The More Things Change: Continuity and Change in the Fire Service

Who was it who said, "Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents. They gobble their food. They tyrannize their teachers."And what's the connection between these comments, and a discussion of continuity and change in the fire service?

 

The dictionary defines "continuity" and "change" as being nouns when they refer to an individual's ability to lead or transform. I believe they are really verbs, in that leadership influences people, provides purpose and motivates others to act.

 

More a role than a concept, continuity and change foster leadership at every level of an organization, even at the lowest level. To confirm the obvious—having a title, rank or seniority doesn't in and of itself earn respect—you have to work for it, and then earn it!

Continuity and change are also less about ego, ideology or about those who want to be something, more than they want to do something. Cultural change is complex and ambitious in the best of times, requiring leadership from individuals who have a unique blend of skills and attitudes, not the least of which are humility, humor, patience, street smarts and a sense of urgency. Leaders also need formal training and an intuitive sensitivity to the dynamics of organizational change.

 

The need for continuity and cultural change in government, industry or the fire service isn't for the faint-of-heart. They're the realm of the pragmatic idealist; the leader who understands that the health of an organization depends on the health of its organic parts. Our greatest legacy, then, is how well we prepare others to lead, embrace organizational continuity, and understand that the real test of both is in their vision and their execution. Visions that are simply slogans can't ever be successfully executed, with execution often being the missing link between aspirations and results.

 

That said, how then do we link the past to the present, as we prepare for the future? And how do we reconcile the definition of continuity as being an uninterrupted connection—the belief that the foundation for a better tomorrow must be laid today, with the presumption that change doesn't assure progress, but progress requires change?

 

Each industry sees "continuity" through its own lens. Technology and business continuity refer to protecting clients from unanticipated business interruption. Cinemagraphic continuity refers to thematic consistency (e.g., over eight Harry Potter movies). Medical continuity refers to ensuring clinical operations, patient care and other essential services. Philanthropic continuity refers to charitable consistency. Media continuity refers to the availability of news and entertainment programming wherever and whenever you want it. Reputation continuity refers to protecting your most prized and vulnerable asset. Emergency response continuity refers to implementing and maintaining organizational and community-wide preparedness for natural or human-made disasters. And continuity in the fire service can best be summarized by its unspoken motto, "We're 150 years old unimpeded by progress." Let me repeat that: "We're 150 years old unimpeded by progress." What's really meant by such an acerbic concept, and how can we use the words "change" and "continuity" so interchangeably?

 

Change! What is it? People talk about it, they say they believe in it, they say they encourage it—they just don't want to do anything differently. Sound familiar? Most organizations, like most generations, think they have all the answers. In the same vein, few think that the next generation is particularly credible. What's my point? No organization can realistically shape its future without a plan that indicates where it wants to go, and how it wants to get there.

 

While the impact of organizational change, for better or worse, is eventually understood, many still, quite mistakenly, view continuity as corporate stasis, at best maintaining its status quo or at worst being actively resistant to change. I see it differently, wherein the seemingly conflicting forces of continuity and organizational change in these "new normal" times are little more than a misconception.

 

The "Yin Yang of Leadership," as some have called it, requires leaders to navigate continuity and change as a prerequisite to the success of any business. Add to that the extent to which organizations change over time, referred to as "path dependence," which presuppose that organizational continuity and change are intimately interdependent elements crucial to organizational sustainability. Thus, embracing the challenges and tradeoffs that occur as leaders work to bring about change necessitates maintaining continuity and consistency as an organizational dynamic. Lastly, it strives to bring people together and avoid cultural clashes—an "us versus them" environment. Managing continuity also challenges visionary leaders to incorporate salient aspects of the organization's core values, traditions and shared meaning from the past—its "pearls of wisdom," if you will.

 

Leadership, then, in its most basic form, is about moving an organization from point A to point B. In today's world of escalating expectations and declining resources, the long-term success of these efforts embrace continuity, define how organizational knowledge is effectively transferred, and create a culture of engagement, opportunity, validation and inclusion.

 

The fire service accomplishes this through its ongoing investment in training, education and succession planning, linking practical change to measurable outcomes, and never forgetting its rich past as both prelude to and precursor of the future. From an operational perspective, the fire service has successfully balanced the demands of continuity in today's changing, increasingly complex environment, via its reliance on several variables, namely:

 

  1. A fundamental commitment to both preservice and ongoing in-service training (perhaps best personified by the credo of the New York City Fire Academy, displayed in large letters and which says with irrevocable conviction above its entranceway: "Let No Man's Ghost Return To Say His Training Let Him Down").
  2. Practical experience in each skill area needed on an emergency basis.
  3. The existence of an outstanding faculty.
  4. A highly motivated workforce.
  5. A supportive administration.
  6. A history of holding everyone accountable, all of the time.
  7. Our reputation.
  8. And perhaps most important, the love of a grateful nation.

