Changing Culture

In 2004, over 200 fire chiefs and other fire service leaders met in what is now known as the “Tampa Summit” or “Tampa 1” for the purpose of reducing senseless line of duty deaths. The result of this meeting was the creating of the 16 Life Safety Initiatives (LSI) and the 1st initiative was outlined as “define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety: incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility”. The challenging part of this initiative is the action to create cultural change. Most studies on creating cultural change will tell you that it takes an average of 10 years to change a culture and sure enough, 13 years later we are in the middle of significant cultural shifts in the areas of safety, emotional wellness, physical fitness, and cancer awareness and prevention.

While for those 200 leaders, this journey to cultural change has been painfully slow and reality is that this is what cultural change truly looks like. Take for example emotional wellness. While it seems that there was this sudden explosion of suicide awareness and concernovernight, industry leaders, experts, and others have been working in the background since at least 2004 with many working on this issue as far back as the 70’s and 80’s.Many of these leaders have been screaming for years “can you hear me now” and it wasn’t until a few years ago that we finally started listening. To those on the outside, cultural change very much looks like it happens overnight. And those brought into this new culture think that this is how it has always been. They often don’t see all the other work that goes into it. All the struggles and frustrations, the late nights and arguments, and all the times that those creating the change just wanted to walk away.

Where we are today as an industry is a testament to the vision that those 200 leaders had back in 2004. The ability to take an honest look at the fire service and to have the difficult discussion about what it is that keeps killing and injuring so many firefighters at a time when conversations about culture, safety, behavioral health, and other initiatives were viewed as an attack on the tradition of the fire service. They knew there would be significant challenges and that it wouldn’t come easy. Telling firefighters that accountability is important, wearing a seatbelt is a requirement, safety is critical, that fitness is a priority, and that it’s ok to talk about stress was a fight worth having. I’m sure there were many days where they wanted to give up and questioned if the headaches and frustration was worth it. And while there is still much work to do, the progress made over the last 13 years has made us better as an industry and we have been able to answer with a definitive “yes”. Yes, it is worth it.

So, as you take on challenges within your own organization that challenge the current process and seeks to change the cultureand you become frustrated with the lack of support,commitment, and progress, remember that there was a time when over 200 fire service leaders met with a vision to change the fire service and through relentless passion and dedication, they are achieving their vision.

Change is a marathon, not a sprint. And often change is a lonely road to be on in the beginning, but if you have a vision and passion, you can achieve great things and eventually, you will be able to look back and say “yes, it was worth it”.

 About the Author 

 SIDNEY LUCAS began his fire service career as a volunteer with the Belle and Cedar Grove Volunteer Fire Departments (WV) in 1999 and currently serves as a Lieutenant with the Newport News Fire Department (VA) and is assigned as the Department Safety Officer. He has been with the department for over 11 years where he has served in various capacities. He is a former Chief of Quinton Volunteer Fire and EMS (VA) and a veteran of the United States Navy, serving onboard the USS Wasp (LHD-1) as part of the Crash and Salvage Team supporting the Global War on Terrorism. Sidney is a graduate of the Virginia Fire Officer’s Academy and currently serves on staff.