Firehouse Magazine

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Instructor John Dixon

Passionate, Relevant, and Current Knowledge Sharing For Your Department

Fire Service Cultural Variations

The Thinker

The fire service culture of an “aggressive” nature in its current form may be attributed to dominant ideologies and the subsequent societies that have developed. In order to further identify best practices we must first investigate cultural diffusion and the elements that are allowed to reside within the profession. In taking a deeper look into formal and informal norms, we can hopefully learn more about self, and how our individual roles of socialization can positively or negatively impact the future of the fire service.

It has been said many times, the fire service is a people centered, outcome driven organization and as such we must further our understanding of culture, social structure, interaction, and deviance. Our recognition of who we are as individuals and the relationships between social forces will undoubtedly shape our social imaginations.

Aggressiveness
Although the fire service has many long standing traditions that are generally accepted worldwide, the adjective of aggressive is very subjective depending upon geography. There are certainly two sides to this discussion and depending upon which country, state, or local organization we belong to; the significance of place is vital to understand. “To put it simply, place matters. Our position relative to others shapes our access to resources and influences the options available to us” (Witt, J., 2016, pg. 3). The greatest resource in the fire service is our people. Our people come from many different backgrounds and cultures. As we try to funnel so many varying perspectives into a singular mindset or professional worldview, we may be inadvertently secluding best practices and perspectives.

In a recent trade magazine article, the author opines about what the word aggressive actually means within the context of firefighting. “The word aggressive conjures a level of pride for some and liability and injuries for others” (Rhodes, 2018, para 1). The author further explains the subjective adjective by segmenting informed intelligent actions as opposed to ill-informed decisions based from a perspective of ego. On the opposite side of the ongoing debate is what has been commonly called the “safety culture.”

It can be said the mere whisper of the word safety implies cowardness. Now many pundits, on both sides of the debate, will offer up their talking points but fail to properly articulate their frame of reference. Sociologists refer to this phenomenon as the consequence of difference. We must pay further attention to the analysis of social power. It is vital to understand how social power plays an enormous role in shaping the how and why of our actions.

The fire service in most recent years is relying on scientific data to improve upon our delivery service(s). Whether it be in our emergency medical service, community risk reduction, cancer prevention, mental health, or even our extinguishment methodologies; empirical evidence is challenged on a daily basis. Some of the brightest individuals will say that everything depends on context. Many of the arguments offered up contain very little empirical data to support a frame of reference which leaves nothing more than anecdotal explanations. Perhaps Abraham Maslow was spot on in his assessment that “if the only tool we have in our toolbox is a hammer, everything will appear to be a nail” (Maslow, A., 1966).

Folkways
In order to further conceptualize culture we must first know that there are three elements or units of measure which defines culture. What we think or believe is known as cognitive culture. Many of us in the fire service today are so deep rooted in our belief systems that it oftentimes is difficult at best to keep our staunchly held beliefs centered. Therefore, we must focus on normative culture. According to Witt (2016), the way in which we establish or enforce our principles of conduct is the third pillar of culture.

Folkways are described as standard or normal everyday behavior. This behavior governs and provides general guidelines for how we act within a culture. “Such norms are less rigid in their application, and their violation raises comparatively little concern” (Witt, J., 2016, pg. 55). So let’s outline a few of our everyday behaviors that are deemed important but when we choose to deviate from these norms, it causes little concern.

Shined shoes, tightly packed hose beds, physical fitness standards, and education levels just to name a few, are viewed as extremely important yet, when we see a large variation within organizations; little is often done to correct this behavior. Usually, the attitudes that I have found is general ridicule and or shame in the court of public opinion.

Having been blessed to travel internationally as well as across the United States, these folkways vary upon geography. Some regions and the people within, view the aforementioned norms as important while others struggle to achieve simple baselines. This is where the comparatively little concern plays a role. Will having shined duty boots make a firefighter stretch an attack hose line quicker? Will civil service organizations which only require a high school diploma not comprehend or perform as well as organizations which require higher education degrees? It can be argued that physical fitness should contain very little ambiguity yet, we see so many varying fitness performance standards across the country. These questions are left open ended in our profession because the default answer is “it depends.”

Values
The values of the fire service are listed in order of importance. Life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation. These values are non-negotiable. “Values are norms deemed highly necessary to the welfare of a society” (Witt, J., 2016, pg. 55). There has been and will continue to be great debate on how we as a profession will execute these values. As a young firefighter I embodied these values in my service to others. We don’t need to look far to see these values described as a “for them” movement.

Now as a Captain and Executive Officer of a platoon of firefighters, these self-evident values mean a greater deal to me. My frame of reference has changed. Not only must we focus on the public that we swore and oath to protect, as a fire officer, I must now also include the people in my charge.

This is where cultural variation plays its role. “Unfortunately for us, the two paradigms exist just in the context of the term aggressive” (Rhodes, 2018, para 9). Investigating context in our values such as bravery, mental toughness, value of life, and service above self; we see a recurring theme. These are of course our most noble endeavors of our “why.” Two great fire service leaders and educators have opined on this paradigm for years. Consider this, are we confusing our sense of duty with predetermined actions? Are the desired outcomes born from past best practices or perceived professional social influence? Perhaps Dr. Clark may have found the answer in his research. The following is an excerpt from Doctors Kunadharaju, Smith, and DeJoy from the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia. They published a paper titled "Line of Duty Deaths among U.S. Firefighters: An Analysis of Fatality Investigations." 

Operating with too few resources, compromising certain roles and functions, skipping or short-changing operational steps and safeguards, and relying on extreme individual efforts and heroics may reflect the cultural paradigm of firefighting. This should not be construed to be a culture of negligence or incompetence, but rather a culture of longstanding acceptance and tradition. Within many fire-service organizations, these operational tenants may be accepted as “the way we do things.” Moreover, this tolerance of risk maybe reinforced both externally and internally through the positive public image of firefighters and firefighting  and internally through the fire service’s own traditions and member socialization. (Kunadharaju, Smith, & DeJoy, 2011)

How are we normalized in our organizations? What values are espoused and reinforced? I firmly believe that our value system in today’s fire service is unwavering at its core and will hopefully never change. What I also believe taking place is that significance of these values are dependent upon where the organizations exists. Urban, rural, big city, or small community; it can be argued that bravery, mental toughness, and service above self, are set in stone but how we choose to exemplify these values vary. 

