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.