Fire Fighting in Canada

Features Leadership
Changing the Culture

What best describes the daily practices of your firefighters?

February 15, 2019 
By Dr. Lowell Greib

Participation in events like a community stair-climb challenge promotes activity and shows the importance of fitness in a fire department. What best describes the daily practices of your firefighters?

Are your crews wolfing down spaghetti dinners by the plateful and spending their downtime on the station couches watching the next Netflix original series?

Are they actively engaged in their communities, leading by example, utilizing their spare time for self-improvement (whether it be mental or physical) and planning crew dinners that will best support their performance in operational settings?

These two extremes are behaviours that are learned. They have been founded by traditions that are set within a service or particular fire hall or crew. It is such behaviours that define the “culture” within your fire service. Not only do you as a fire administrator see the cultural norm, but these traditions are portrayed to the public and influence the perception of how your service engages with its employees and the public at large. Are you ready to make a cultural overhaul in your organization?

Fire culture has been evolving over the last decade and strides are being made, but department administrators may be missing key tools and supports that are required to make lasting change. In recent years, it is evident that fitness and mental health are important initiatives that are being embraced by many departments across Canada.

Are these programs being established as reactionary to increased work injury rates, cardiovascular disease risk, deterioration of mental health or presumptive legislation? No matter the reason, if lasting change (i.e. a cultural shift) is going to be achieved, there needs to be several fundamental steps followed. These fundamentals apply to both smaller volunteer departments and large career service.

■ Step 1 – Understanding What Firefghter Performance Is
Before a shift in behaviour is possible, it is necessary to have vision as to what your primary, long-term objectives are. In working with occupational and high-performance athletes for over a decade, three key and fundamental building blocks that define performance have been identified. The degree in which each of these areas are focused upon defines the ability for an athlete (in your case, firefighter) to perform. The three areas are as follows: training, fueling, rest/recovery. Schematically, as more attention is put on each category, a greater “overlap” is achieved, which equates to improved performance.  

Challenge 1 – Identify areas in your personal behaviour that fall into the fundamental building blocks (fueling, training, and rest/recovery) that could be improved.

■ Step 2 – Understanding Your Current Firefighter Culture
In order to develop a strategic plan for corporate cultural change, it is imperative to have a good understanding of your current culture. This should include identifying perceptions and attitudes as well as foundational metrics that define what each firefighter does. Generating pooled data helps you better understand where your current department baseline is. In the corporate world, this is referred to as market research and is fundamentally important to understand the consumer (in your case, your firefighters). This information drives communications, marketing and promotion that influences how the consumer perceives and interacts with a product or brand. When you view yourself as this corporate entity, you are “selling” health to your firefighters.  

Challenge 2 – Do you have a thorough understanding of your department as a whole? The squeaky wheel sometimes gets the grease and can change perception of administration. Are your perceptions substantiated by data?

■ Step 3 – Evaluate Your Department’s Current Analytics and Define Metrics of Success
Defining the current state of your department through data evaluation is important in defining the efficacy of change. What are the key analytics that will define the success of a firefighter performance program? Do you want to positively influence human resources? If so, current recruitment information is vital for success. Understanding the qualities of personnel attracted to your department may be important information. This can be gathered (both quantitatively and qualitatively) by reviewing new recruit human resource profiles or doing intake interviews. If a cultural change is going to occur, a positive influence on the perception of job satisfaction may also be something that is important to evaluate. A key challenge in a volunteer-based department is retention of firefighters. How long is the average “career” of your volunteers? Are there certain intrinsic characteristics that will help improve longevity? Injury data is also of importance in a performance program and should be part of risk management programming. What is the cost associated with training a firefighter? Perhaps a measurement of success is increasing the longevity of a firefighter and decreasing the necessity of recruitment and training of new firefighters (a significant expense to volunteer services). No matter the metrics chosen, they need to be the guide for longer-term success.  

Challenge 3 – When was the last time that you did a departmental review to evaluate key statistical data that can influence firefighter programming implementation?

■ Step 4 – Map Out Your Long-term Strategy
Now that you have effectively identified your current culture and identified baseline analytics, the fun begins. The key performance markers in training, fueling and rest/recovery can now be accurately defined. Identifying how messaging can be delivered to personnel to allow for positive and consistent reinforcement is helpful. It is, at this point, important for a department to remember that it is investing in its firefighters for a significant period of time. Behavioural change is a slow process and requires consistent communication and reinforcement. Those of us with children and pets know the importance and benefits of reinforcing the same message over and over again. It is this consistency and using a variety of medium that will breathe life into a cultural change. Budgets for long-term programming can vary dramatically. With increased investment, change should be expected faster. This said, all budgets can make a difference over time. The number of strategic goals may need to be modified to ensure that success indicators are not diluted.

Challenge 4 – Has firefighter performance been part of your long-term departmental strategic planning?

■ Step 5 – Initiate
With strategy working in your favour, you are poised for success. Long-term planning allows you to proceed with confidence that cultural change will occur. As an administrator of your department, it is relatively easy to give verbal assent. Beyond taking a leadership role in planning and initiation, it is extremely important that you, yourself adopt the principles that you are being a proponent of. Showing support for cultural change through your own behaviours speaks volumes about how important the shift is to the department.

Challenge 5 – Do you uphold the values and display actions that you would want your firefighters to embrace?

■ Step 6 – evaluate success
After a predefined period of time, it is important to determine if the needle has shifted. This can be done through both quantitative and qualitative evaluation in a similar manner to mapping out your initial strategy. This new data not only defines your success, but allows you to re-evaluate the current status of your department and establish new goals and objectives moving  forward.

By following these steps and engaging professionals who can help you enhance your efficacy in planning, statistical analysis and communications, you are poised to improve performance in your department. By focusing on firefighter performance, specifically, you will improve job satisfaction while simultaneously mitigating some key health risks that are inherent to the profession.

Not only are global improvements on firefighter health achievable, but you will start optimizing operational performance by having better prepared personnel.

Dr. Lowell Greib MSc, ND, CISSN, is the president of The SportLab – Muskoka’s first athlete-focused Sport Therapy Clinic. He consults with fire services on strategic planning and implementation of performance improvement programming of the occupational athletes. He holds academic positions in Canada, the U.S and Caribbean, where he teaches methodology to improve athlete performance. Contact Dr. Greib at

Print this page


Stories continue below