Chief Alan Brunacini further clarifies, as only he can, in firefighter language:

When the fire kills us, our department typically conducts a huge ritualistic funeral ceremony, engraves our name on the honor wall, and makes us an eternal hero. Every line-of-duty death gets the same terminal ritual regardless if the firefighter was taking an appropriate risk to protect a savable life or was recreationally freelancing in a clearly defensive place. A fire chief would commit instant occupational suicide by saying that the reason everyone is here today in their dress blues is because the dearly departed failed to follow the department safety plan. Genuine bravery and terminal stupidity both get the same eulogy. Our young firefighters are motivated and inspired to attack even harder by the ceremonialization of our battleground deaths. (Clark, 2015, pg. 42)

Values are important. They are the backbone of the “why” we make the decisions we do. The argument that I am posing is this. Where and who do we learn our fire service values from?

Mores
Moving forward in describing types of normative culture brings us to mores. Mores (pronounced “MOR-ays”) are norms deemed highly necessary to the welfare of a society, often because they embody core values. Each society demands obedience to its mores; violation can lead to severe penalties” (Witt, J., 2016, pg. 56). Think for a minute of at least two mores that are widely debated in today’s fire service. Cowardness and conformity.

Cowardness simply defined is one who lacks courage. Other than a firefighter refusing to uphold core values the dagger of words is often thrown. We need not look far especially on social media before someone is labeling someone else a coward based off an event for which the name caller was not in attendance. What if we were to turn the tables towards those in the over-aggressive camp? What type of social sanctions could we employ to correct behavior? Conformity is defined as someone who uphold standards, rules, and laws.                     

Conformity occurs in both positive and negative behaviors. It is important to understand that culture is either by design or default. Deviant behavior and actions are a result of learning the norms, values and beliefs of the organization as a whole. We must properly indoctrinate our personnel to higher standards if we wish for the culture change to take hold. (Dixon, 2015, para 10).

Having attended numerous conferences, hands on training events, working as an instructor in an academy, and developing relationships with other firefighters; I can attest that our standards are not mutually agreed upon. There are subcultures operating deep within that have been exasperated by dominant ideology. In today’s society, it is very evident that in order to maintain good social standing from our peers we must choose to conform.

The line in the sand has been drawn for quite some time now. Those who may be operating within a subculture engage in their own unique and distinctive forms of behavior. But should we be concerned with good social standing or positive change? 

Agents of Socialization
Our “self” is developed by our interactions with others. It makes complete sense to correlate our behaviors because of the environments we operate in. Our social environments shape us. “Family, friends, schools, peers, the mass media, the workplace, religion, and the state are among the agents of socialization that play the most powerful roles in shaping who we become” (Witt, J., 2016, pg. 74). As previously mentioned, the fire service is a people centered organization. As such, it only makes sense to understand that we are powerfully driven by peer groups and mass media.

Peer Groups & Mass Media
Perception shapes action. As we choose how we are going to conform to a standard of actions and beliefs, we must understand just how much influence our selected peer groups bestow. There are countless strategies and tactics that have been confirmed or denied strictly based off peer group validation. Without singling out any one specific tactic, a firefighter somewhere, somehow, will either justify or condemn the action purely because it was the cool thing to do. They viewed it on the University of YouTube or a dominant Facebook Page.

This is a form of social control. As a society we employ strategies and tactics to hopefully avoid the normalization of deviance. Our attitudes, behaviors, and developed culture play a significant role in how we develop our self. The fire service prides itself on the similarity of a para-military hierarchy. Sadly, the intrinsic hierarchy is losing its value.

The normative culture found inside our organizations are being challenged. Not from those within the organization but rather those who are on the outside looking in. The trade journals and textbooks do their best to provide accurate information in an unbiased fashion but the authors are strictly speaking from their own paradigms. This perspective may be incongruent with how the newer generations of firefighters are learning.

Reflection
The personal impact of moving through the ranks and holding various fire service positions has been enjoyable. Many stereotypes that I held on both sides of the debate of safety and aggression have been broken. This is because the stringent dogma in both camps are geared towards positive outcomes. No one comes to work or responds to an emergency with the preconceived notion of failure. Deviance is invisible to those who are deviant. It takes a strong social community to help show the way towards positive outcomes.

There are staunchly held beliefs. When individual belief systems are challenged the fight or flight syndrome becomes evident. Instead of fighting those with opposing worldviews, we should make it our mission to come to a better understanding of others viewpoints.

“We must first seek to understand, then to be understood.” - Saint Francis

References

Clark, D. B. (2015). I can’t save you but I’ll die trying: the American fire culture.
Nashville, TN: Premium Press America.

Dixon, J. (2015). The Normalization of Deviance.
Retrieved from: http://www.firehouse.com/article/12109412/firefighter-safety-the-normalization-of-deviance

Kunadharaju, K., Smith, T., DeJoy, D. (2011). Line-of-duty deaths among U.S. firefighters: An analysis of fatality investigations
Place of publication not identified: Elsevier
Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aap.2010.12.030

Maslow, A. H. (1966). Psychology of Science. Place of publication not identified: Harper & Row.

Rhodes, D. (2018). You Bet We're Aggressive.
Retrieved from: http://www.firerescuemagazine.com/articles/print/volume-12/issue-12/departments/hump-day-s-o-s/you-bet-we-re-aggressive.html

Witt, J. (2016). SOC 2016 (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.

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Leadership Exemplified - How to BE the Example

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Most of us in the fire and emergency services would agree that leadership matters and is vital to the successful outcomes of any organization. We could also agree that many so called leadership gurus and fire service personalities are out on the circuit pontificating their tricks of the trade. There is certainly no shortage of people instructing or promoting their own “how to” guide to get other people to accomplish tasks that they want them to do.

It can be said, that the old adage of “setting the example” is only half of the algebraic equation. So if we as leaders are challenged for “solving for X” what is the formula? The answer may be a lot simpler than we may think. In order to set the example we as leaders must first be the example.

