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Instructor John Dixon

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The Human Condition in Firefighting

Human Condition

“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” (Dixon, 2017, para. 1). Despite external influence from organizational culture, creating a positive environment for professional growth is largely contingent upon the motivation of the individual firefighter. While the attitude and behavior of the individual are often indicative of the social paradigm representative of the firefighter's immediate work environment, the firefighter must still maintain ownership and accountability of their own identity and development. Emotional intelligence, the hierarchy of needs, and choice theory play a large role in how a firefighter develops. The improvement of the human condition within the fire service is relative to firefighter's specific paradigms, therefore, in examining the collective attitudes, behaviors, and overall industry culture; creating a positive environment for professional growth is an individual firefighters choice.

It is often said the fire service is a people-centered industry devoted to service over self. It can further be argued there are underlying values, morals, and principles that must be understood. The great mystery in this argument is how will firefighters come to learn and apply these attributes in a meaningful way. In examining the higher-order of interpersonal relationships, the fire service can seek continuous improvement to the public it serves and the firefighters who serve within. “Cultural responsibility at the department level is probably the most difficult to infuse in today’s society.” (Ford, 2012, p. 21). The wisdom in learning more about ourselves and the courage to build a better value system ensures that the fire service will continue to place service above self.

“Emotional intelligence is generally accepted to be a combination of emotional and interpersonal competencies that influence our behavior, thinking, and interaction with others” (Macaleer & Shannon, 2002, p. 9). Firefighters largely fall into the type A personality chart. They are outgoing, aggressive, ambitious, and have attention to detail highly coveted by others. This surely explains the position of a firefighter's attitude and behaviors, but how does it explain their culture? Culture plainly described is the social order. The fire service certainly espouses its own culture and operating procedures in dealing with the human condition. Proper or desired leadership is contingent upon the level of understanding of emotional intelligence by the individual firefighter. “Leadership has been a core issue of organizations for decades, if not centuries. Anyone who has any role in working with organizations and their long-term effectiveness should begin to understand how emotional intelligence can affect leadership development” (Macaleer & Shannon, 2002, p. 10).

“Deep change, which is transformational in nature, places us in the position of being where we have never been before. Demanding tools we have never used before; it is, therefore, a very uncomfortable experience” (Kelly, 1988). It has been said many times there are two things a firefighter hates, change and the way things are! This uncomfortable feeling largely stems from a direct threat to the individual firefighter's needs. This threat is usually realized subconsciously and without much higher-order thinking. Simply using the word “change” can spike a firefighters blood pressure to the point of closing their perspective. Most transformational change is again, dependent upon the firefighter's need or willingness to accept that they actually want it! This uncomfortable feeling disrupts any self-actualizing thoughts and actions.

“All Organizational Behavior (OB) textbooks have a motivation chapter that includes a brief section on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a chart depicting the upward progression of those needs, and a useful set of tips for motivating employees” (O'Connor & Yballe, 2007, para. 3). The fire service must invest in developing higher-order thinking from its leaders. Paradoxically, the needs of the followers will, in turn, become the deliverables when they ascend into the organizational leadership role. Much of Maslow’s work has been misunderstood for quite some time. The pyramid shape often used is graphics and organizational textbooks miss the mark of the underlying self-actualization process. Maslow's teachings of the hierarchy of one's needs are incumbent upon the individual and what is actually perceived that is needed at the moment. “Maslow, in his humanistic view, based human behavior on the fulfillment of needs rather than it being solely dependent on the unconscious mind, instincts or a learned set of actions” (Schoo, 2008, para. 6).

A firefighter will, of course, develop learned behaviors. How a firefighter perceives this behavior is a direct result of the choices he or she makes. “Choice Theory assumes that we need to be internally motivated and that good relationship is the core of mental health and happiness. It also assumes that people have the ability to make responsible choices to obtain what they want” (Schoo, 2008, para. 5). In short, a firefighter learns their organizational values from other firefighters they are exposed to. It is the classic nature versus nurture psychological argument. The overarching goal of any service professional is to ensure that the mission, vision, and values are indoctrinated as early as possible. “The culture of unsafe practices may be so deeply ingrained that efforts to change are viewed as challenges to fundamental beliefs, while other unsafe practices are created by the culture of the fire and emergency service as a whole” (U.S. Fire Administration, 2015, p. 13). This new paradigm of self above others would suggest that emotions are still in control of behaviors, therefore, furthering the argument that culture shapes actions. Which is why it is imperative to take caution in how collectively the future of the fire service is shaped. Peter Drucker is often quoted as “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and he could not be more correct in his assessment. The strategy of fire service leaders must include efforts to embolden values and principles based on best practices learned from emotional intelligence with the full understanding that the firefighter's choice must come from within themselves.

A firefighter's behaviors are a direct result of their attitude. It is impossible to have positive outcomes with improper behaviors if the firefighter's 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. For example, the introduction of Crew Resource Management into the fire service can be understood 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.

Attitudes, behaviors, and the overall industry culture are directly impacted by the choices firefighters make. As a leader, understanding the hierarchy of firefighter's needs is vital to help individuals seek continuous improvement professionally and personally. Emotional intelligence helps to shape the paradigm of culture. Learned behaviors either positive or negative in actions will most certainly impact the individual and the organization. In choosing to seek improvement in the understanding of soft skills such as interpersonal relationships, choice theory, and the hierarchy of what firefighters need will have a huge return on investment. The only question left to ask is, the preparations and investments that are made solid enough to leave the fire service in better condition today than it was yesterday?





Dixon, J. (2017). The dichotomy of attitudes, behaviors, and culture.
Retrieved from

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

Kelly, R. (1988). In praise of followers. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Macaleer, W. & Shannon, J. (2002). Emotional intelligence: How does it affect leadership?
Retrieved from detail/detail?vid=1&sid=5a260073-1e7a-4cd3-980a-f4abfa8aca86@sdc-v-

O'Connor, D., & Yballe, L. (2007). Maslow revisited: constructing a road map of human nature.
Journal of Management Education. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-<br< a="">>

Schoo, A. (2008). Leaders and their teams: Learning to improve performance with emotional intelligence and using choice theory. International Journal of Reality Therapy.
Retrieved from


U.S. Fire Administration (2015). National safety culture change initiative.
Emmitsburg, MD: FEMA

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