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.
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, p. 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).
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, p. 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.”
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, p. 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: 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. (Clark, 2015, p. 41)
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, p. 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?
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, p. 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.
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
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-
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-
Witt, J. (2016). SOC 2016 (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
John Dixon is a career fire officer with an urban fire department in New Jersey and has over 20 years in the fire service. He has earned his fire officer (FO) credentials from the Center for Public Safety Excellence and is a National Fire Academy Alumni. John has a passion for training, mentoring, and inspiring up-and-coming officers and firefighters. He has served as an Instructor with the Bergen County (NJ) Fire Academy, a member of Project Kill the Flashover, and currently serves as the NJ State Lead Advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
Add a Comment