Attitude

I’m certain that there is much to agree upon with the qualities and traits that are necessary to exemplify true leadership. It would be futile to try and list them all within this blog post. So instead, let’s focus on a few that we as leaders have direct control over every day. Our attitudes, behaviors, and culture.

Our attitudes directly control the temperature of not only ourselves but everyone around us as well. Is it possible to maintain a positive attitude every time all of the time? Of course not! We are human, and as such, there will be times that we have moments that we will want to choke out a poodle (inside joke). This is perfectly normal! Now before PETA gets their leashes in a bunch; no animals were harmed in the writing of this blog! The last thing I want is Sarah McLachlan making a commercial about me, but I digress.

We must remember that we are in total control of how our attitudes are perceived. Is it okay for our people to see us angry, burned out, and cynical? I say yes, but we must maintain our tact and bearing. For those who have served in the military you know exactly what I’m talking about. Think about the fireground for a moment. When things get hairy and the incident commander starts to lose their bearing by screaming on the radio, does this not set a specific course of actions into play? Tensions rise and errors may occur. Same goes for our leadership profile. Be angry, however remain in control. Do not take that anger out on others, especially those whom we are leading.

Behaviors

This is the Holy Grail of leadership! I have a huge problem with so called leaders who say that “I’m not here to be their friend, I’m here to make sure things get done!” As leaders, and as exemplified by the Navy SEALs we must be focused on the TEAM life. Does this mean that we have to be the most popular person on our platoon? In our organization? Of course not. If a leader has to tell you that they are the BOSS, they most certainly are not behaving like a leader. Collar pullers need not apply! “Without recognizing the balance between getting the work done and being popular, a leader will simply create roadblocks to leadership success and teamwork” (Karpluk & Quan, 2013, pg. 112).

The problem with being the popular leader or better known as a charismatic leadership style is this, the only people who will follow your lead are those who are likeminded and have a similar mindset. Albeit either positive or negative in nature. Our behavior is directly correlated to our attitudes. Once charismatic leaders are finished pulling rabbits out of their hats, their magic is gone. They’re out of tricks.

Being the example, is ensuring that our own actions are not inviting the wrong type of critic. Let’s face it, there are many critics out there just waiting for us to make an error in judgement. They lie in waiting like snakes in the grass awaiting the opportunity to slither in and spew their venom. We see this all too often on the inter-webs and throughout social media.

Beware of the fire service rock star on social media! Their egos will soon reveal their true behaviors. “The do as I say, and not as I do mantra!” “The first thing a leader must declare is not authority because of rights, but authority because of relationships” (Maxwell, 1993, pg. 118). Remember this: people “buy into” the leader before they “buy into” his or her leadership!

Culture

There seems to be a civil war in terms of the current culture in the fire service these days. There are a great number of people who wish to see improvement upon how we do business. Sadly, these transformational leaders are under attack for their vision. “A leader’s job is to look into the future and see his or her organization, not as it is, but as it will be” (Viscuso, 2013, pg. 17). If we are to set a positive path forward we must not lose sight of the culture that we are fostering.

As aforementioned, the inter-webs are bustling with opinions on how things should be based off anecdotal experiences. It doesn’t take long to see the word “aggressive” used and misused over and over again as a badge of courage or a vindication of culture.

How about we set a culture of aggressively taking care of those in our charge? Could you imagine the possibilities if we were to develop our people within the organization to become better people? Wouldn’t a better crop of people who truly have personal skills be better for the organization as a whole? My good friend Chief Steve Prziborowski and his organizations suggest that we should hire for character and train for skill. I couldn’t agree more brother!

In Closing

Look for transformational leaders that are in the trenches. Quietly striving for self-improvement but most importantly, setting a path for others to join them along the way. If you have been following my writings hopefully a pattern has emerged. Surely, I can teach firefighters to force doors. What I’m striving to accomplish is having firefighters force their minds to seek continuous improvement. I truly believe that it all starts with our attitudes, behaviors, and cultures. Don’t focus so much on trying to set an example. Simply BE the example.

 

References
Karpluk & Quan (2013). Leadership Prescribed. Self-Published.
Maxwell, J. C. (1993). Developing the leader within you. Nashville: Thomas Nelson .
Viscuso, F. (2013). Step up and lead. Tulsa, OK: PennWell Corporation.

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Identifying Morals, Values, and Principles – How To Become The Best Version of YOU!

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There are plenty leaders standing alone on the proverbial organizational island. It has been said time and time again “the higher up the food chain we ascend, the lonelier we may become.” Why is this so? Perhaps we may have lost sight of how vital our values and principles transcend any leadership style. Let’s identify a few of what may be many examples of the values and principles that are exemplified by outstanding leaders in the fire and emergency services.

The subjectivity of the human condition when discussing values is evident and absolutely normal. The ideology behind our value systems has been cultivated in the timeless debate of nature versus nurture. The environment that we have been raised within as young children most certainly cultivates our lives as we evolve and grow into adulthood. This is where and when our values were cultivated. The roots and foundation are grown and poured to help us build our own unique personal values. There is a cumulative effect of exposure albeit either positively or negatively as we further develop our own values into principles.

Once we can identify what true morals, principles, and values are, we can place the purpose of them into the context of personal, organizational, and community environments. Let’s start with the definition of morals.

Morals – A standard of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable, relating to principles or teaching a concept of right or wrong.

Morals can be equally thought of as character. It can be further defined as the “what” we do when no one is watching us. Our moral compasses and character is what we hold self-evident and display which speaks volumes about our morals. Why do we make the decisions we do? How do we know what is right and what is wrong? We can all agree that lying is wrong yet many of us do this with ease in many different situations. The most egregious lie of all may be to ourselves. By not following our intuitive moral compass we may find ourselves lost and on the wrong path of self-righteousness.

Once we can truly identify what our individual morals are, such as honesty, kindness, and empathy we can build a solid foundation upon leadership principles and styles. “Style refers to the manner and methods that a leader uses to interact with other people, especially those whom they lead and especially when making decisions” (Thiel, A. K., & Jennings, C. R., 2012, p. 196). The morals that we exemplify directly correlates as to the “why” behind our decisions.

