture of vigilance.


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Jeff Rothmeier is an 11-year veteran of the Saint Paul (MN) Fire Department (SPFD) and is a captain on Engine 17. He is a former Rescue Squad 3 member. Rothmeier is a member of the Minnesota Aviation Rescue Team, lead instructor at Minnesota’s first State Fire Academy, and assistant instructor with SPFD Training Division and Century College. He has an AAS in fire science technology and a bachelor’s degree in fire and emergency response management. Rothmeier is a contributing author of Fire Engineering and a proud decorated combat veteran.

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April 2017
Volume 12, Issue 4