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Fire Service Culture. An interactive workshop aimed at improving understanding Local Government Annual Conference Manchester March 2010

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fire service culture
Fire Service Culture
  • An interactive workshop aimed at improving understanding
  • Local Government Annual Conference
  • Manchester
  • March 2010
  • Dr Dave Baigent
there can be a number of views about fire service culture
There can be a number of views about fire service culture
  • 1. The culture is set by Chief Fire Officers:
      • Implemented by managers
      • Accepted by firefighters
  • 2. Values that officers and firefighters have in common
  • 3. The firefighters’:
  • Values that one cohort of firefighters pass down to the next on how they get their job done
formal organisational culture
Formal (organisational) culture
  • Post Bain there have been a number of changes:
    • The National Framework
    • Politicians and Chief Officers establish their IRMP
    • Set the standards for their fire and rescue service
      • Support this by IPDS and core values
    • Along come the auditors ………….
  • This is the formal culture
one culture
One Culture?

One fire service – two cultures?

More often get listed under a single title – Fire Service Culture

It may be a mistake to see just one culture – could there be two?

The rules set out by Chief Officers (formal or organisational culture)

The way things are done around here (firefighters’ informal or occupational culture)

why do people join the f rs
Why do people join the F&RS?
  • People join the fire service to become firefighters
  • Most of them know about how culture operates (male hierarchies)
  • You train them
  • But are your current workforce supportive of what has followed on from Bain?
so when a new firefighter joins the watch
So when a new firefighter joins the watch

Most people are aware that you have to be cautious when you join a new group

How would you act?

most of us look for clues
Most of us look for clues

We construct our actions based on our previous experience

And what we see in the group we are trying to join

  • Here is a tip from two firefighters:

Ian: Just keep your head down and keep your gob shut for a little while and see what happens

Christian: Well it’s the tradition. They need to be able to fit- in ..without being lairy and start telling you .. how to do it.

practicing or practising
Practicing or Practising

Practicing culture is exactly that:

  • More than following the rules it is understanding and interpreting the rules
  • And getting the practice right by practise

Firefighters are particularly good at ensuring that everyone on their watch practice in the same way

By practising the practice the watch get:

  • Their social solidarity
  • Their sense of belonging
      • fit-in (with the way things are done around here)
does the culture have a life of its own
Does the culture have a life of its own?

The informal culture represents the shared experience of how firefighters get their job done:

A series of answers to problems and ways of understanding the work that is handed down from generation to generation

These shared assumptions are the social glue that holds a watch together:

  • Firefighters choose to fit-in with this
  • But their choice is not necessarily made in conditions of their own choosing
how much choice
How much choice?
  • A firefighter explains:
  • Just overpowering .. it’s hard to explain, ‘come on lets do this’ and it just rolls.
  • It’s like a snowball and it just gets bigger and bigger
  • And you get caught up in it as it rolls and gets bigger.
  • And that’s the only way I can explain it in our watch.
an example of what can happen
An example of what can happen
  • The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture and ethnic origin.
  • It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people
  • (Macpherson1999)
positive points about the informal occupational culture
Positive points about the informal (occupational) culture?
  • Represents the custom and practice of getting the job done.
  • Established firefighters handing down the skills of their job:
      • How to handle equipment (safely)
      • How to fight fires (safely)
      • How to rescue people from cars (safely)
the informal culture also has a welfare role
The informal culture also has a welfare role
  • Provides a pool of useful information and resources:
      • Helps with stress
      • Helps by providing tips on things away from the station:
        • Decorating
        • Social life
    • In fact it is possible to get a solution to almost any problem by sharing it at the mess table
  • For many firefighters the watch represents their way of knowing and understanding the world
provides the tools for survival on the watch
Provides the tools for survival on the watch
  • Teaches new firefighters about:
      • Belonging
      • Self-esteem
      • Loyalty

And most importantly about:

      • Trust
  • In short the informal culture fits everyone in with the watch’s way of doing things
  • The informal culture also teaches newcomers about what it means to be a firefighter:
    • Their identity, their role and their image
are all informal cultures the same
Are all informal cultures the same?
  • Mostly the answer is “Yes”
  • The informal culture provides ways to support firefighters’ professional ethos
  • which is
  • To provide an efficient service to the public:
      • Getting to incidents quickly
      • Being efficient with their equipment
      • Doing a job that the public celebrate as heroic
  • Again this relates to how firefighters do their job and get their identity
is there a conflict
Is there a conflict?
  • Sometimes firefighter’s professional ethos is challenged by changes adopted by the formal culture:
    • New shift systems
    • Changes in fire cover
  • Uniquely for an organisation so widespread in terms of time and geography each watch can transfer their solidarity to form up under the umbrella of their union
    • Or anything that challenges a firefighters identity
another example from the police
Another example from the police
  • 7.5 …. a slow and cumbersome bureaucracy, traditionally resistant to change and subject to a particular type of organisational culture
  • which is, at best, a positive driver to perform complicated tasks quickly
  • but at worst a critical barrier to change.
  • (HMCIC 2004: 138)
public services operate in a complicated dynamic
Public services operate in a complicated dynamic

Key stake holders – with potentially some competing interests

  • Government
  • Local Politicians
  • Citizens
  • Chief Officers/Strategic Managers
  • Senior Managers
  • Station Managers
  • Firefighters
  • Representative bodies
  • Audit Commission
one service
One Service?
  • But Two Cultures
  • Mostly working together to achieve their ethos: but…………
    • Change is only really possible if you understand your culture
    • Do you?
    • Can fitting-in help?
    • Visit our website
    • Contact us on – Mob 07802 495 329

Dr. Dave Baigent GradIFire E. FHEA. BA Hons. PhD.  Mobile 07802 495 329 We are just completing a cultural audit on the retained service – would a cultural audit help in your future planning?The Swedish Fire Service have commented"Fitting-in with their unique insight into real world fire service culture and a firm theoretical base in academia provided the MSB (The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency) with invaluable expert advice and assistance in developing a national action plan targeted at increasing equality and diversity in the Swedish fire service." Theory without practice is a waste - Practice without theory is just dumbHow can fitting-in help? Try a visit to http://www.fitting-in.comDave also wrote and is a principal lecturer on the UK’s first Public Service Degree's thesis on Fire Service Culture/s By being reactive to fire, firefighters create their public profile. Firefighters are seen to be doing their job and to be heroes. Firefighters’ public status, then in turn, supports one of the ways firefighters reflexively view themselves as objects in the eyes of the ‘others’. The civilians that say “I couldn’t do your job” (a view of themselves that Chapter 3 suggests firefighters might actually provide for public consumption in the first place).To read more go to