So now that we understand the “why” let’s translate the “what and how” into our leadership style. These principles will affect how we practice personal and organizational leadership.

Principles – Rules or laws that one has identified and accepted which governs one’s personal behavior.

Once we can identify the foundational norms, values, and beliefs that represent what is desirable and positive for a person, group, and organization; we can communicate these principles into leadership actions. Such principles as: integrity, tact, bearing, knowledge, and judgement just to name a few of the many; are the “how” we will come to a decision crossroads intertwined with our morals. Hopefully, we can start to see a pattern, a continuum. It is at this crucial intersection that we use our moral compass to guide us and help us find the “true North” of leadership.

As leaders we can begin to outline personal and organizational principles which in turn will develop a system of values to follow. Many people are searching for the Holy Grail of leadership. There is no singular method or equation for quantifying personal or organizational success. There is no magic formula. This is where developing a values/vision statement will help to guide us on the right path. The path of continuous improvement!

Values – Important and lasting beliefs or ideals, shared by the members of a culture, about what is “good or bad” and “desirable or undesirable.”

Values have a major influence upon a person’s behavior and attitude. They serve as broad guidelines in all situations. Such values as: altruism, compassion, diversity, and generosity to simply name a few. This is one part of the aforementioned leadership continuum. This is a non-linear process. Our decisions are not meant to go from East to West or North to South. We as leaders must analyze the impact of our decisions as they pertain to our unique morals, values, and principles. These decisions will not only impact ourselves but will most assuredly impact the organization as a whole.

Often times we may hear that “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” Many people will opine that it’s either non-existent or extremely low. One way to inspect this challenge is to re-examine the core values within an organization. Do the organizational values align with the values of the people who reside within it? Are the shareholders in concert with the organizational mission statement? If the answer is anything other than yes, it’s time to break out our moral compasses to find our true North, go back to the map to find our original starting point, and retrace our steps.

In closing, I firmly believe that analyzing our morals, principles, and values will help frame and build us as leaders in order to construct our mission statement. Otherwise, how will we know how to make the best decisions? Hopefully, if you have been following me you will have seen my Personal Mission Statement:

“Together WE can lead, encourage, and motivate each other towards seeking continuous improvement while promoting emergency service excellence within ourselves and others one day at a time.”

This mission statement was not developed over night. The morals, principles, and values that were, and continue to be engrained within me are geared towards seeking continuous improvement in all aspects my personal and professional goals.

I offer you this challenge. Take some time to self-evaluate your own set of morals, principles, and values. Be absolutely honest with yourself. Try to understand who you truly are and the goals you wish to accomplish personally and professionally. Jot these goals down. After sometime, you will recognize that you have plotted the coordinates on the path to success. Guess what.... If you don’t already have a personal mission statement, you’ve just created the scaffolding or blueprints to build one.

I would be humbled and honored to read and or help anyone in this process. If you have a personal mission statement completed already, please send it to me. Post it on social media! Be proud. If you don’t have one, what are you waiting for? There is greatness within you. Simply identify the best version of you and then execute the plan.

 

Cover Photo Courtesy: Chris Baker

References
Thiel, A. K., & Jennings, C. R. (2012). Managing fire and emergency services. Washington, D.C.: International City/County Management Association.

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Empowerment

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To better define empowerment and truly understand what this action is, we must fully understand what it is not. Stopping unsafe acts is directly impacted by our abilities to empower others to act; therefore we must also become empowered ourselves.

Empowerment is a very strong word. It can be said that this action is often met with great resistance because it allows for the transfer of power. “To empower is to enable, or to equip or supply with an ability” (Ford, 2012, p. 81). This action of giving authority to others is sometimes misunderstood. The American fire service has become much better in recent years allowing its members to step up and assume more responsibilities.

The very opposite of empowerment is micromanagement. This will cause many people and organizations to become stagnant. In order for empowerment to be embraced, we as a service organization must think along the lines of investment. Investing in our people is the best way to empower them. A great way of accomplishing a positive culture change is to employ the ABC’s.

Attitudes

We must expect and demand as a professional service the utmost in our people’s attitudes. A positive mindset can only be fostered by empowering others with positive surroundings such as access to quality training, formal education, and progressiveness. We are all in direct control of our attitudes but we are also greatly influenced by the level of empowerment we receive from our superiors. The trickledown effect of a positive culture will be a huge return of investment.

Behaviors

Our behaviors are a direct result of our attitudes. It is impossible to have positive outcomes with our behaviors if our mindset is not cultivated. This is where a divide within the fire service can be seen. The behaviors of the older generations of firefighters differ in many ways than the newer generations. The introduction of Crew Resource Management into the fire service is seen as a direct challenge of authority.

While the younger generation has been indoctrinated to ask questions, the older generation understands this to be a lack of a willingness to comply thus the appearance of entitlement is born.

Culture

The ability for empowerment to help stop unsafe acts is dependent upon our knowledge, skills and abilities. The development of KSA’s is directly impacted by the culture within our organization. “The foundation of the future lies in the concept of empowerment” (Ford, 2012. P. 82). Some may say that the fire service culture is doomed. These are specifically the people that would say empowering others is a mistake. They lack the understanding of evolution.

As an Advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, it is my humble duty to pontificate the sixteen Life Safety Initiatives. The number one initiative is in fact calling for a cultural change.

Life Safety Initiative #1

Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility.


“It is important to understand that culture is either by design or default. Deviant behavior and actions are a result of learning the norms, values and beliefs of the organization as a whole” (Dixon, 2015).


In closing, many focus simply on kinesthetic actions in order to stop unsafe acts. In hindsight, many of the tragic outcomes could have been prevented. It is far easier to prevent a drift into failure than it is to correct. The development of our ABC’s is paramount in setting the trend of empowerment.

It does no one any good to keep correcting ourselves on the fireground from negative outcomes when we cannot control our own attitudes, behaviors and ultimately develop a more positive culture while we are back in the station.

References

Ford, T. (2012). Fire and emergency services safety and survival. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Dixon, J. (2015). The Normalization of Deviance. Firehouse Magazine, Vol. 40, N.10. p.49.

