“If you want to work with firefighters, you need to understand the culture.”
Jeff Dill was referring to therapists and Employee Assistance Program counselors when he made that comment this week at Fire-Rescue International. However, understanding the culture is probably one of the toughest things for any newcomer to the fire-service industry, whether that person is a rookie firefighter, a vendor, a dealer or even a member of the media.
Rookies who come from firefighter families have some advantage, as they already understand the culture of the fire service, whereas someone without exposure to firefighters will have a period of adjustment.
Vendors may think they have an outstanding product or service, but if they don’t understand the culture of the fire service, they are setting off on a tough road. That’s why off-duty firefighters make great sales reps in this industry: They understand the culture of their customers.
Obviously, culture will vary from department to department, so even fire chiefs can find themselves perplexed when switching roles or agencies.
I thought of what a confusing time that could be while listening to 2012 Career Chief of the Year Kelvin J. Cochran speak about his career from the Shreveport (La.) Fire Department to the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department.
As a rookie in Shreveport, Cochran said there was a culture of training and education. When he became the department’s chief in 1999, outgoing Chief Dallas Green told Cochran “to become active in theand Metro Chiefs — and what a change it made in my life.” Cochran fostered a proactive both at the department and in the community.
Now he is doing the same thing in Atlanta. It warmed my heart to see so many of Cochran’s officers come out to celebrate his achievement, and to hear them speak so highly of their chief and their department’s proactive public education.
Our 2012 Volunteer Chief of the Year, Jona Olsson of the Latir (N.M.) Volunteer Fire Department, also believes in being proactive to change the fire-service culture. She travels extensively to teach other fire departments about diversity.
“Make this a national priority and create a national inclusive fire service,” she said. “We need to look like our communities.” But then, quickly Olsson repeated a quote from Jack Tarsing who said, “I don’t want the fire service to simply reflect the community, I want it to reflect the very best of every community.”
In order to understand the culture of the fire service, you have to want to understand it. Take the time to understand it and assume nothing.