Author(s): Ken Willette. Published on March 5, 2014.

PETER DRUCKER, the respected management consultant, educator, and author, once said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Drucker’s work had tremendous influence on the structure of modern corporations, and chief executives have been known to treat his writings as gospel. In 2006, Mark Fields, then president of Ford Motor Company, had Drucker’s quote posted on the wall of Ford’s corporate war room, where senior executives would gather to plan and make strategic decisions. Both Drucker and Fields believed that the culture within an organization was the total of employees’ beliefs, values, and the norms used in day-to-day operations. They believed the best business strategy would be destroyed if the culture within the organization was not prepared to accept and acknowledge the reason for the strategy.

Fire departments, it turns out, can have more than a little in common with Ford Motor Company — each fire department and first responder organization has its own culture, for starters. There is a lot of discussion in these responder communities about making the work, as well as the workplace, safer. NFPA standards are part of the roadmap to achieve this objective, providing frameworks for improved personal protective equipment, safer tactics, and risk-based decision making. Based on the particulars of the standards and the needs of the local agency, equipment is purchased, training is delivered, and incident management is taught. Voila — safer work, and a safer workplace.

If only it were that easy. Integrating these elements into the new norm must be acceptable to the culture of the organization. If it isn’t, old personal protective equipment is worn while newly purchased items remain in lockers, skills learned in training aren’t utilized, and incident management is talked about but not practiced. Yet another case of culture wolfing down strategy like a stack of waffles.

At the moment there is a very active discussion taking place within the fire service about understanding exactly what effect ventilation activities have on a structure fire and promotion of revised firefighting tactics, where the initial fire attack starts from outside the structure and transitions to an interior attack. There are research and training materials available to support making this a new norm, but there is also plenty of discussion challenging it. We prefer to attack fires from inside a structure, not outside, some argue. It’s just not the way we do things. It’s our culture.

There are two levels of response to this situation. On an organizational level, leaders have to become knowledgeable in the research that supports the revised tactics, and share that knowledge with everyone in their organizations. Take a hard look at the current tactics utilized by the department. Given modern construction, fuel loads, and fire dynamics, are those the safest tactics to use? At the individual level, firefighters can ask themselves if they really are willing to sacrifice their safety and life for a burning building. Do they have a basic knowledge of fire dynamics to understand why these revised tactics are being promoted?

Regardless of where you and your organization land on this issue, NFPA standards are with you every day to provide a level of safety and protection. Wear your personal protective equipment properly, keep current in your training, and utilize incident management during emergency operations.

KEN WILLETTE is division manager for Public Fire Protection at NFPA.