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Dichotomy of Attitudes, Behaviors, and Culture

Dichotomy of Attitudes, Behaviors, and Culture

The great dichotomy within today’s fire service is all about perceived culture. The improvement of our culture as a whole within the emergency services is relative to our specific paradigms. Much can be done as has been implemented already but there is so much more work to do. It's the whole nature vs. nurture argument. As leaders we have a burden of command. We have to balance young aggressive firefighters to ensure that specific tasks are completed in the safest manner possible while battling their perception of what is heroic or cowardice!

There are varying definitions or understandings of fire service culture. Some would lead us to believe that culture is not very important within an emergency organization because it only effects the “what” of our actions. I would like to argue that culture is a vital component of the “why” within every aspect of our decision making processes. Our culture by default becomes our identities. Fire service culture varies throughout the country and depending on where or how old the organization is, will determine how entrenched a specific culture has become. This deep rooted belief system will impact operations, both strategically and tactically.

In the Northeast where I have been raised in the fire service, the culture is very rooted in tradition. Many of the strategies are based upon the “what” we have always done in the past with various levels of successes or failures. We hold these traditions so close to our beliefs that they often define our values. “Cultural responsibility at the department level is probably the most difficult to infuse in today’s society.” (Ford, T., 2012, pg. 21).

Steps that can be taken to improve upon our culture include attitudes, behaviors, and education. Our personal attitude is synonymous to our personal accountability. We must become better at accepting our roles within the organization as vital ones. The times of simply acting as a drone or a good foot soldier must come to an end. We have become increasingly better at this because of our changes in behaviors.

In order for our attitudes to improve, we must also redirect our behaviors to support those within our organizations who are seeking to build upon a newer culture or sets of values and beliefs. “In order for cultural change to take place, leadership has to have a mind-set that supports open communication and an open-minded approach to change.” (Ford, T., 2012, pg. 24). Such behaviors as attending conferences, outside training opportunities, and formal education are great ways to help support the paradigm shift we need.

It has been my experience that organizations that embrace a formal educational process have a better understanding of the importance of shaping the future. Critical thinking that is developed by higher learning institutions is exactly what will help our profession achieve future success. The ability to step back and institute the APIE process (analyze, plan, implement, and evaluate) will most assuredly help our future leaders develop other future leaders and create that ripple effect. This is extreme ownership at its best.

In closing, many people have pontificated on how to change a culture within the fire service. I am one of those people. I’m blessed to travel the globe teaching my programs at conferences. I have been published in trade magazines and websites. I also happen to be an Advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation here in NJ.

With that said, the best way that I can think of to help spread the message of culture change is in fact to be the change that I would like and hope to see. Setting the example for others to see and follow is a rare opportunity and one I do not take lightly. It’s a trickledown effect. Seek continuous improvement in myself and help others along the way. This is how we improve culture!

How will you help?

 

References
Ford, T. (2012). Fire and emergency services safety and survival, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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Legacy vs. Modern Fire Environment

Legacy vs. Modern Fire Environment

Brief Analysis

There has been and continues to be great work performed in comparing and contrasting the differences between fires in today’s modern fire environment versus those that were seen in the past decades referred to as the legacy environment. It can be said that the fire itself does not behave any different than it’s supposed to. The fire does not think therefore it is extrememly predictable!  

The chemistry and physics of fire remain the same yet the environment or the compartments that these fires are burning in have significantly changed, thus changing the dynamic in which we chose to measure fire severity. The basic mechanism in which fires spread have increased solely because of the products that are within our environment therefore we must improve our understanding of our surroundings as it relates to fire propagation.

The Legacy Fire Environment

The time period of structures built between 1900 and 1949 can be labeled as legacy construction. The use of true dimensional lumber was the norm for the frame of residential structures. In taking a look back to the products that made up the environment, the all-natural wood, cloth, and organic fibers were the mainstays of these furnishings. These materials were the prevalent resource used in the construction of the contents that were inside compartments. In legacy fires, the fire initiation was slower because the breakdown in the chemical bonds of the materials burning did not create a high exothermic condition.

Gann and Friedman state (2015) “Smoldering is the most common initial stage of combustion in fires that lead to injury or death” (p.83). In legacy fires the smoldering stage lasted much longer in duration because of the natural chemical bonds of the furnishings and surrounding environment. In legacy fires, combustion is impacted directly upon the pyrolysis of the aforementioned environment. It can be argued that the basic mechanism of fire spread in legacy fires is through conduction.

The direct heating of one material because it is in contact with another burning or flaming material. The unburned fuel particles did not generate enough enthalpy to spread flaming combustion via convective currents as fast as they do now in modern fires. This delay of rapid combustion allowed firefighters to over ventilate to create lift and sparingly use water for extinguishment.

The Modern Fire Environment

The current construction environment that we find ourselves in is extremely dangerous. The use of cheaper more factory made structural components which are constructed with glues and frozen hydrocarbons directly increase enthalpy whereas the natural stick built home does not. The process of pyrolysis is significantly increased thus lowering the amount of time we as firefighters have to initiate the break in the chemical chain reaction. “Pyrolysis is different from smoldering in that pyrolysis stops when the heat source is removed, while smoldering generates sufficient heat to continue without external heat input” (Gann & Friedman, 2015, p. 83).

The external heat output of modern day fires within the compartment are constantly generating enough enthalpy to continue the smoldering process even without a direct smoldering source. The basic mechanism of fire spread in this environment can be seen through all three heat transfer processes. The noticeable difference of conduction as seen within legacy heat transfer is now magnified with convection and the movement of superheated smoke which is unburned frozen hydrocarbons at the molecular level.

In legacy fires the main extinguishment process was to surface cool. Now with the addition of what I call fluid combustion; gas cooling and the efficacy of water placement is now the order of the day. Until we, as educators can improve upon how we train the US Fire Service at the street level in the laws of thermodynamics I fear that the civil war will continue among us and continue to grow.

In Sum

One of the many reasons of fire propagation we see today in modern day fires is because we the fire department, have failed to embrace science as a tool. I cannot remember the last time I myself have gone to a fire as we made the fire bigger, hotter, and move faster because of our actions. I’m certain that we can improve upon this chain of events. Our attitudes, behaviors, and cultures have not evolved as quickly as the built environment. We are still fighting modern day fires with a legacy mindset!