 

While we're obviously proud of this, the fire service, like other industries, needs to balance the importance of its rich history with a continuing need to change. It also needs to change because of September 11, and because society is changing.

 

New technology and the additional challenge of homeland security, in the fire service as elsewhere, test the resources of many organizations. They also require a new level of coordination and cooperation, coupled with a cultivation of organizational leadership, all the while maintaining a balance between distaste for the status quo without being a prisoner of ideology. More than the proclamation of a lofty goal, these challenges also require each individual on the front line to know exactly what to do and when to do it to achieve a defined goal.

 

In my experience, too many of us, to our discredit, focus on what's already happened, as opposed to what's about to happen. That has to change, and it can change by a better understanding of what needs to be done in advance of a problem, then ensuring that the right people are involved from the onset.

 

If denial blocks change, or if leaders or operations personnel have limited prior experience in dealing with the effects of change, potential gains can be lost, thereby necessitating a variety of recovery options. Discussing and planning for change-related problems, and then exercising these plans, is a start. The real issue, though, is how we go about mitigating problems before they occur. In prevention we have a cure, and it's in this area that government and industry must collaborate both in planning, in consequence management, and in support of those who everywhere, every day, are every nation's first line of defense.

 

Whether it's a tsunami in Japan, an earthquake in Haiti, a train derailment in India, an act of terrorism in Bulgaria or a forest fire in the United States, leaders channel their experience as a basis for current and prospective action. In circumstances such as these, the fire service also relies on its past experience, working to optimize its organizational effectiveness as it factors in prior performance indicators. It also works to maximize the value of its most important asset, its personnel, who see themselves as a family to be called upon in times of trouble. Here then is the difference, as this is a family of men and women who are linked by a special bond and a noble calling, that is to save lives at whatever cost.

 

Firefighters put themselves in harm's way to protect the citizens of all nations. These same firefighters are also ready to support one another whenever and wherever necessary. This was never truer than in the days following September 11, when we suffered such devastating losses, and the international fire community, and society in general, came to our aid.

 

While this respect and camaraderie are much appreciated, if you think about it, it's really a small measure when compared to the risks involved in doing this job on a daily basis. Like in the military, incomprehensible as it might seem to some, firefighters know and accept the fact that, literally, on a moment's notice, they could be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice. If that's not defined as leadership, then what is?

 

While the fire service can be rigid and demanding, expecting people to "do what we say, because we say so," we recognize that this approach doesn't always work. That said, we have worked hard to redefine leadership as "getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it."

 

For hundreds of years, the fire service has gone from practice to theory. The phrase "iron men and wooden ladders," referring to an era when the fire service did little else but fight fires, embraces an a posteriori tradition as it adjusts to a priori change in an uncertain future, placing new emphasis on preventing fires as opposed to simply putting them out.

 

Being progressive in such an environment involves supporting organizational needs and requirements while effectively predicting the future. To do otherwise would be to remain stagnant, simply waiting for the next crisis to manage.

 

The phrase "the more things change" inexorably links continuity to change, as Socrates noted 2,500 years ago when he said, "Children today are tyrants." If we have learned anything from the fire service, it is that one doesn't have to turn on a television or go to the movies to find a hero. Our heroes are simply down the street, at every local firehouse.

 

In an ever-changing world in which we embrace continuity, change and leadership, the fire service honors those who died, by protecting those who live. As we tell every new firefighter on his or her very first day of training: "Be proud! Be brave! Be strong! But most of all, Be prepared!"

 

Stay safe.

 

 

 

The 911 FUND was created in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, by FDNY personnel who were privileged to work at the World Trade Center that day and for many days thereafter.  Ever since 9/11, we've worked to acquire apparatus, firefighting and medical equipment, then to donate it, along with training, to needy volunteer fire departments and communities around the world. 100 percent of the apparatus and equipment that we receive is donated to the 18 countries where we have worked (to date), for whom access to these items often means the difference between life and death for the firefighters we're working to help.

 

To contact Stephan Hittman, president of the 911 FUND, INC.: 441 Central Park Avenue, PO Box 644, Hartsdale, NY 10530-0644; 914-479-8800 tel; 914-725-7733 fax; www.911fund.org; or email at hittmann@911fund.org.