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Instructor John Dixon

Passionate, Relevant, and Current Knowledge Sharing For Your Department

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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Leadership Exemplified - How to BE the Example


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.


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.


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!


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.


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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