References 

Gann, R., & Friedman, R. (2015). Principles of fire behavior and combustion (4th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett.

Photo Credit: Brett M. Dzadik

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3 Simple Ways to Improve Personal Accountability

3 Simple Ways to Improve Personal Accountability

We in the fire service should be very familiar with the term accountability. On the fire ground it’s referred to as performing a P.A.R. (personal accountability report) or roll call; and usually this report whether it’s communicated via the radio or through a face to face is to ensure that our crews are safe, where they are supposed to be, and that conditions are improving.

The textbooks all say to some varying degree the time interval as to when these reports shall be performed; usually it happens when there is a drastic change in conditions or the incident action plan. I would like to offer up a different perspective on this truly life saving tactic. Let’s take this vital action and bring it over into our personal lives. We all have goals that we are working hard to accomplish. We all have a desired outcome of some sort either personally, professionally, and spiritually.

Let’s all become better at holding ourselves accountable as well as those that are around us, those we can influence, and those within our circle of trusted friends and family. Let’s create a network of accountability partners.

Here are 3 steps to create an accountability network.

Step #1 - Take an inventory of your goals.

Sit down and write them out. I have written my goals on index cards and placed them in my direct line of sight in my office. It’s often easy to set aside a tough goal due to the fact that we may choose to pile on more and more goals losing sight of our original personal game plan. I find what works for me is to write them down and constantly look at them. This helps me to remain focused on the tasks at hand and not take on more work than I can handle effectively.

Step #2 – Create the network.

Select a group of trusted friends, colleagues, or family members. Communicate your goals to them and describe how you plan on achieving them. In the digital age that we all live in these days, there is no excuse for not being able to communicate. There are many ways for all of us to stay in touch. We have email, text messages, and social media outlets. I don’t care if you have to send smoke signals, but it’s imperative to create the network.

Step #3- Perform the accountability check.

Once we have a clear understanding of our desired goals and set up the network, the next step is to hold everyone accountable. Take 20 minutes on a selected day of the week by all in the network and call each other. Ask if the actions we have taken during the week have moved us further to accomplishing the goals we strive for. Ask if there is anything you can do to help those within the network to get them closer to the goal. We are all stronger together. Develop the teamwork mentality.

Ladies and gentlemen, in my opinion the only way we can become better is to seek continuous improvement. Build upon your successes brick by brick. Create that solid foundation so you may build a life of happiness. Do not let the negative insurgency in your thoughts. Defeat them at all costs. Your network will help you.

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What Is Fire Service Culture

What Is Fire Service Culture

This is a profound question and it’s very similar to asking, what is the meaning of life? Culture has been defined by many different people under many different paradigms. Simply stated, culture is the customs and beliefs of a particular group of people during a specific frame of time. In the fire service we often hear “we need to change our culture” and that our “culture is changing for the worse.” In order to truly understand fire service culture we must first define what our collective culture actually is.


According to history the first attempt at an organized fire suppression group was ordered by Augustus the Emperor of Rome and promulgated by Marcus Licinius Crassus. There’s also evidence to support that fire pumps were created long before Roman rule dating back to Egyptian times therefore proving that a culture of fire safety was prudent and recognized. It would be interesting indeed to have seen the strategies and tactics of extinguishment during this time.


Fast forward to the early American Fire Service during the times of Ben Franklin who has been credited with establishing the first volunteer fire department. What was the recognized culture during this time period? It can be said the beliefs of the early colonists were that fire protection was incumbent upon the property owner themselves and not a vital concern for the general public. That is until fire loss became an epidemic due to building construction methods which made it rather easy for fire conflagrations.


It was customary for neighbors and fellow business owners to help one another but it was very unorganized to say the least. So what changed? If it was an early belief to not become involved in fire protection unless it was your property meanwhile fire loss was rising and our actions for helping one another were on the rise, can it be assumed that our culture of others before self was born?


Here in lies the difference between the two time frames. During Roman times the property belonged to the government whereas during colonial times property was individually owned and operated. I would like to describe this paradigm shift as a culture of necessity. It was absolutely necessary for our early founders to take ownership of their customs and actions by changing their belief of how fire suppression should be delivered. Can we change our beliefs on how the fire service today delivers our service? This is the 64 million dollar question.


Modern fire service culture has been for some time now gravitating towards the organization itself rather than the citizens we are sworn to protect. We are trying to remain relevant to our mission of life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation all at the same time as we are fighting one another on how to actually provide that service. We are creating an entirely new culture of self above others.


This new paradigm of self above others would suggest that our emotions are still in control of our behaviors therefore furthering the argument that our culture shapes our actions. Which is why it is imperative to take caution in how we shape the future of the fire service.

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Why Professional Credentialing Is Important

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It is with great humility and honor to share with you that I have earned the Fire Officer (FO) professional credential from the Center for Public Safety Excellence. Throughout this process I have been asked by many of my peers and fire service friends what this credential actually means. The very next question was how can they can start the process to earn a credential of their own. Allow me to first describe what the Center for Public Safety Excellence is.


What is the Center for Public Safety Excellence?

The Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE) is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) corporation. The primary resource for the fire and emergency profession to continuously improve services resulting in a higher quality of life for communities. CPSE has successfully helped public safety agencies around the world streamline and improve the services they provide their communities through its numerous programs and services.

CPSE provides the only accreditation program for fire service organizations in the world. The CPSE offers nationally-recognized designations for fire and emergency services officers. CPSE has over 200 accredited agencies and over 1700 designated officers throughout the world. The process of obtaining a credential is set by the Commission on Professional Credentialing (CPC). This commission is promulgated by rules and regulations set forth by the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). There is an Internationally accepted model which recognizes professional accomplishments and competence in fire and emergency services. CPSE offers fire and emergency service personnel career guidance and planning via many in-house programs and classes. 
(Click here for CPSE website)


Why Seeking Continuous Improvement is Important

As we progress in the fire service it is vital to perform internal checks and balances. These “gut checks” as I like to call them provide an unbiased outside evaluation of ourselves. Whether we serve as a career, volunteer, combination, paid on call, or what have you; we must pause from time to time and take stock in what and how we are moving forward personally and professionally. This is a prime example of operating outside of our comfort zones because the in-depth application process is reviewed by peers in the fire service with whom we have no connections with and forces us to reflect inward to look outward.

