Walk into any firehouse, and the entire culture of the organization can be identified by what is, or is not, hanging on the walls. Frequently, a firehouse will memorialize its rules by posting them in a prominent place where they can be readily seen and referenced. Leaders who want to ensure that their expectations are clearly understood point to these lists as a mantra-a way of life. The rules are as diverse as the firehouses themselves. Here are a few organizational rules to consider.
People Come First
First and foremost: People (you!) are what make the organization-not policies, procedures, rules, apparatus, stations, dispatch centers, etc. In public, we are not measured by these things because, although important, they do not produce the service we deliver. Our success is based entirely on our members!
No one ever called the mayor or supervisor to commend an engine company on the skill with which a line was laid at a fire or the precision with which a 12-lead ECG was applied to a patient. No fire engine ever drove itself to a fire and no ambulance ever delivered a newborn. Fundamentally, the most important resources any organization has are the men and women who carry the reputation of the organization on their shoulders.
Second: We are not perfect, and no one ever said we were. There is always work to be done to improve our house, but it is our house and we should take pride in being a part of it. This is particularly important for people who are joining the fire service for the first time and for whom their perceptions are based on the way Hollywood portrays firefighters and paramedics. “Chicago Fire,” “Backdraft,” “Ladder 49,” and “The Towering Inferno” are outstanding examples of how an adoring fan base may perceive us, but it bears little, if any, resemblance to the real world of a fire station. For those who are unaware, firehouse life is long periods of considerable normalcy (read: boredom) punctuated by rare moments of genuine alarm. Most of the time, calls for service are just ordinary folks having a pretty bad day. Our job is to make it better to the greatest extent possible.
One of the most disillusioning moments for a young firefighter or paramedic can be found when perception and reality slam headlong into each other. When we say we are not perfect, it is a recognition that despite all of our shortcomings we are still the greatest calling ever imagined. Perspective is a critical component of ensuring a long and healthy fire service life. Salty old members understand this and help newer members cope with the reality that is firehouse life.
Third: Personal discipline, a willingness to be accountable for actions, and loyalty are the cornerstones of membership-not to an individual but to our reputation, which precedes us everywhere we go.
Fourth: There is no “them” and “us” in the department-only “us.” The only “them” are those on the outside who want to be on the inside. You cannot for one second speak negatively about some segment of your own organization and not rationally understand that you are a part of that same organization. If you think “senior management” is a bunch of idiots, you may be right, but you are also a part of that organization, so get busy fixing it or get busy finding an organization whose values match yours. And the reverse is true. Senior leaders who think they are leading a bunch of misfit toys should look hard in the mirror in the search for answers to the question “why?”
These rules are neither exclusive nor exhaustive, but they provide the framework for defining our culture. They can become the barometer by which candidates for membership self-select in or out of your organization, and they should be prominently displayed so that members who periodically lose their minds and forget why we are here have a visual reminder. None of us are perfect. We will always need to do better, but if we base our decisions on a fundamental set of rules that direct our purpose and guide our actions, we will surely do well. What are your rules?