The balance of training and experience which is the holy grail in today’s fire service and highly coveted by all is part of the CPSE mission. Some will opine that simply placing a few letters after our names is not an indication of how salty of a firefighter/fire officer we are but I would challenge that sentiment with this question. “Have you allowed yourself to open up to an unbiased and critical evaluation of your professional pedigree?”

It is easy to continuously operate inside our comfort zones, surround ourselves only with likeminded peers, therefore never offering ourselves up for constructive criticism. This a disservice to those that we have sworn to protect.
I would be lying to all of you if I said that I wasn’t nervous and had second thoughts about submitting my application. Having said that, the process forced me to take an in depth look at my commitment to the fire service along with a ton of questions. Did I have enough education? Did I have enough experience? How will I explain this to the panel of peer reviewers? What if they say I’m not good enough?

In answering these questions, I realized that I was seeking continuous improvement and simply had to learn to itemize it! Think back to all those academy classes, individual self-study courses, countless hours of drills and many hours of reading publications. The college courses we felt would never end all the time questioning if this has any bearing whatsoever in performing our duties. I will tell you that it most certainly does! Everything that we do makes us better. We simply need to pause from time to time and take a personal inventory. This is what I call the process of seeking continuous improvement.

If you have been following me, you will know that I have a personal mission statement. This mission statement drives all of my decisions. It allows me to stay open and transparent with all of you and most importantly myself. If you have a mission statement of your own great! If not, I highly recommend that you start to develop one.
(I’m sensing another blog post on this)

The Process

This is a very brief overview of the application process. I have included the link to the CPSE website which will outline the process in greater detail once you obtain the application. There is no cost to obtain the application. Just go to the site, create a profile, and download the paperwork.

Be prepared to:
Write essays
Describe your position in the fire service such as job title functions
Create a table of organization showing where you fit in
Obtain letters of recommendation
Make copies of National, State, and local certifications
Chronologically list training, formal education, and continuing education
List professional affiliations to other organizations
List community service involvement
Speaking/Teaching engagements in conferences and such

All of this information will help in describing how you will measure up to the commissions core competencies. There are different competencies for each of the credentials. For the Fire Officer (FO) credential there are at least 12 that need to be satisfied. It would also be beneficial to review NFPA 1021 – The Professional Qualifications of Fire Officer. Each of the core competencies will need a signed attestation statement from a superior. So as you can see, this is not a walk in the park and there is a considerable amount of time that you will need to invest to complete this process. It took me about 4 months to complete. I can assure you though, once you complete the process you will have a 30,000-foot view of yourself and will see the path of continuous improvement before you in which self-reflection is a vital component.

In Closing

Again, I would like to thank all of my fire service peers and friends who have supported me throughout this process and encouraged me to fulfill my own personal mission as I strive for excellence. The brotherhood is alive and well!
If obtaining your professional credentials is something you are interested in, please feel free to reach out to me. I would be eager to tell you all about the process and be more than happy to help you complete the application. Please visit the CPSE website and see what credential is right for you. Be proud of who you are and what you have achieved. It’s a matter of personal pride and a sign of your continued dedication to the fire service.

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How I Transition To/From Home

How I Transition To/From Home


As a fire officer I value my responsibilities very seriously. What would be great for families and loved ones to understand is that the level of preparation before our shifts does not begin the moment we walk into the fire station. There is a level of anxiety, routine, and mental preparedness that must be addressed. This is where my hour long commute to work may at times seem as a pain but I have made the conscious decision to use this time wisely. Let’s discuss what actions we can take to best maximize and prepare for the transition to work.

Shift Planning

Currently my platoon assignment is the roving officer and I’m stationed at headquarters. This brings a level of anxiety onto itself. I have very little idea of what station I will be assigned to for the next twenty four hours. This is sometimes troubling to plan my day as I have to wonder about what meal arraignments have been made or do I pack three meals for myself and be that guy! Of course there will be company training which may or may not be scheduled from the department training officer so we as a company will have to decide what to do. Often times as I read through the trade magazines and websites, I will use current events to dictate the content of our company drills. Often times, we as a company decide what to do as a team so there is buy-in from the entire crew.

Podcasts

A great resource that I utilize during the commute are podcasts. There is no shortage of fire service podcasts to listen to during a commute. Some episodes are better than others and most will discuss training and how to become better at our profession which can even become audio drills for the company. I have found great content with the help of podcasts. There are also great podcasts that are not fire serviced centered that can prepare me for the next twenty four hours of unknown chaos or relative boredom.

Audio Books

Most firefighters spend a bunch of time in our mobile offices. This leaves a considerable amount of time to audibly read. Whether it may be promotional materials, college course work, or leisurely reading. The hour can be spent wisely listening to books that we would otherwise not read because we are too busy on the home front.
There is a considerable amount of preparation for us to go to work. Physically and most importantly mentally. The commute for me is a way that I can set aside issues that are at home such as family schedules, soccer or basketball practices and games, and even the honey do list. This is a major part of how I prepare for my home life to my fire officer transition. 

Transition Home

Now on the opposite hand is the ride home. This is where we can utilize our commutes as a decompression time. We are faced with major decisions, personalities, and stressors while we are at work and are now driving home for the same set of circumstances just with our families instead of coworkers. This is extremely vital for me to unwind and prepare for my home life.


Sounds crazy right? Having to prepare to go home. The place of respite and comfort. Consider this, how many times while we were on shift has a broken water pipe pushed our significant others over the edge? How many double booked athletic events wreaked havoc on the family taxi? Most assuredly, there were phone calls and texts from our loved ones reaching out for comfort while we try to hold the line from far away.


The transition for me begins the moment I step foot off of the fire station grounds. Like a switch, I take off my fire officer hat off and begin the process of becoming the husband and father that my family needs and expects. Thank God that I have an hour. Sometimes I feel that I may need more time!


During the week my two girls are off to school before I get home which means that my wife is home. One way to decompress is to stop at the bagel store and bring peace offerings. The honey do list items seem to grow exponentially bigger overnight, and maybe I can check off a few during my ride home by stopping at the home improvement store. Often times a “good morning beautiful” text or encouraging words to “get some” as my wife heads to her workout session sets the tone for the rest of the day.


The commute home for me is a way to stop thinking about the fire service and start thinking of how I can better serve my family. Just as in hazardous materials responses where time, distance, and shielding are ways to keep safe so too will they work for the transition home. The better that we can learn to compartmentalize our work lives from our home lives will most certainly help with stress management.

Make The Time

One way that I have found to be extremely helpful for our marriage is to have regular lunch dates. There is so little time devoted to just the two of us that we find at least an hour or so to go and grab a bite together. This time together has proven to become a must for us every day. This allows us to be selfish with our time and not take away time from the children once they get home from school and athletics. I find that this is the best decompression method. My wife and I stop what we are doing, get in the truck and simply enjoy our alone time. It makes a significant difference!

In closing, our significant others may not see the need for us to prepare for work much less having to prepare to return home but this is a staple to a healthy and happy home life. Utilizing the time, distance, and shielding method has helped me and my family to stay happy and strong. I hope that a small glimpse into my daily life will help some of you as you read this very valuable resource that I wish was available when I first started out in my fire service career. From my family to you and yours, stay safe out there, love one another selfishly and may God continue to bless you and your families.

***This article contribution is featured in Lori Mercer's book titled:
Honor & Commitment: Standard Life Operating Guidelines for Firefighters & Their Families
24-7 Commitment Website: 247commitment.org

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We Are On The Same Team…Right?

We Are On The Same Team…Right?

The Fire Service is changing.  Yet, some would argue that it isn’t and we still hold true to our cultures, traditions, and mission.  I would like to offer up a different perspective – a view of which I’m certain that will receive ridicule from those who do not like change.  For the purposes of this discussion, let’s rephrase the word change and use a positive and powerful word: Improvement.

Civil War

There appears to be a civil war brewing among us.  The thoughts, actions, and communications between us seem to be nothing more than ideological rhetoric that gains traction only within specific factions – in defense of a particular facet of culture or ideology rather than for the sake of honest and respectful discussion.   There are lines being drawn and foxholes being dug, on whatever side of the proverbial line in the sand that we happen to be standing.  One of the root causes (of which there were many) of the American Civil War was the act of Sectionalism.  This can be further defined as a divide between economies, social structures, customs, and political values. The South perceived the encroachment of the industrialized and urbanized North as a danger to their culture and way of life.  The same can be said of our beloved fire service.

An encroachment of fire service improvement may be perceived as a threat to those of us who hold a staunch belief that no improvement is necessary to how we operate.  Those of us who hold on so tightly to our set of values, culture structures, and beliefs would lead us to believe that improvement is merely change and therefore, is dangerous.

We must fight the urge to dive into a territorial crisis.  There is no north or south in the American fire service.  There is simply one fire service nation, and we must not become divided. Imagining the alternative is simply unthinkable.  We must seek continuous improvement, and if that means we must change the way we operate, interact, and learn, then so be it.  Change for the sake of saying we changed something is neither constructive nor positive.  Improvement on the other hand, is always warranted and desperately needed.  So let’s all stop saying we need to change.  Let’s focus on improvement instead.

Social Media

The Fire Service Civil War is alive and active throughout all the social media platforms.  We don’t need to look very hard to see daggers being thrown at one another from our keyboards.  There are those who say that social media is a necessary evil and has created a genre of “light weight instruction”.  In many cases however, these are the same people that use the same platform to drive the wedge deeper – thus further propagating a “civil war” simply because we may not agree.

Where we get our information is just as important as who we are allowing to occupy our valuable brain time.  Social media is a change agent that is sometimes perceived to be bad.  The reality is, it has improved our communication.  The burden of “checking the resume” now falls on the reader instead of formal institutions such as academies, universities, and conference organizers that vet instructors on many different levels to ensure a quality delivery.

Who we choose to follow, like, and associate with says a lot about the type of firefighter we are.  Many of us have fallen into the social media “trap”, (myself included), but I didn’t let that change me.  Instead, I learned to improve my communication style.

The Oath

I, (your name), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and the State of (Name of state) against all enemies, both foreign and domestic, and I will faithfully and impartially discharge my duties as firefighter of the (name of department, city, township, etc.) under the appointment of the department according to the laws of the (State, township, county) to the best of my skills and abilities, so help me God.

There have been great debates on what the oath actually means.  While the wording is very straightforward, it is also somewhat subjective in nature.  Many of us have read or heard that it’s our duty to die for our citizens, that it’s our job to do so.  I challenge all of you to explain to me where in the oath that it’s expected of me to trade my life for that of someone else. If I should happen to die in the line of duty, it’s for a damn good reason and the circumstances were far outside of my control.  Yes, firefighting is inherently dangerous.  I accept that fact, but that doesn’t mean that it’s okay to trade my life for that of John Q Public under the auspices of tradition.

I have had the honor of taking one of the best oaths around.  When I raised my right hand and swore to protect a nation as a US Marine, that wasn’t a promise or an expectation that I would die in service to my country.  Rather, it was an expectation that I was going to make others die for theirs!  Again, I challenge anyone to show me where it says I’m willing to trade my life under the auspices of tradition.

The public demands that we are trained to the best of our abilities.  This is how we must interpret the oath. This is how we improve.

Same Team

We have brother and sister firefighters committing suicide at alarming rates, and we keep arguing about how to effectively apply water to a fire.  Heart disease and cancer rates are climbing, yet we argue about who or what agencies are receiving research funding.  We must remember that we are all on the same team; we all took the same oath!  It’s okay to have a difference in our passionate opinions.  But, we must rise above the rhetoric and improve upon how we talk and interact with one another.  

We must keep things in perspective with an objective to seek improvement.  I for one will be passionate about remaining positive and helping others to realize their full potential as firefighters and leaders.

Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument. – Desmond Tutu

Choose to improve and lift others up instead of tearing them down.

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